This is just an except on Alphaville(1965) that i thought was interesting. I found it while looking at articles to analyse for my ‘criticising the critics’ section. I decided not to analyse this article however in the future i may well do.
‘Chief among the images that create the texture of this film is a flashing light. It opens the film with an hypnotic flicker, its intensity vaguely unsettling. It reappears as a car’s headlight, then becomes the car’s blinker signalling a left turn. Later on it’s a light bulb swinging back and forth, the flashgun of Caution’s miniature camera, the flicker of fluorescent ceiling lights, the wink of neon signs. To try to establish any “meaning” for this symbol would, I think, be pointless. The flashing light is as characteristic of modern civilization as anything else you might name, and particularly appropriate to Alphaville, where direct sunlight is rarely seen. I cannot stress too much that what is important is that the image is there, and is its own justification. This light is in fact the central visual theme of Alphaville. In the opening five minutes there is little else. The film begins with the flashing light, then the headlight of a car. We see a train cross a bridge at night, its lighted windows staring blankly back at us. Then we are on a superhighway, the lamp standards rushing past and appearing to vibrate because of the motion of the car. We see Caution’s car signalling for a left turn with its blinker, parking finally in front of the hotel. Caution flicks his Zippo lighter, half-illuminating his face with its dancing flame. He gets out of the car and the camera watches him through a series of glass panels, rapidly panning to follow him into the hotel lobby and in the process capturing the reflection of myriads of lights which flash across and fracture the image. After a brief stop at the hotel desk, Caution steps into the elevator and again the camera peers at him through glass. As the elevator ascends and Caution lights his Zippo, a brilliant pattern of reflected light plays vertically across the image. These first few minutes are among the most gripping in the film, not because anything happens, but because these particular images have been arranged in this particular way. In this sequence the whole substance and strategy of Alphaville stand revealed. These patterns of flickering light are the movie; what else in it is of greater importance?’ (1)
(1). John Thomas ‘A Review of Alphaville’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 48-51 p. 49.
Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:
The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)
In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.
1. David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.
2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.
3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.