Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An Alternate Reality #6: Alphaville

Pseudo-science is the new religion; self-proclaimed intellectualism, our saving grace...deceitful politicians, our gods. Our actions are monitored, our thoughts and expressions harnessed. It's a nice, safe world, with equality for all, or so the high-brows tell us. Orwell warned us of its advent, and today, more than ever, this variation of suppression anchors our reality. 

The prediction wasn't exclusive to "1984". It resurfaced in a French, detective-movie sequel entitled "Alphaville": aka, "A Strange Case of Lemmy Caution", as offered by avant-garde director, Jean-Luc Godard.

Caution (ersatz, Agent 003), is played by Eddie Constantine, who had portrayed the character (based on Peter Cheyney's literary creation) in prior hard-boiled yarns dating back to '53. However, "Alphaville" differs from its predecessors in its surreal, science-fiction context (even though Jess Franco's "Attack of the Robots", with Constantine, initiated the blend three years prior).

In "Alphaville'"s parallel '65 (or some year thereabout), computer technology has swung into full gear. Professor Wernher Von Braun (formerly known as Leonard Nosferatu and played by horror-veteran, Howard Vernon) has constructed the ultimate Big Brother surveillance device, the Alpha 60: a forerunner to the Forbin Project, HAL 2000 and Ultron. The devilish IBM creation possesses an implied omniscient consciousness, its deep, reverberating voice acting as both a judgmental interjection to Caution's actions and an overriding commentator to events.

Caution (pretending to be journalist, Ivan Johnson) initially pursues a fellow secret agent, Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), into Alphaville's doleful heart. Intrigued and suspicious, Caution snaps pictures as part of his investigative progresses (in essence, documenting the past, which is frowned upon in this strange, new world). Along the way, he gains the incentive to derail the Professor and his monstrous machine.

Alphaville is, indeed, a peculiar place. Though the plot appears to unfold in Paris, Alphaville is a conglomerate of many cities and countries: modern in design and dosed in foreboding shadows and disquieting customs. 

When you check into a hotel, you're assigned a pretty woman, who asks if you'd like to sleep. Her salacious implication is tempting, but can she (or any of Alphaville's robotic citizens) be trusted? Caution knows well enough to reject his seductress' mechanical advances and wastes no time to engage in a fight with a stranger who, for whatever odd reason, has been sent to do him in. After the brawl, Caution sits and converses with Alpha 60: an intercom voice that conducts a brief but invasive exchange. The surreal pace has been set.

Caution then meets Von Braun's daughter, Natasha, played by the charismatic Anna Katrina. At first he's wary of her (since she claims the authorities assigned her to him, with the belief he's there to enjoy "Festival"). However, Caution falls in love with her, and she seems to reciprocate, though claims unfamiliarity with the forbidden feeling. 

From there, the two engage in a series of abstract scenarios, which further reveal Alphaville's dystopian underbelly, including the existence of "dictionaries" in lieu of Bibles, wherein the contents are consistently changed to fit the latest propagandist spurts: a homage to Orwell's Newspeak. In addition, neon Einstein equations flash throughout the city, promoting the notion that science, not sentimentality, is the worthy guide. A seedy hotel harbors love-starved souls, broken by the city's mundane cycle, including the now suicidal Dickson; and there's a cold, calculating realm called Grand Omega Minus, where we learn people are brainwashed and dispatched to the Outer Countries ("galaxies", as they're called) to instigate revolts and general dissent.

One of the film's most unsettling scenes depicts a group of men being executed at an indoor swimming pool: their crime, a display of emotion. (This includes a gent arrested for weeping over his wife's death.) After the men are shot, bathing beauties follow them into the pool, ritualistically stabbing them and commemorating their deaths with water ballets: a form of meticulous but empty pageantry. 

Such scenes symbolize much of Alphaville's inherent flaw. Like Jack Finney's "Body Snatchers", emotion is considered a shameful hindrance. Even minor moments of levity are at best staged and crude: a socialized, totalitarian imprisonment, where no one stands out from the pack and therefore, no one ever matters, beyond acting as another cog in the bland body politic. 

In influence, "Alphaville" foreshadows Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner", where actions are monitored and freedom scorned. Additionally, the story depicts Caution as a Ditko avenger (and therefore, a forerunner to "Watchmen'"s Rorschach), defining individualism and justice when the powers-that-be choose cruel conformity. Like Philip K. Dick's Rick Deckard, Caution also sees the wrong in using others as puppets, but unlike the android hunter, never doubts his motive: liberation must reign for all!

On many levels, the pursuit of liberty is presented as a dangerous quest in "Alphaville", but despite the film's pessimistic tone, hopeful moments arise from Caution and Von Braun's relationship. Such are represented through ethereal lighting and moments of soothing, contemplative thought. To supplement this, Caution's resistance to Alpha 60 champions the human condition, his unpretentious nature sparking a rebellion, which leads to a disturbing but enlightening climax. 

Much has been discussed about "Alphaville" over the decades, and its various parts lend themselves to vast interpretations. Still, its primary theme tells us to resist dictatorial command, no matter how sophisticated or magnanimous it may seem. It's a lesson we must follow in our own reality. Indeed, if only more of us would emulate Caution's cause, we might regain the humanity we've allowed our governing bodies to seize under the pretense of equality for all. 

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