Politics & Policy

Goodbye to Language: Godard Goes 3D

A legendary filmmaker upends a popular gimmick; Revenge of the Mekons and Nightcrawlers are phony baloney.

He’s ahead of us all,” Martin Scorsese said about Jean-Luc Godard in an interview with critic Gregory Solman. Godard’s first 3D film, Goodbye to Language, follows Scorsese’s 3D catastrophe Hugo (2011) but is still ahead of the game. Godard employs the technology devoted to today’s family films and fanboy fare and subverts it. This is the same rebellious panache Godard brought to the French New Wave when Breathless (1959), his innovative debut feature, changed the world.

As ever, Godard is concerned with how experience is mediated through art. Goodbye to Language’s epigraph — “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality” — is a perfect rebuke to 3D delusions. It reestablishes Godard as a pioneer who interrogates modern cinematic apparatus while seeking spiritual expression. He uses the digital 3D fad to consider how men and women communicate (domestic couple Kamel Abdeli and Heloise Godet, political couple Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau) and then, playfully, observes their dog’s loyalty (Godard’s own pet, Roxy) to demonstrate pure faith, pure curiosity, and his own imperviousness in an era when Reality and Digital Reality are confused.

Godard’s the first director to mock 3D — that 1950s carny’s gimmick pretending to offer superficial “depth.” Three-D was revived in the 21st century to sell junk to naïve Millennials. Their sophistication has been tested by Hollywood hype about 3D’s “immersive” qualities and found wanting. For Godard the only test — the only immersion — that matters is the dynamics of sexual, political, and artistic relations. That’s his movie’s theme, divided into Nature and Metaphor sections — acerbic satires of our screwed-up age. It’s the most visually astounding film seen all year. Godard is such a natural aesthete that even his darkest reproach looks romantic.

The title Goodbye to Language laments pop media’s disintegration of how we make our feelings known — from the obsolescence of books to the depletion of cinematic expression. Against foolish pop fashion, Godard’s humane narrative is replete with poetic images, quotations, and philosophical paradoxes that excite one’s eyes and mind (“Hitler didn’t invent a thing; his legacy is terrorism. Terrorism is part of the Machiavelli, Richelieu, Bismark long tradition”).

Because 3D is typically used to pacify audiences, Godard must push its boundaries. Most 3D requires emotional passivity, as proved in his contrast to classical cinema images (Metropolis and Snows of Kilimanjaro) now degraded, big-screen TV ghosts of themselves. How many devotees of “the golden age of television” are aware of the loss?

Goodbye to Language fetishizes writing, painting, film — tactile human expressions, not digital. Yet Godard works to turn digital imagery back into cinema. Nothing on screen this year is more amazing than the scenes where, through a dissolve, basic 3D technology makes you go cross-eyed — two simultaneous points of view, dialectics as a visual tease. It is classical, revolutionary, and hilarious.

Responding to established industry standards, Godard upgrades them. Look how he revises his own iconographic Nouvelle Vague shot of a man and woman’s hands moving toward each other but here clasping a fence  — an image that distils contemporary media’s spiritual prison.

“Everyone will need an interpreter to understand words coming from their own mouths” Godard warns about our 3D era. He alludes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as prophesy of the 21st century compulsion to debase ourselves into monsters and zombies — confused by the need to make sense of topical complexities. Our guilt-ridden age’s retreat into a technology that pretends realism rather than moral imagination is pathetic. Goodbye to Language’s examination of technological purpose and potential is heroic.

***

Rock drummer Stephen Goulding gives the best assessment of the long-running British anarchist band the Mekons: “I don‘t know if it’s anti-capitalist or just having this ideal that you want to stay with. It’s not really a political stance, I don’t think. It’s an artistic stance.” Since the Mekons began in 1978, their ongoing fecklessness has delighted quasi-political, haute bourgeois bohemians, as Goulding explains in the new doc Revenge of the Mekons.

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Director Joe Angio pays tribute to this rambunctious Punk enclave while accounting for its veneration by (American) rock cognoscenti who give embarrassing testimonies. Journalist Mark Kemp: “I’m a Southern guy who grew up on country music and to hear these intellectual, arty Brits doing country music was just amazing. I think that sometimes [lead singer] Jon Langford gets my culture more than I do. He gets the blue-collar working-class esthetic more than your average Toby Keith, certainly. I mean blue-collar country western fans shouldn’t be conservative, they shouldn’t be Republican, they should be leftist in ways only socialist Brits could get across.”

Almost worse, novelist Jonathan Franzen extols: “If you feel like the inheritor of a very embattled circumstance while the rest of the world is going over to the dark side, [the Mekons] are the band for you. I say that not because they give you hope of ever winning the battle but because they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.” Cut to a still of Langford holding his crotch like one of those crude rappers the elite Franzen would never countenance.

Explaining the Mekons’ “Hello, Cruel World” (1986), Franzen says, “Essentially these are depressive people singing about how sh***y the world is.” But the world has not been so to Franzen; so what exactly is he praising? “If I was going to try to describe what’s particularly inspiring about their music to me, it was that they consistently resolved what ought have been despair and rage into humor without losing the despair and without losing the rage.”

The Los Angeles punk band X did what the Mekons do but spectacularly. Still, Americans are always suckers for Brits. (One expert proclaims, “It’s hard to think of music that is more despairing, that is more blasted, people singing as if the heart has been ripped out of them.” This when the Mekons appear half-drunk.) Angio’s friendly backstage bonhomie satisfies half my own reasons for enjoying the Mekons, but the doc’s political presumptions are why my enjoyment often stops.

Political rationales, even the Mekons’ own devotion to carousing,  all seem a form of class alienation (“Hard to be Human,” 1985) whereby American rock elites idolize a band that began as art students from Leeds, U.K., and whose members take sexual and career risks they don’t dare. It’s a cowardly worship. Yet when Langford does a twinkle-toes, raunchy Michael Flatley–style dance to a rowdy chantey, he is a folk, pop, rock star, making the Mekons’ derelict charm undeniable.

***

Jake Gyllenhaal’s one-note, weight-loss performance as a sociopath who sells graphic, bloody WeeGee-style video of street tragedies to a Los Angeles TV news station doesn’t excuse the smugness of Nightcrawlers. Director-writer Dan Gilroy’s grim-faced satire of cold-blooded media indicts industry ruthlessness yet pins the problem on Gyllenhaal’s weirdo Lou Bloom. This is an American equivalent to the ludicrous Chilean film Tony Manero, which blamed Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character for a serial killer’s rampage. Nightcrawler also recycles Network. Its superficial critique of media culture avoids confronting Bloom’s background and root motivations; he’s just an ambitious freak — crossing Network with Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Gyllenhaal’s skeletal, bug-eyed creep turns Travis Bickle into Nosferatu — so distanced from common behavior that Gilroy begs a viewer’s pity and repulsion, thus teaching nothing.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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