14 November 2014

First Impressions of Earth

Here are a few thoughts on Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. As usual with Godard, the film is remarkably dense, and I’d have to see it at least one more time to attempt a proper review. I certainly didn’t catch much of the film’s elliptical narrative. But as a second viewing is not likely to happen any time soon, some first impressions:

1. From the very opening moments, in which Godard’s characteristic primary-colored intertitles are flashed in an alternating pattern between the front and back of the image, Godard’s film does more to explore the possibilities of the 3D form than any other I’ve seen. Rather than saving most of the effects for a few big set pieces, Godard shoots otherwise routine dialogue scenes in ways that highlight the depth of the 3D space. Other sequences use the extra dimension for texture and tactility, as when we see a dog running through a field, brushing against the grass in the front of the image.

2. There are also brief stretches when the stereoscopic image doesn’t resolve, making the picture difficult to decipher. It’s an effect seemingly designed to disorient the viewer; the first time it happened I wondered if my glasses had slipped out of position. In a Q&A after the movie, film scholar David Bordwell, who had just seen the film for a fifth time, noted that the timing of these moments varies depending on where the viewer is sitting in the theater. They had occurred each time he’d seen Goodbye to Language, but at different points during the film. We talk about movies that require a second viewing to understand, but it may be literally impossible to see all of Goodbye to Language clearly in a single viewing. The film is already unusually resistant to mechanical reproduction; it would be incoherent in 2D and is thus impossible to play on television. But in a sense each theatrical viewing of the film is itself a unique experience.

3. 3D filmmaking has been thought of as a means of making cinema a closer approximation of real life, but the effect in Goodbye to Language is actually defamiliarizing. Routine actions like a woman washing her hands or a man walking in the street become transfixing. The 2D clips of old movies scattered throughout the film feel like oases of normality.