Michael Benedikt  Selected Criticism & Other Prose

[ New Page, posted later 12/03 ]

On Jean-Luc Godard's film 'Alphaville' (l965)

'ALPHAVILLE' & ITS SUBTEXT

Note: Full title of film is 'Alphaville: Lemmy Caution's Strange Adventure'
Film stars Anna Karina as Natasha Von Braun & Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution.

Anna Karina & Eluard book

Essay published 1968--Revisions in work 2003
About 2/3 of Essay at Site so Far

An earlier version appeared in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton & Co., l968).


'Alphaville' & Its Subtext In The Poetry of Paul Eluard


Most critics who've written about Alphaville over the years since its release in l965 have remarked on its more up-front & in-your-face subtext levels.  I.e., (1) the film's many references to 1960's Pop Art on the one hand, and (2) pulp fiction (sci-fi and detective fiction) on the other. Those references are revealed particularly at the start of the film in scenes featuring hard-boiled-detective-like central character Lemmy Caution, & in statements Lemmy makes which recall utterances of characters in pulp fiction or in comic-books. Whether exclaimed or spoken as flat statements, some of those utterances are accompanied by comic-strip-type like balloons such as can be found in the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, a leading 1960's US Pop Artist. The tie-ins with both Pop Culture & Pop Art are obvious--but there's a whole lot of other sub-text going on beneath that Pop-inspired surface!

It's often been said that Godard is, among his 'New Wave' contemporaries among French filmmakers, uniquely concerned with ideas. With a thinker of Godard's depth,  that means I'd say, concerned not only with ideas up front, but also with ideas in layers. Godard's reputation as a thinker also suggests to me that, that having looked at Pop-related levels (1) and (2), one ought to look further and dig deeper. There's gold down there, I think. Not only is additional subtext located on level (3), but  I believe that the actual text of Godard's startlingly rich film called Alphaville, is down there too. In the instance of Alphaville the underlying subtext is literally text--it's in the poetry of French Surrealist Paul Eluard I think, readings aloud from whose work occur at various points in the film, and semi-veiled references to whose work abounds in it. That relatively unexplored third level I believe, also contains concepts which link Alphaville to Godard's other early films--as well as concepts which I think relate to his thinking and value-system in general, and ideas which are key to this work.

The third level to which we are referring relates to Godard's feeling for Poetry. And specifically, in the instance of this French filmmaker, to  a certain enthusiasm for the ideas of French Surrealism--the literary/art movement whose philosophy and iconoclastic literary productions brought new fire both to French poetry starting in the mid 1920's and to world poetry also; & whose influence continued throughout the 20th century & into the 21st century as well.

* * *

Who is Godard's hero Lemmy Caution and what does be represent? We learn early on in the film that he's the fourth in a star-crossed line, secret-agent successor of Dick Tracy, Guy Leclair (Flash Gordon); and just after them, & just before Lemmy Caution, a fat little man named Henri Dickson. Caution's been to sent from the “Outerlands"--lands so truly outlandish from the perspective of Alphaville, a place where freedom is unknown, that they might as well be located on another planet. Caution's been sent to spy on Alpha 60, the giant computer complex which governs a monstrously unearthly, yet somehow also all too-earthly city created by Professor Von Braun and his fiendish science. (The reference to World War II German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, who later worked on post-war projects for USA, is we believe deliberate--as is the name Lemmy Caution, which to me suggests in a hard-boiled, Private-Eye-like way, this advice re coming to terms with either Alphaville or any place like it: "Let me wise you up & caution you against all this."

When Caution's quest finally leads him to his last living predecessor, Dickson has just spent the night with, & also his last on, one of the robot-prostitutes (aka "Seductresses") of the vast, liberty-extinguishing city. Dickson gasps out his last breaths and somewhat mysterious words: "Lemmy... conscience... conscience... destroy... make Alpha... 60... destroy itself... tenderness . . - save those who weep." A certain familiarity with the tenets of Surrealism, as well as a certain capacity to play connect-the-dots, can do much to explain those & other somewhat enigmatic utterances in the film.

From beneath the dead man's pillow, Caution extracts Dickson's pillow-book--a battered volume of French poetry called Capitale de La Douleur. What is Natasha Von Braun--the fiendish Professor Von Braun's very own daughter, who Caution enlists as his guide to the city/world of Alphaville--doing afterwards at various intervals in the film, reciting long selections from this book ? Why, as if in exchange for her own valuable guidance, has Caution introduced Natasha to that book? What was Dickson doing reading that sort of thing in the first place? What does all this mean?

