MAGIC LANTERNS

A RETURN TRIP TO ALPHAVILLE

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I've always loved 3-D movies and comics, which I discovered as a kid growing up in the '50s, but I've had a hard time convincing friends and even family members to fork over the few extra bucks for the special glasses at the theater. Nearly everyone I know complains the 3-D process is just a gimmick and fad; besides, they argue, the uncomfortable glasses cause headaches and dizziness.

So I was especially delighted to see the 3-D process recently endorsed by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, one of the truly seminal filmmakers of the last 50 years. He helped usher in the '60s with Breathless (both thematically and stylistically revolutionary) and since then, in more than 40 feature films, has quite literally made us watch movies in a different way. Now at 84 years of age, the director has embraced the 3-D process for his latest film, Goodbye to Language, which won the Jury Prize last year at Cannes Film Festival.

Heaven only knows when we will be able to see the film here, especially in 3-D, but in the meantime, I returned to one of my favorite Godard films of yesteryear, the 1965 sci-fi/hardboiled detective drama Alphaville. Typical for Godard, Alphaville was anything but typical for its time.

Filmed in black-and-white in various locations throughout Paris (which doubles for the Alphaville of the title), the story is set sometime in the future, perhaps in another reality, even though everything (fashions, cars and guns) is vintage 1965. Subtitled A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, the story focuses on a popular character from a series of British novels and films, a tough-guy detective/secret agent sporting the trench coat favored by his American counterparts, including Bogart, in countless '40s films. Played by craggy-faced American expatriate Eddie Constantine, Lemmy Caution had already appeared in seven films before Alphaville and would do so afterward in several others, always with Constantine in the role. But Alphaville is unique.

Arriving in the city from the "Outlands" in his Ford Galaxie (actually a Mustang), Lemmy Caution is looking for Professor von Braun, the creator of the supercomputer Alpha 60, which now controls Alphaville and its citizens. Aided by the professor's daughter Natasha (played by Godard's early muse and former wife Anna Karina), the resourceful Caution fights and shoots his way through labyrinthine office corridors of Alphaville, witnessing first-hand the destruction of individuality and emotion that is the goal of Alpha 60.

In addition to the genre influences of American science-fiction and film noir, Godard draws heavily on other disparate forerunners such as Jean Cocteau and George Orwell. Though its characters take themselves very seriously, in essence Alphaville is more playful than anything else, Godard tweaking the conventions of traditional film narrative and genre expectations in scene after scene. Toward the end, for example, he sometimes inverts the black-and-white images into negatives, reminding us that everything we are watching is actually controlled by him.

With an uncharacteristically happy ending, Alphaville embraces the reality of human love in place of the sterile indoctrination and suppression of the individual imposed by the new age of the totalitarian machine. Ahead of its time but on a minimal budget, Godard's film might very well have influenced both visual and thematic elements in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).

It's a safe bet that Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott wouldn't have missed Alphaville. In 1965 (and now), Godard was the kind of filmmaker other filmmakers watched.

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