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Wednesday, February 25, 2015
CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Alphaville
Dossier: Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville (1965).
File Under: Protocyberpunk.
Executive Summary: Lemmy Caution is a secret agent sent from "the outlands" (other planets) to Alphaville, the technocentric galactic capital. Posing as a reporter and newspaper photographer, he investigates the disappearance of another agent, Henry Dickson, and begins searching for Professor von Braun, the developer of Alpha 60, a vast computer that controls all of Alphaville and its citizens.
Caution meets Natacha von Braun, the professor's daughter, and tries to use her access to get a meeting with the professor. As an outlander, Caution has not been brainwashed by Alpha 60, and still retains his emotions and affinity for inessential constructs such as poetry. Natacha slowly begins to re-awaken to these same feelings after spending time with Caution, but in so doing she runs the risk of finding herself at the wrong end of a firing squad, like all people who succumb to non-logical behaviors such as crying at a spouse's death, or smiling.
After comprehending the inhuman implications of Alpha 60's control, Caution decides he must bring down the system and von Braun, its creator, to prevent Alphaville's tech from spreading throughout the galaxy. And also save Natacha, if he can.
High-Tech: Alpha 60 is the central technology on display in Alphaville. It is an artificially intelligent, omnipresent computer that all of the citizens of Alphaville are plugged into in some way. Caution refuses to "check in" when he arrives, which is the process through which residents are indoctrinated/brainwashed. When Alpha 60 is compromised, the city's residents are rendered completely unable to function, shown wandering into walls and rolling on the floor.
Although the locales of Paris used in the film were the most modern of the 1960s, there is otherwise very little effort spent to try to sell the reality of the future. Caution's spaceship is a Ford Mustang, for instance. The primary concern of the film is not one of suspension of disbelief, but instead a philosophical exploration of the intersection of humanity and technology.
Low-Life: Women are by-and-large reduced to sexual objects, many of their job titles being Seductresses (First-, Second- or Third-Class) in addition to whatever other responsibilities they may have -- hotel clerk, for instance. Caution finds Dickson, the missing secret agent, in essentially a flop-house, being encouraged by the landlady to commit suicide, which is the recommended course of action for those unable to cope with life under Alpha 60. Residents and visitors are also provided bottles of tranquilizers as a matter of course.
Dark Times: The bleakest reality of Alphaville is the summary executions of those residents who show emotion. Whether they do so willingly or accidentally, there is only one punishment: to be taken with the others to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, walked out onto the diving board and then machine-gunned before pretty divers swim out and retrieve their corpses.
Legacy: Alphaville predates the actual punk movement and the cyberpunk movement, by one and two decades, respectively. That said, it is arguably the first dystopian film to peg its civilization's troubles on computers and the abuse of digital technology. It relocates the film noir into a science fiction milieu, and replaces the familiar antagonists of the hard-boiled detective (the idle rich, corrupt politicians, bumbling or equally corrupt cops) with futuristic analogues. The fundamental push-pull of the film is the dehumanizing nature of computer technology when the tools are given primacy over the users of those tools. These are all structural, aesthetic, and thematic elements that would become fundamental to cyberpunk.
In an obscure interview given to an Italian journalist while promoting Johnny Mnemonic in 1994, William Gibson himself actually discussed trying to make the film years earlier, with Alphaville as his and director Robert Longo's primary inspiration.
In Retrospect: Alphaville, like each of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, isn't for everybody. The film is absurd and silly on its face, but even more so when put in context. Lemmy Caution is the central character in a series of British novels, where Caution is an American intelligence agent. The books were popular in France and Germany, and throughout the 50s and 60s a number of French Lemmy Caution films were made, all starring (like Alphaville) Eddie Constantine in the title role. So Alphaville, then, was like if the producers of the James Bond series had followed up Goldfinger with Thunderball starring Sean Connery, set on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, and where everyone drove Chryslers and talked like robots, except Connery, who talked like Humphrey Bogart.
All of this goes to show that Godard was in fact trying to make the film he did make, and simply didn't waste a lot of time on things he considered nonessential. So if the viewer is able to go with the fact that the Ford Mustang is capable of both terrestrial and space travel, and that the Instamatic camera is the pinnacle of imaging technology, then what remains is a compelling, thoughtful and vastly ahead-of-its-time film that asked many of the same questions cyberpunk authors would be asking two decades hence, and we are still asking today.
For its time: 5/5
Watched today: 4/5
Posted by -- Vance K, film geek and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.