Capitale de La Douleur (The Capital Of Sorrow, 1926) is perhaps the most celebrated book of poetry by Paul Eluard, who is one of the founders of the French Surrealist movement of the 1920's. Eluard is, with Robert Desnos, one of Surrealism's leading lyric poets, and also one of the most engaging 20th century French love poets. Love, & the transforming power of Love--particularly erotic love but not limited to erotic love--is at the core of Surrealist doctrine. (Andre Breton, leading theoretician of French Surrealism, proposed that core in his First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 & then in later writings such as--to name only one example of many--his novel Nadja (1928). As we learn early on in the film, the central problem in AIphaville is that nobody except a few misfit & seemingly impractical poetical types (who like Henri Dickson live in the "condemned sectors") is doing any living in--much less dying of-- love. "What is the privilege of the dead?" giant computer Alpha 60 in its characteristically hoarse, mechanical voice asks Caution during one of several interrogations. "Not to die any longer," replies Caution. Meaning, according to Surrealist doctrine--which in effect cites dying of love as a prequisite for living--not to live any longer, either.

The city of Alphaville is a nightmarish place for many reasons--perhaps the chief of which is because it's a city (a City-State, as ancient Greeks termed it? an entire Nation?), where the privilege of the dead has been usurped. Hardly anybody is doing much dying there, for which one prepares by--in the first place--living. The title of the book Eluard published just before Capitale (not so coincidentally that title appears on the screen in small font on the back of the edition of Capitale de La Douleur which Natasha holds up while reading from it), succinctly expresses this belief. Eluard's pre-Capitale book is entitled Mourir de ne pas Mourir (Dying Of Not Dying, 1924). What could be more apt than that Henri Dickson, dedicated reader of Eluard, should both literally & figuratively, die both for & from, Love? What could be more appropriate than the relentlessly pedagogical Lemmy Caution--by introducing Natasha Von Braun to Capitale de La Douleur & by encouraging her to read it--also begin to teach Natasha (who in addition to being a very attractive young woman with unforgettable eyes also happens to be none other than  the daughter of Alphaville's founding father), the meaning of the word Love. For, how else is she going to learn about it?

The city's spine-and spirit-chilling slogan--initially seen by Caution when he drives into the city limits from The Outerlands--is "Alphaville: Silence - Logic -Safety - Prudence." Those purely rational, calculating, left-side-of-brain values could not be more precisely the opposite of the values which one of Surrealism's major patron saints--the later nineteenth-centry French poet Arthur Rimbaud--recommended when he called for "A systematic derangement of all the senses..."--an idea which is within hailing distance of its distillation in Breton's rather exquisitely-written yet nonethleless more or less systematically mind-boggling, First Manifesto of Surrealism.  (Far from being merely misfit or impractical poetical types, the leading figures of Surrealism were rather good at integrating both left sides & right sides of brain).

If Caution is, as I feel he is, the perfect Surrealist person (that he isn't an intellectual, much less a literary man is precisely the raison d'etre of Caution's personality--we should remember that the Surrealists always spoke about Surrealism expressing itself in "actions" as well as in art-works such as poems), then Alphaville is the perfect anti-Surrealist city. Surrealists--Eluard in particular--often speak of going forward to the light (enlightenment). Alphaville is a black-&-white film. Godard maximizes the so-called 'limitations' of black & white film-stock to bestow upon the city a relentlessly stygian, hellishly dark look. The citizens of Alphaville--as in any dictatorship including Democracies which obfuscate by doublespeak, & in which there are vast gaps between theory and practise & between Constitutional charters & actualities of everyday life as decreed by local & other authorities--are literally "kept in the dark." (Enough has been made of Godard's re-invocations of the dimly woozy world of Hollywood detective film & "Film Noir" we trust, for us not to have to additionally emphasize those familiar associations in this context). Alphaville is above all else dark because, as Godard evokes it in the film, it's a place built out of the bricks, mortar, plastic & sinister, dimly shining chrome & formica of 20th century non-belief or even anti-belief. It's a place where Nobody Has A Clue--except perhaps, among people without much imagination, who only have a single clue: how to assure, in a totally monitored world, bottom-line physical survival via an absolutely unprotesting silent conformity..

Godard makes enough blatant, direct references to Surrealism to encourage us to think that he's proposing Surrealist perspectives specifically, as curative for the kind of consciousness without conscience represented by places like shadowy, obfuscating Alphaville. For in addition to being what one might call "a sick place," Alphaville is also a rather sickening place. The city of Alphaville is gloom-shrouded and there, all those who seem even moderately alert to the more tender values of which have traditionally sustained humankind are--in one way or another--murdered. (A particularly memorable example of which is the execution, in a swimming pool, & performed by acqua-suited Seductresses--actually mermaid-types straight from a Hollywood water ballet reminiscent of those of Esther Williams in the 1950's--of non-conformists who've somehow survived a shooting by a firing squad at the tiled edge of the pool. Indifferently, if somewhat decoratively, the upstarts are finished off anyway by a bevy of water-nymphs with knives, performing with serene efficiency as if in a water-ballet).

