If you’ve ever seen one of those student films where a brooding, turtlenecked doofus reads poetry to his little doll of a girlfriend, rolled your eyes at the black and white pomposity of it all, then yawned twice, hard, because it was so preposterously “artsy,” you probably were watching the influence of Jean Luc Godard watered down through the decades. Open intellectualism like his is rare these days in commercial art, but nobody sane would deny that Godard is a unique and innovative artist whose influence has rippled into the present.
Bald-faced intellectualism might be too tough to stomach these days; generally, Hollywood fears anything too deep because they don’t want to lose their audience. Most of the big blockbusters are aimed at children or adults who don’t want to think while they watch. Fair enough; mindless movies have their place, but a balanced diet of different type of movies is ideal. Unfortunately Hollywood sometimes seems too much like McDonald’s.
It makes perfect sense. If you’re going to put a hundred million dollars into a production, you don’t want people walking out confused and telling their friends it was “pretentious.” Spoon-feed the audience every step of the way, leave no doubt about who the bad guys are or which dashing hero they should root for, and they’ll have more cranial capacity to appreciate those expensive explosions.
But some people back in the sixties (and a few even before that) thought that film as an art form could appeal to a higher brow, people craving intellectual stimulation. In the opening moments of Alphaville, the supercomputer Alpha 60 tells us that sometimes reality is too complex to understand, and that legends, or art, allow fragments of that complexity to travel around the world and connect with human minds.
Alphaville is a classic, pulpy depiction of Logic and Order vs. Art and Love, set in a futuristic world that uses technological and scientific concepts and character archetypes almost thirty years old when Alphaville was made in 1965. What’s that about? Well, it’s worth thinking about. And while the dialogue between these two central counterforces might seem superficial today, the film is just fun to watch. Part of its appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Godard is at his best when he balances philosophy with humour, and Alphaville is a prime example. Masculin Féminin is another. But even at his heaviest, his direction is riveting, the characters think and feel and have passion, and he does it all with inimitable style. Fifty years after his heyday, Godard’s movies still hold sway and I think I know why: someone has to make films to appeal to intellectuals. And no, Inception does not count.
Granted, Godard’s intellectualism isn’t subtle, it isn’t buried within the narrative or eluded to, but slaps you in the face like it’s challenging you to a duel. But certainly conversations about politics or philosophy or love actually do happen in the real world. Why shouldn’t those conversations happen in a movie? Pretension is underrated.
This month the TIFF Bell Lightbox hosts Godard Forever: Part One, a retrospective of his work featuring some of his best features and short films. The theater itself delivers on every level, but seeing classic auteurs like Godard there feels like a special treat. If you are in Toronto in February, think it over.