Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.
—Alpha 60, the ibm mainframe villain, Alphaville
Alphaville is my favorite film. It has become more of a personal totem than a favorite film, really. It’s a code I carry around with me, like the encryption strings my hacker friends store on usb key fobs and wear around their necks. I first saw it in the early nineties, around the same time I started working with computers. I grew up in a family of painters, poets, and musicians, so aligning with machines felt like a thrilling “fuck you” to my family at the time.
But Alphaville merged those seemingly opposing realms in a way that mirrors my life now, and the way I have come to understand what life is: there is poetry in the network. There is math in music. Metal dreams of becoming a spaceship. And the spaceship dreams of flying toward stars.
The film follows the tale of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a hard-boiled, trench-coat-wearing film noir detective sent to the city of Alphaville to rescue its citizens (many of whom, conveniently, happen to be total babes) from the techno-totalitarian clutches of an evil ibm mainframe computer. Love is illegal in the dictatorship of Alpha 60. Expressing grief, desire, or tenderness, even reading poetry, these are all crimes punishable by death—specifically, staged executions in which prisoners are lined up and shot on the edge of a swimming pool filled with with synchronized Busby Berkeley-style bathing beauties.
“What transforms darkness into light?” Alpha 60 asks Lemmy Caution during a grim interrogation scene.
“La poésie,” he answers.
In Alphaville, poetry is emotional code that unlocks freedom. Throughout, Jean-Luc Godard references the work of Argentinean poet Jorge Luis Borges and his contemporary, the French surrealist Paul Éluard. The film’s opening line, referenced above, was inspired by Borges’s essay “Forms of a Legend.”
Éluard’s 1926 collection Capital of Pain is the book that an underground poet-friend passes in secret to Caution, a book that Caution in turn passes on to Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), the beautiful daughter of the evil scientist who designed and programmed Alpha 60.
In what I have always believed is the film’s most transcendent and beautiful scene, Natacha clutches Éluard’s book to her chest. She is delivering a dream-soliloquy which I understand is from Éluard’s 1924 work, “Mourir de ne pas mourir” (“Dying Of Not Dying”):
Because I love you, everything moves
We must advance to live
Aim straight ahead toward those you love
I went toward you, endlessly toward the light
If you smile, it enfolds me all the better
The rays of your arms pierce the mist
I have played this film and read selections from those Éluard collections for each person I’ve fallen in love with over the last twenty years (not that there have been so many of them). They express for me, better than my own words can, what it means to submit to the vulnerability that love requires. They capture what it means to accept that control and order are illusion, never mind what technology promises; chaos and chance are the magic in intimacy. They remind me of the eventuality of pain that any deep bond with another person entails, no matter how rich and blissful the sweet parts are.
The last guy who sat through Alphaville with me, who tolerated me reading Éluard stanzas over Skype in bad French, who received my copy-pasted Borges passages over im late at night—he was the first who really understood them. And, I think, the first who really understood me. I didn’t intend the Godard-Éluard Test as a test, but I suppose it ended up being one. Because he really is a keeper.
I am not a poet. I am a blogger. We bloggers suffer less and earn more than poets. We are more vain, and less patient. The work we produce may yield quick rewards and praise, but our output fades just as quickly into the infinitely-expanding black hole of Google. What poets produce is less easily found, but endures the fickle flow of mediums, each eclipsing the last.
My creative mentor, the poet who adopted me as a teen and taught me all I know about writing, tells me this: “Poetry is not adornment. Poetry is the truth.” Poetry is, you might say, the command-line prompt of the human operating system, a stream of characters that calls forth action, that elicits response. Lemmy Caution knew this, when he recited Borges to hack Alpha 60 and win the heart of his chosen babe.