Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Darkness and Light, Circles, Lines and Signs in Alphaville


The first image in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville/The Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965) is a close-up of a varying-in-tempo flickering circular strobe light surrounded in darkness. The varied tempo is important because a constant one would reinforce an eternal present, which is the goal of the computer Alpha60 who despotically rules the residents of Alphaville, divorcing them from past, future, memory, and the humanity these states describe. A varied tempo implies change, unpredictability, and chance, the human attributes Alpha60 works to eradicate. Being obsessed with circles, I was drawn in by this first circle in a film of circles and lines, and followed them through Alphaville. 
Throughout, the circle is associated with Alpha60 while the causal line of past and future is associated with humanity. I concur with Harun Farocki who notes, in Speaking about Godard, the association of the circle with Alphaville is surprising given the mythic signification of the circle as opposed to the causal, scientific connotation of the line. In this film, such a reading is complicated. The circle is imprisonment, the rush forward, freedom. And yet, we see a series of neon arrows that point in a direction, but nowhere in particular, calling the literal linear sign also into question. And despite what the computer says, there is no pure logic or reason without the “ornament of myth” connoted by the circle, as Kaja Silverman notes. This realization will of course be Alpaha60’s undoing. Alpha60 says that “time is like a circle, which spins endlessly … isolated words can be understood, but the whole meaning escapes.” This is because the whole and the linear work in constant relation to each other. 
For me, the tension between circle and line in Alphaville is united in the image of the spiral: which represents simultaneous timelessness and progression – you go around and around and yet never in the same place. Recall: the repeated shots of spiral staircases ascended and descended by Lemmy Caution and Natasha. They are within the spiral of time and yet moving towards a new turn.
From the outset of the film, the image of the circle (the whole) is associated with darkness and light, which create the totality of our lived experience. Even our vision, which we conceive of as whole, is made of alternating light and darkness, fragmented by our involuntary blinking (as film editor Walter Murch points out in In the Blink of an Eye). And yet, we perceive a seamless reality, the spaces in vision filled by our perception, or, as Alphaville posits, our consciousness.
This is our experience of the world and also the experience of cinema: fragments joined by human mind, the visual jump or seemingly seamless cut united in understanding by our active participation, a creative production of imagination. Alphaville is the Text, or “open work,” of which Barthes and Eco write, not the closed circuit of the “Bible” of Alphaville, a diminishing dictionary, but a field of human possibility, represented in the film by poetry. A space for meaning leads to leaps, sparks of illumination. 

The spark is also the spark of humanity, struggling for the freedom to exist under a regime of pure logic and reason (which does not exist). Points of light in darkness are love, affect, poetry and humanity,  suggested by points of light we see throughout the film: Lemmy’s lighter creating the circle of light the first time we see him in his car as he drives into Alphaville; the lightbulb swinging in the dark stairwell above the heads of Henry Dickson and Lemmy Caution (two who can yet pronounce the word “love”); Lemmy’s same lighter which illuminates Natasha, foreshadowing her own reclamation of humanity. As Silverman notes, “there is no positive without negative … no starts without the night, no trembling of desire without the certain knowledge of death.” This is what we understand through Alphaville’s solarized images of negative film cut together with the positive: they work together. The whole and the fragment are co-present; the darkness and the light make each other. What else is cinema, but the shared yet individual experience of light in darkness?

Like the circle that radiates outward, and the unending Mobius strip of the spiral, each flickering image of this film leads to exploration of another one of its aspects or techniques: it becomes impossible to discuss one aspect without leaping to another related aspect. But here I close, only to open out at the same time. 

-- Ruchi Mital


  1. Yes. The cinema is darkness and light. Here I will repeat a comment I just came across from Chris Marker, speaking about Godard and the flicker-effect of cinema: “Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one of them in the dark. It’s this nocturnal portion that stays with you, that fixes our memory of a film in a different way to the same film seen on television or on a monitor” (qt. in Chris Darke 2005: 39). It is because there is darkness that there is light, and vice versa. Cinema needs light to exist, but it also needs darkness (its nocturnal side) to allow the viewer to imagine and dream. To stimulate the imagination. It needs this darkness so that the viewer might leave the theatre re-awakened to the world and its possibilities. To re-enter light.


  2. Oh, and this is a BEAUTIFUL piece of writing. Thanks for this!


  3. Thank you, Sam. It's interesting that you quoted Marker, because on watching Alphaville, this meditation on time, I kept thinking of La Jetee, the circles of the goggles over the eyes, the construction of the shots and their varying tempos of light and dark. And I also thought of Sans Soleil and it's spiral construction, going back to beginnings and then moving out past them - yes, there will be another letter, yes, they will drive out of Alphaville into the Outlands.


  4. Ruchi, you might be interested to know that the images that we see at the beginning of the film behind the credits (a small male figure underneath a large painted poster of a crowd pushing a tank into the sea; a poster with a pair of hands and the dove of peace) are by Chris Marker. Apparently, Godard used them without permission. Marker only discovered their inclusion when he saw the film. Years later, Marker would incorporate Godard's credit sequence into his CD-ROM project Immemory, thus returning the favor.

  5. I also couldn't help but think of La Jetee while watching Alphaville. The notion of past, present and future is prominent in both works. Ruchi makes the connection of the goggles over the eyes - yet another use of circular imagery. This also comes into play when we consider the fascination of "le regard" that both filmmakers incorporate into their work. With Godard, it is usually the existential gaze of Ana Karina piercing straight into the audience. In Alphaville the gaze is assumed also assumed by Eddie Constantine. In Marker's work, it is the peering glance of the unknown stranger that grasps and consumes the audience.

    Likewise, the use of modern architecture to reflect visions of the future. The space of the Alpha 60 office building assumes the same conceptual impact as the airport Jetty in Marker's film. Obviously, these were modern day structures when originally photographed, yet both filmmakers assign alternative connotations and meanings.

    Marker is one of my favorite French filmmakers. In my opinion, he is under appreciated within the historical context of French cinema. I've always felt that French cinema has contained specific layers of influence. Sitting at the top are Godard and Truffaut (maybe Renoir). Below them rests Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, Resnais. At the bottom are, in my opinion, some of the more influential French filmmakers: Vigo, Bresson and Marker. I actually enjoy the notion that these filmmakers are not icons in the same mold as Godard. Although they would never be identified as underground filmmakers, I feel that their standing makes them even more personally relevant.

    Marker...the prolific, taciturn, socialist filmmaker without all the hype and spectacle that is JLG.

    ...and I agree with Sam that this is a BEAUTIFUL piece of writing. A perceptive and abstract interpretation that is best savored with multiple readings.