“I’m looking for poverty in language” a character claims at one moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s newest attempt at defining – or re-defining, or re-re-defining – what constitutes cinema. For the man (now at the ripe age of 83) who gave us Histoire(s) Du Cinema is again attempting – or flat out doing – the unthinkable: he’s changing the way that we approach a more than century old art form. The title here may say “Goodbye” but this is hardly a send off for Godard – or his chosen medium – rather, Goodbye to Language is an embracing of the new, an appreciation of everything that came before and perhaps the most potent “fuck you” aimed in all directions from a filmmaker that has made a career out of being an iconoclast. Hello.
Describing Goodbye to Language to anyone that hasn’t yet had the fortune to experience it is no easy task, and I’m not about to attempt to decipher its many riddles for you. It’s safe to say that I’ll be re-visiting this theatrically as many times as I have the chance to, and I imagine that many who see it once will want to do the same. That is, if you can tolerate it. Late Godard has never been for all tastes and Goodbye to Language goes beyond that. We have entered the phase of Beyond Godard, and in three dimensions, no less! If you thought that Film Socialisme was too opaque or that In Praise of Love was too aggressive, this might just drive you to a nervous breakdown. Godard fully embraces his new toy(s) of the digital era and the results are stupefying. Without a shred of hyperbole, this is the best 3D work that I’ve seen. Not because of its technical finesse – or lack thereof – but in that of its utilitarian nature. 3D becomes a character in Goodbye to Language, we see it announced on screen in big red letters “3D” not as part of the title but as its own entity. And it deserves first billing.
The title may make viewers expect a didactic 70 minutes of semiotics, but that isn’t what this is. The “language” in question isn’t really the written or spoken word but the language of the cinema and how it was once, and is to be, shaped by the technology used to create. Removing 3D from the film’s title almost seems a betrayal of what Godard has put forth as it is as essential a component of what is on screen as light may be. We are not treated to mere tricks of depth or attention getting tactics but have our vision altered. Images are overlayed by putting one image in each eye, video is distorted with artifacts becoming three dimensional, subtitles move away from the screen and back again. The latter is especially intriguing as one would imagine what is lost when viewed in its native language, void of subtitles. At many times throughout there are black screens with voiceover, the only “image” being that of the white text offered in the interest of translation. Offered in the interest of language. But what does it all mean?
I don’t know. Goodbye to Language may not be advertised as a thriller but it’s a mystery of the most clandestine sort, a riddle that seems to have no actual answer except to that of the creator and/or to be determined by time. Afterall, if we are to say goodbye to the language of cinema don’t we have to first start with time? History rears its head in more ways than one, remediated images of cinema dumbed down for TV, Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein, references to childhood/Beckett/your old cell phone. “In Russian kamera means prison,” one character states in the interest of more translation, more metaphor, more self reflexivity; for the image of the shadow of a camera mounted on a crane towards the end of Goodbye to Language may seem like a more subtle endgame jab than that of The Holy Mountain, but in the end it’s nothing more than history. That’s the old cinema, this is the new cinema.
And this new cinema is all about fucking with our gaze, with our attention and the span of both. Want to pay attention to one image? No, fuck you. Want this shot to linger/speed up? No, fuck you. Our gaze is constantly challenged by Godard, from the aforementioned image layering, to the erratically photographed fully nude bodies of both man and woman, to close ups of blood/viscera/puppies. There is no telling when to look or look away. 3D at times becomes a choice, not for Godard but for the viewer. When images begin to overlap, closing each eye allows for a stagnant image different from the other. Opening them both brings each to life at one time. Time stops and starts at will. And who is this all being seen by? Us? Godard? The Dog? Video degrades, colors aren’t always what they seem – and will change – and no thing/place/state of being can be taken for granted. It just is. This is Frankenstein cinema, built out of fragments of time and unleashed upon us without any regard for what it may cause. That’s a metaphor. That’s language. Goodbye.