Jul 11, 2009

"the bird sings with its fingers" : Alphaville and Orphee

Chris Darke's 2005 book on Jean Luc Godard's 1965 film Alphaville contains some great lines on the relationship of Godard's sci-fi noir masterpiece to Cocteau's own prior re-contextualisation of the Orpheus myth, and on the Orphic poetics of the filmic / radio relationship.



from the chapter entitled Orpheus unbound :

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"In Alphaville, Orpheus, bard of Thrace, the poet and singer of classical myth, undergoes one of his most unlikely reincarnations as Lemmy Caution rescuing Natasha von Braun, his Eurydice. As they flee together he tells her, with inverted fidelity to the myth, not to look back at the underworld they've escaped from. Godard's version of the myth dwells heavily on its earlier cinematic treatment in Jean Cocteau's Orphee (1949). When he filmed Orphee, Cocteau was adapting his play of 1926 as well as updating the myth by dressing it with all the trappings of modern life. Cocteau's Orphee (Jean Marais) hangs out at the Cafe des Poetes, is conveyed to the land of the dead in a chauffeured limousine (which passes through a negative-printed landscape) and receives communications from the dead poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermite) via the car's radio. In Orphee, radio and cinema are technologies transfigured, machines that communicate mediumistically with those who know how to listen and see, those with the capacity to tune into the other-worldly wavelengths on which myth broadcasts its messages from beyond. The strange communications that Orphee picks up are a kind of morse code in blank verse - 'L'oiseau chante avec ses doigts. Une fois. Je repete. L'oiseau chante avec ses doigts. Deux fois. Je repete...' ('The bird sings with its fingers. Once. I repeat. The bird sings with its fingers. Twice. I repeat...') - and they echo throughout Alphaville, either as aphoristic fragments from the mouth of a machine in the questions that Alpha 60 poses Lemmy, or when Lemmy narrates, in voice-off, his taxi ride with Natasha after they have left the Institute of General Semantics:

Lemmy (off): As the radio was issuing its traffic programme, Natasha spoke to me in her voice of a pretty sphinx...

The words 'joli sphinx' ('pretty sphinx'), thrice repeated on the soundtrack, work with the mention of the car's radio to reprise the mysterious communications in Orphee. There are also numerous visual invocations of Cocteau's film, from the negative-printed sequences already discussed to the scenes in which the inhabitants stagger through the corridors of Alphaville as the city self-destructs, clinging to the walls like the deathly denizens of Orphee's 'Zone'. Paul Eluard, too finds a place in Godard's Orphic myth as the figure of the dead poet whose words are brought to life by his messenger-surrogate Lemmy Caution. All of which indicates that, for Godard, the myth of Orpheus serves a greater purpose than merely homage. In 1962 Godard was already calling on Cocteau's film as providing a definition of cinema as 'the only art which, to use Cocteau's phrase, "films death at work". The person one films is in the process of aging and dying, so one films a moment of death at work'. Over 30 years later in episode 2A of Historie(s) du cinema, Seul le cinema, the reference has changed slightly (Cocteau's name has gone missing) but the aim is still to give a definition of cinema in terms deriving from myth and poetry: 'Cinema authorises Orpheus to turn round without causing Euridice's death.' For Godard, cinema not only shows but also conquers death.

Myths as we know never die, they just assume new disguises. Claude Levi-Strauss observed that the interpretations of myths 'are themselves instances of the myth, prolongations or variations of its narrative logic'. So it is with Orpheus, who has been busy reinventing himself since he last plucked his lyre. In a brilliant essay that anatomises the place of this myth in Godard's work, Jacques Aumont claims that the director has often returned to Orphee, and in Alphaville, Allemagne annee 90 and Helas pour moi (1993) he finds the film's "disguised remakes". Orpheus is the 'code name' for cinema which posesses 'the power to look behind itself and, in the same look, to bring history forward and to make it disappear'.

"Filmed, the past freezes, but can die no longer. [...] such is the horizon of the Orphic metaphor: the cinema is that which endows us with another memory... Cinema remembers everything, virtually and sometimes for real, but it has changed our way of remembering ourselves, changed the contents of our memory, changed memory itself."

In Cocteau's film Orphee is guided through the Zone, wading in slow motion through the limbo between the lands of the living and the dead; 'time is the wind he must walk against'. Could it be the same wind invading Lemmy's hotel room at the end of Allemagne annee 90? If so this wind makes twins of Orpheus and Benjamin's Angel, both of them traveling in time, continually turning to look back at where they've come from, caught at the moment of crossing a boundary, one passing from the darkness of the underworld to the light, the other propelled forward from Paradise by 'progress'. As Aumont acknowledges, the Orphic metaphor for Cinema at work in Godard's films is ambiguous. In having looked back at the past, cinema casts its light forward in time as well: cinema 'projects'."

- Chris Darke, Alphaville pp. 94-6





another excellent excerpt of the text (which also has a brief discussion about the cultural semiotics of a gated community just outside Sao Paulo called, fantastically, Alphaville) is available here