* * *

After Caution attends a slow extinction--that of Dickson, who chooses to kill himself over at least some version of love, rather than trying to live totally without it--he attends more rapid executions. During one of them, we hear quotations from Eluard as we witness the execution, i.e. murder, of two men. After being lined up prior to being shot, the condemned fling out their last words. The second is most emphatic. He shouts out a paraphrase of the Dickson-Eluard philosophy: "Listen to me, you normals! We see the truth that you no longer see. This truth is, that there is nothing true in man except love and faith, courage and tenderness." The first proposes a somewhat more cryptic formula: "In order to create life, it is necessary simply to advance in a straight line towards all that we love." This line is later reiterated during a reading aloud of Eluard into which the ever-pedagogical Lemmy seduces Natasha:

And because I love you everything moves--
One need only advance to live, to go
Straight forward towards all that you love
I was going towards you
I was moving perpetually into the light

Natasha Von Braun's education in the nature & meanings of love will center upon the word spoken twice by Dickson in his death-bed speech: "conscience." That key word also turns up during the Natasha's recitations, when she reads aloud from Capitale:

We live in the limbo of our metamorphoses
But that echo which runs through all the day...
That echo beyond time, desire and caresses keeps asking...
Are we close to, or far away from our conscience....
.

After Nastasha's entranced recitations are done, how far we've come from the references to Pop iconography and pulp fiction which some have taken to be the heart of this film! Godard's Pop-culture referential pranks following the opening of Alphaville, contrast with the subsequent seriousness of the proceedings--so that when the underlying seriousness of Godard's purpose begins to emerge, it almost shocks us. We're apt to listen almost in disbelief to the evocation of the more Humanistic values which increasingly dominate the film--prepared for by what turns out to be a key moment in the film: the moment when Caution obtains from beneath pillow of the deceased Dickson, the Eluard edition.

Paraphase of "Author" theory of filmmaking, to which Godard has contributed much & to which he subscribes: The Director controls the whole show. As the film Alphaville proceeds, it's as if Godard himself--throughly aware of course of the dark power of the monolithic city he himself masterfully evoked--then set about raising the consciousness or "conscience" behind the sheer visual & technological brilliance of the opening of the film--an opening made up of scenes which are after all as darkly slick and as disorientingly highlighted by urban glare, as is the benighted city of Alphaville itself.

         [ To Be Continued ]                                                                                                                                             [Top]        


Earlier version of essay appeared in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton & Co, l968), Ed. Toby Mussman.
  © l968 Michael Benedikt. This Webversion expanding on ver 1.0 & updating text © 2003 by Michael Benedikt.

Anthology also has Benedikt's translation of Godard's Scenario for his l961 film  A Woman Is A Woman


Michael Benedikt is a Contemporary US Poet who has also written much literary criticism, art criticism & occasionally, film criticism. Together with theatre critic George E. Wellwarth, he's Edited & written the Introductions for 3 anthologies of 20th-Century European plays: Modern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada, & Surrealism (E.P. Dutton, l964); Post-War German Theatre (Dutton, l967); and Modern Spanish Theatre (Dutton, l969). He's also the editor of Theatre Experiment: American Plays (Doubleday, l967), which like the European play volumes, has Intros by Benedikt to works included therein. Further Info on Benedikt's theater interests & activities, & some related poems, here.  Benedikt is a former Associate Ed. of the mass circulation art magazines Art News and Art International, for which he reviewed art exhibitions for some years. His literary criticism has appeared in Poetry, The American Book Review, & elsewhere. Anthologies of poetry in translation which he's edited & written Introductions for are The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (Dell/Laurel, l976); and The Poetry of Surrealism (Little, Brown & Co., l974). He also translated most of the Surrealist poetry in the latter volume, which besides Eluard, includes Desnos & Breton.  A former Poetry Editor of The Paris Review, his editorial selections are represented in The Paris Review Anthology (Norton, l990).
        Benedikt has published 5 collections of poetry: The Badminton at Great Barrington (University of Pittsburgh Press, l980); & with Wesleyan University Press: Night Cries (prose poems, l976); Mole Notes (prose poems, l971); Sky (l970); and The Body (l968). His work appears in ca. 70 anthologies of US poetry. Benedikt taught Literature & Creative Writing as Visiting Prof. at Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Hampshire College and Boston University. A graduate of NYU's Washington Square College & Columbia University, he lives in Manhattan.

Additional Info at About.Com

'The Compleat Michael Benedikt: Poet Laureate of the Net'

E-mail: benedit3@aol.com


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 First draft of this New Page, posted later 12/03