Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New movie review: Goodbye to Language

Roxy tries to show us the way in Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language.
The promise of 3D was immersion. We were told the new technology would bring us deeper into stories and allow us to lose ourselves in the world of the film. This would not be a gimmick like it was in the 1950s. This would be a revolution. Not so, it turned out. Like a wannabe starlet fresh off the bus from Toledo, 3D came back to Hollywood in the new century with big dreams and pure intentions but quickly became corrupt.

Never mind the quick buck distributors are looking to turn or the added fees theaters are eager to charge, the biggest sin 3D has committed is that it just makes movies worse. Barring the incredible technological achievements of outliers such as Gravity or Avatar, 3D has become a nuisance, a distracting, muddy mess of contradictory visual information, and a substitute for real storytelling.

Achieving the precise opposite of its intent, the technology serves only to take viewers out the story, either by calling attention to itself with the wide array of objects filmmakers can hurl at the screen or by inducing “how did they do that” awe at a technical prowess that overwhelms any attempts at character development or world building.

So leave it to the 83-year-old master of subversive film language to find the perfect use for a bastardized technology. Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language finally delivers on the promise of a fully immersive cinema-going experience by refusing to be a spectacle. In so doing, Godard actually breathes life back into two now-withered film movements: 3D and the French New Wave.

In the 1960s, the French New Wave, at the forefront of which stood Godard and contemporaries such as Francois Truffaut and Alain Renais, sought to bring energy and youth back to a film industry that had grown increasingly bourgeois over the previous decade. Their films were radical, inventive, and stirring in ways that would influence the generations of independent filmmakers that followed.

In that spirit, Godard has continued to fight back against the culture of contemporary cinema. When he was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2014 for his contributions to the medium, he could not be bothered to show up to accept it. His most recent works, as brilliant as they still are, have been his most impenetrable, defying criticism and daring audiences to interpret them.

Taken in that context, Goodbye to Language is a veritable crowd-pleaser, though its target audience of Godard devotees will find themselves the most enamored of the mad scientist’s latest experiment. It is as difficult, challenging, and opaque as anything in Godard’s latter-day oeuvre, but the edges have softened just a little in the best ways possible.

Ostensibly, the plot is a love story about the difficulty of communication and the impotence of words in the face of bigger questions about meaning, death, guilt, and god. It is fitting, then, that the main character of the film’s second half is Godard’s dog, Roxy. A third-hand quote spoken in voiceover declares: “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

As the people around him look within and without to fill the void in their lives, Roxy wanders the world, content enough to love and be loved. That Roxy cannot share this lesson verbally is part of the point. We need only look to discover that which we seek, but instead, we theorize and question, trying to put into words the existential maladies we think we suffer. Even if the answers come to us, they will be no more satisfying than a roll in the snow, and perhaps the fleeting joy as of a dog on its back is the best we can achieve.

Thematically rich as Goodbye to Language is, the daring form on display is as much of a draw. Many people, myself included, will flock to cinemas this week to see Christopher Nolan’s latest space opus, Interstellar. It is billed as a grand cinematic experience on par with Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the kind of must-see event film one has to watch on the big screen. I cannot yet speak to this, but I would be surprised if anything astounds me this year as much as Godard’s lo-fi masterpiece.

More than just a visual feast, Goodbye to Language is an aural and textural experience unlike any you are likely to have encountered. Shifting jarringly among film stocks, sound quality, and new and archival footage, the film forces viewers to be actively engaged in its telling at the same time it likely turns them away with its confrontational abstractions.

On more than one occasion, Godard splits the screen on top of itself, utilizing the three-dimensional presentation to create discord between where you want look and where you are able to look. For audience members who have grown up with television in the background of their daily lives, while they work on laptops and check their phones, it is a perfect visual metaphor for our divided attentions. Neither the characters nor we can focus on one moment at a time, and as a result, we experience nothing in full.

If film studios and theater chains insist on forcing 3D movies on us – which it seems they will for the foreseeable future – then let them be films such as this. The cinematic landscape can be a depressing place to wander for those in search of art or innovation, but when the rare gem makes itself known, the world brightens just a little. Goodbye to Language is just such a treasure, and we should cherish it. One never knows when the world will gift us another.

See it? Yes.

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