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