Classic Review: Alphaville

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A logically opaque, madcap, pretentious, and hilarious genre mashup.

Review:  To a geek like me, combining deconstructed film noir with a vague science fiction dystopia makes for a beguiling premise.  After hearing about ‘Alphaville’ and reading a little about it via the Criterion Collection, I made it my first DVD rental through Netflix, expecting an equally exciting product.  Of course, I had overlooked that this is an art film, and moreover it is quite insane.  This means it ended up even better than I expected.

‘Alphaville’ moves swiftly from episode to episode, slapping random ideas together like an optimistic French philosopher who is both drunk and convinced that ‘Axe Cop‘ is the next big thing in serious literature.  That’s hyperbole, yeah, and it’s cathartic to say it.  The point being, it seems the filmmakers weren’t concerned with making the premise seem credible, but they were using it as an excuse to indulge in various kinds of madness.  “Tangent” is the word of the day.  It’s possible that Godard did find reason for the randomness, however, as the story, in its most vanilla form, could be described as the man of passion (viva la France!) versus the cold logical computer society of tomorrow.  A stylistic rebellion against narrative sense, perhaps?

The protagonist, Lemmy Caution, a character borrowed from detective novels and films set in an ostensibly more realistic time and place, is summarily transposed, with all his noir tendencies, into the Huxleyian future city of the film’s title.  In this setting, the sheer arbitrary nature of his behavior clashes directly with the computer that nigh-intangibly controls everything.  It’s like an episode of classic ‘Star Trek’ — the episode ‘Return of the Archons‘ comes to mind — only instead of Bill Shatner lasering zombies we have Eddie Constantine shooting holes in centerfolds.

The parallels between ‘Alphaville’ and the previously mentioned ‘Return of the Archons’ are actually pretty striking, as are the differences.  Both involve men on a mission, looking for missing persons in a computer-controlled, soulless society.  Unlike the Enterprise crew, who wander only because they don’t know where to start, Lemmy Caution does whatever the hell he wants, despite having a clear objective from the get go.  The film’s plotting is startlingly opaque.  If Lemmy has a grand plan, he doesn’t share it, to my recollection.  He’s there to find a couple of people and blow up Alpha 60, the monstrous computer, preventing Alphaville’s influence from infecting other “galaxies”.  This being an art film, Lemmy’s solution isn’t bombs or bullets, but unbearable love poetry.  It’s similar to James Kirk’s tactic of talking alien intelligences to death, with the writer’s naked ideas as the ultimate weapon.

The best way to digest this film is as a comedy, a guilty pleasure packed with odd moments.  Judging by its creator’s pedigree, it’s probably not unintentional.  It’s not a bad film.  In fact, it’s rather brilliant, in a quirky way.  It deserves a bigger cult audience than it has accumulated, especially in light of substantially better, relatively recent sci-fi dystopia film noir such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Dark City’ and ‘Minority Report’.  They all owe an artistic debt to this wonderfully off-kilter classic.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.