Godard's 3-D Monster Movie: "Goodbye to Language"
“You are my creator, but I am your master;—obey!” The command of Mary Shelley’s Creature to Frankenstein‘s titular scientist is quoted late in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, a transfixing though brief (70 minutes) 3-D marvel that could be seen as any number of things: meditative cinema essay, philosophical romance, or a free form testimonial of the 83-year-old filmmaker’s conscience, still alertly exploring on his medium’s New Wave, surfing the crest of sound and vision, defiantly refusing to rest on his laurels on shore. The invocation of Frankenstein—and that specific quote—clicks into the basic theme of creativity crossing technology. There’s novel ingenuity on the one hand, as Godard is apparently filming with his adoring dog, Roxy, on Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley conceived her story in the company of husband Percy and Lord Byron, and on the other hand enslavement to that creation, like the Creature pinning Victor Frankenstein under his will, and as the televisual image displaces reality and makes us docile and deadened viewers. Godard’s film, though, like Victor Frankenstein ultimately, refuses to acquiesce.
Goodbye to Language begins by telling us, “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality,” followed by flickering footage of 20th century combat and then sentimental escapist romance. The television will haunt the background and steal our attention away from thin, abstract scenarios in the foreground. Godard’s use of 3-D, transparent in its video-ness of digital while displaying the most tactile and sensuously lifelike pictures ever captured in such a movie, savors this divide between Reality and Imagination, that which is identified as Nature and that which is Metaphor, the thing in itself and then the image, the demonstration of reality that penetrates and gets underneath it, “demonstration” being “monster”’s etymological root. The metaphor, like Frankenstein’s monster, manifests the truth of our inventions and ideas. We’re told the television was first demonstrated for us around the same time as Hitler’s election, and how the Russian word “kamera” means “prison.” After Hitler’s defeat, Godard reminds us of the advent of atomic power, GMOs, advertising, and nanotechnology: fascism was victorious after all. Creators though we are, our eyes passively submit to the image and we obey.
“What they call images are becoming the murderers of the present.” Because of how well Godard frames Goodbye to Language, with wide angle lenses that startlingly open up the three dimensional alternate reality, or intimate close-ups with hands on bars or running amidst leaves on water, Goodbye to Language invites us to thrive within the “present” of captured time, brusquely assembled (Frankenstein-like) through dissonant image and sound shifts, and then drawn back into a meditative rhythm by repetitive, at times strident, classic music cues.
It’s an inauthentic present onto which our clarity struggles to hold. Through some dramatic scenes, often involving (almost self-referentially Godardian) post-coital argument between dialectically opposed lovers–the brute, blunt, unkempt male (seeing “poop” as Nature’s great equalizer, apparently more than death), and the graceful, reflective woman whose clarity outshines him–we’re distracted by the monstrous television, highlighting Victor Frankenstein’s fellow mad doctors from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and then Dr. Jekyll, the latter in a scene from Rouben Mamoulian’s pre-Code adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, where the repressed and brilliant scientist (Fredric March) has his attention, like ours, preoccupied by a sexually alluring bar singer’s flirtations and swinging leg, the 2-D image’s seductive physicality drawing us away from the erotic 3-D present-day discourse in color.
Viewers quick to the Jekyll allusion know that the hypnotic and erotic temptation spurs the arrival of Mr. Hyde, devoid of conscience and exemplifying complete surrender to base appetite, where discerning intelligence and dialogue is smothered. Goodbye to Language throws us pictures of street corner bookshops, books by Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn shadowed by someone fixated on their smartphone. Philosophical inquiries, meanwhile, are silenced by what appears to be a gun-toting bureaucrat. Godard himself keeps us from falling too deeply into his own film by fiddling with his sound mix, or cutting to images with gorgeous though disconcerting pictures in nature, that are kind of cinematic/videoscopic archeological digs, drawing us closer to the camera’s primordial strip of red, blue, and green. Images murder the present, but the present forcefully struggles to survive through the image’s constant changes.
Godard is fracturing—and exercising—our perceptive abilities. His metaphor bridges, like Dziga Vertov and The Man With the Movie Camera long before Godard, the mechanical eye to the human eye. He’s canvassing a language that has been developing through its own nature for more than a century, superimposing Roxy the dog, Nature’s most loyal beast, over a passing train that the creature seems to watch placidly. The train could be a descendent of the Lumieres’ train from 1895, a 2-D image that nevertheless startled early viewers out of their seats as it approached the camera eye. Godard paints Nature on top of technology, and art concepts on other art concepts, like a Monet-styled bowl of fruit or gorgeous rug held by a nude woman. In challenging and aggravating our perception, we have to participate in dialogue, in language, selecting how and what we perceive. In one of his dramatic scenes, Godard extraordinarily overlaps his 3-D images with dueling perspectives, so that we must switch eyes, editing the shot-reverse-shot with our own optic abilities. The viewer completes the picture–and the movie–instead of just obeying it.
Goodbye to Language is a film whose surfaces one surrenders to just as one must participate in its depths. Of course, it’s Godard’s familiar game of our complicity, as with red liquid (blood?) flowing down a drain, he’s perhaps echoing Hitchcock’s classic of our murderous identification, Psycho—also the first Hollywood movie to show that throne of equality where people emulate Rodan’s pensive thinker while doing Nature’s business, the toilet. Goodbye to Language stretches its contrasts like worn videotape, in its colors, dimensions, and relationships, sculpting serene beauty, social conscience, scathing satire, and brash ugliness, the worn contours of his discursive sphere immaculately encoded as new cinema data.
Godard’s theme here isn’t new for him, though the method brilliantly alters the syntax of what he’s addressing. Nor do I kneel at his altar, from where he’s angrily thrown rocks at the Hollywood system so antipodal to his sensbilities. He’s one of our most important film-and digital video-makers, cinema’s perpetually adolescent sage, but when I read him lambast Spielberg or suffer his thesis that Apocalypse Now fails because Coppola couldn’t film a $50 billion war “on such a small budget [of $40 million],” I admit that it’s hard not to roll my eyes and disrespectfully do a whack-off gesture. But such didacticism is forgiven by the enervating beauty of his invention and precarious craftsmanship, boundlessly leaping from documentary to modern political struggle to erotic drama to even a stately period piece, giving us Mary Shelley on Lake Geneva in 1816, writing “Misery, Sadness” in the notebook where Victor Frankenstein and his Creature will take shape. Self-taught and quoting Milton, Frankenstein’s Creature overleaps Godard’s loyal Roxy, a creature without language, whose disposition may be preferable to the fearful and barren future that overflows with information, flat in its illusions of depth. However dystopian, Goodbye to Language is a marvelous demonstration of language’s puzzling communicative labyrinth in a seemingly infinite pixel landscape of forms and colors. A survey of decay, Godard’s latest achievement is regardless a stirring reflection on the miracle of birth.
Originally published in L'Etoile Magazine, November 5, 2014.