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Sunday, February 6, 2011


This movie may only barely qualify for this study. Imdb lists it as having shown in New York in late 1965. Alphaville" une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution is the original French title, but is sometimes called Dick Tracy on Mars, though probably never released as that. Written (sort of) and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville is said to be a parody of many genre -- sci-fi, detective stories, etc. Based (loosely) on the popular Lemmy Caution spy stories stories of the 50s, Godard weaves an "etrange" dystopic tale with what can only be characterized as an odd sense of humor.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Secret agent Lemmy Caution has travelled from the Outlands to the city of Alphaville in search of a fellow agent named Henri Dickson. Lemmy pretends to be a journalist named Ivan Johnson. His goal is to find Dickson, but also contact a Professor Vonbraun. Alphaville is an emotionless city controlled by a super computer named Alpha 60. Those who don't adapt to the computer-controlled culture, either commit suicide or are executed. Vonbraun's daughter Natasha meets Lemmy and agrees to go to a gala with him that night. Before that, Lemmy finds Dickson in a cheap hotel. Dickson is a despondent alcoholic who failed in his mission to get to Professor Vonbraun. Dickson dies (suicide at hands of a seductress) but before he dies, he tells Lemmy to make the Alpha 60 self destruct. He gives Lemmy a book of poetry: Capital of Pain. Lemmy travels to where Natasha works as a programmer. They travel to the gala, which turns out to be the ceremonial executions of those who refuse to assimilate. They get a final statement, are shot, and fall into a swimming pool. Observers applaud. Lemmy meets Professor Vonbraun there, and tries to capture him. He fails and is beaten by policemen. They take him to headquarters where the A60 interrogates him. The A60 tells him to talk with the chief engineer. This man tells a bit of backstory about Vonbraun coming from the Outlands as Leonard Nosferatu, but changed his name. Outlanders come as spies to bring the professor back. In a large computer room, the A60 announces that it has decided to launch an atomic attack on the Outlands. Lemmy returns to his hotel room, where Natasha is waiting for him. He has her read some of the poetry. Many words unfamiliar to her. They're not in the official "bible" (a daily-revised dictionary of approved words). She recalls words that have since been banned. Police inspectors burst in room and haul Lemmy back to the A60 headquarters. The A60 tells Lemmy to join them or die. Lemmy tells the A60 some poetic riddles, then shoots his way out. He finds the professor in his control room. He asks the professor to come back to the Outands, but he refuses. Lemmy shoots him. After a bizarre car chase scene, Lemmy rescues Natasha from the A60 interrogation room. All the other people are acting fall-down drunk. (the A60 is shorting out on the poetry riddles). Lemmy carries out Natasha and drives her out of the city. Slowly, Natasha realizes the forbidden words for what she feels. "I...Love...You..." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fun is not the right word. Alphaville was actually rather difficult to watch. It not only has several obtuse existential messages, it is delivered in equally obtuse existential style. Yet, even in this, there is an interesting dystopic view reminiscent of 1984.

Cold War Angle
Despite the (supposed) veneer of parody, Godard still seems to be delivering a message of warning about despotic state control and its subsequent dehumanizing effects. (especially the loss of poetry) There is, too, the Grand Omega Minus project that the A60 conducts. It sends agents out to other "galaxies" to destabilize them with riots, student unrest, and family squabbles. Communists were often seen as agents of discord.

Control Freaks, Before Hal -- Kubrick's "Hal" is the most famous controlling super computer (with deadly results). But, Hal was not the first. A year before Hal was the Alpha 60 which controlled an entire city, not just spaceship. Before that, was the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy ('57) which brainwashed people to do its bidding. Before that, was NOVAC in Gog ('54) which began killing scientists. In the last case, the computer was hijacked by enemy spies, but NOVAC embodied the growing suspicion of supercomputers going "bad." After Hal, there will be more despotic computers. "Colossus" in 1970 would be another.

Parody or Poetry? -- Godard's Alphaville is said to be a parody of sci-fi, detective stories and other genre. As a parody, it must require a particular frame of mind to sort out. Sci-fi is spoofed in that the characters talk of space travel and planets, yet everything is within driving distance. Lemmy says his space ship was a "Ford Galaxy". Traveling away through "interstellar space" is a highway out of Paris. Was this funny? Lots of people are killed on-screen in the movie. Not exactly comedy. Despite the truly strange elements, Godard seems to be trying to deliver a serious message about the dehumanizing trajectory modern civilization is on.

Rampant Existentialism -- Much of Godard's film oozes with existentialist philosophy. The A60 teaches people that "no one lives in the past. No one lives in the future. All there is, is the present." While interrogating Lemmy, the A60s asks a riddle. "What is the privilege of the dead?" Lemmy answers, "To die no more." Even the many excerpts of poetry express a similar notion. Near the end, the A60 says (perhaps while scrambled by Lemmy's riddle): "Time is a tiger, tearing me apart, but I am the tiger," and then, "It is my misfortune that I am myself." Yet, dialogue aside, the entire presentation of Alphaville is in the existentialist point of view. Things come and go for no apparent reason. Quick cuts to neon signs. Flashing lights. Semi-random scene changes, non sequitur scenes, etc. To someone who denies the linear notion of time, such randomness might seem logical.

Odd Scenes of Note
There actually too many to list, but here are a few:
The Pool of Death -- Men who would not assimilate were executed -- shot while standing on the diving board of an indoor pool. They all wait their turn in an orderly line. Each gets to make some last statement before the machine guns blast them. The dead fall into the pool where young women in white swimsuits and caps dive in and fish them out -- performing some aqua-ballet moves as part of the show.

The Reversible Chase -- Lemmy steals a car to flee police headquarters. He is chased by two police cars. On the slick streets, Lemmy spins 180. The police cars do too, and the chase resumes with Lemmy doing the chasing. They all stop, put their cars in reverse, and re-resume the chase in reverse gear. This was bizarre enough to almost be funny.

Pointless Vending -- At one point, for no particular reason, Lemmy stops to put some coins in a vending machine. Down the chute falls a little block that has "Merci" printed on it. Lemmy looks disgusted, tosses it over his shoulder and walks on. What was the point of that? Another non sequitur sight gag from Godard?

Bottom line? Alphaville is a very strange movie indeed. Even with english subtitles, it is so disjointed as to be hard to follow. It does have a place in the sub-genres of dystopia visions and technophobia. For the mainstream sci-fi fan, however, it may be just to weird to watch.

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