For the final entry in my “Both Versions” blog series, I’ll be breaking one of my major rules. For every preceding film, the competing versions were each released theatrically at one time or another. We’ve looked at movies existing in more than one language; we’ve looked at extended cuts and studio-mandated abridgments. So far, we haven’t looked at the now-common but seldom studied distinctions between the 2D and 3D versions of stereoscopic films. There are plenty of blockbusters that have been exhibited both ways, but I selected a movie I hadn’t previously seen, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. Not until this week did I discover that Godard didn’t want his film to be shown in a flattened state. To the best of my knowledge, it never has been. The 2D “version” can scarcely be considered a competing version at all, merely a sop to curious viewers who lack the exorbitant technology for 3D. File it in the extensive category of supplemental features intended for home viewing only. Nevertheless, I feel confident in pressing on, just this once. I feel that disregarding the rules is in the spirit of this film.
Goodbye to Language arrived five years after Avatar, when such esteemed filmmakers as Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuarón had already received praise for their 3D efforts. The sometimes unspoken premise behind the praise was that 3D was a mere gimmick until gifted artists could find something interesting to do with it. Enter the octogenarian Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker whose style is about as far removed from blockbuster spectacle as can be. Teaming up with the inventive cinematographer Fabrice Aragno, Godard experimented with the technology. What they came up with is at least one visual technique that no one alive had ever seen before. Knowing that I’d probably never get a chance to see a 3D avant-garde French film in a movie theater, I began investing in making it happen on my own. Finally, this week I fired up my Epson 2040 3LCD projector and my Sony 3D Blu-ray player, charged my Panasonic 3D glasses, inflated my 3D easy chair, and watched my twentieth Godard film.
But I get ahead of myself. First, I watched the film in, uh, monoscope, just to get my bearings in terms of plot and dialogue before letting the images dominate a second viewing. Goodbye to Language does have a plot, although it’s quite possible to watch it (twice) and not notice that you’re watching the same story play out twice with different actors in essentially the same roles. Latter-day Godard is nebulous like that. This is an essay film with a light smattering of drama, including a good deal of unexplained off-screen violence. Characters and voiceover alike speak in dense epigrams — faces sometimes obscured, confrontations often shrugged off. Over a career spanning six decades, Godard has always been one of the most bumptious and gnomic filmmakers alive. The distinction between bracing cinematic invention and sophomoric noodling is in this case a porous one. In other words, this film is spectacularly easy to hate, from one obnoxious camera tilt to the next.
I am generally pro-Godard, partially because I can easily allow many of the words spoken in his films to pass me by. (This would be more difficult if I weren’t dependent on subtitles.) Thus I add yet another meaning to this film’s title, which in French (Adieu au Langage) already possesses two or three possible meanings. What may at first blush appear frustratingly random later reveals careful planning. The film is full of visual and verbal doubling — a common narrative technique when experienced in 2D, but in 3D a sly comment on the two cameras required to create the stereoscopic image. Likewise, the use of layered onscreen text hardly merits comment in the 2D version. Godard’s been doing stuff like that since the 1960s. But of course in 3D, the visual planes really pop. Much of the film will be evocative to anyone with a passing familiarity with Godard’s career. Scenes of a couple arguing in a bathroom hearken all the way back to his early period and Contempt. The riot of visual textures is a more recent phenomenon, beginning with his video experiments in the 70s and 80s. This film’s closing credits list the six different cameras used to create the visual collage. Not only is Goodbye to Language decidedly not a standard spectacle, it doesn’t even restrict itself to high-definition gloss. (There are some gorgeous high-def shots, though, like one showing the ribbed waves in a ship’s wake.) Regardless, it’s all stunning. One shot of Godard’s dog Roxy (the film’s true star, many would rightly say) watching a passing train is, to my eyes, a new kind of beautiful.
Now, what about the specifically stereoscopic moments in the film? The revolutionary technique mentioned above happens in two different scenes. As I said, the 3D effect is accomplished by pointing two cameras at the same scene (and by doing other technical stuff about which I know nothing). In each of the scenes in question, the cameras focus on two characters. One of them starts walking toward the right edge of the frame, and one of the cameras follows that character while the other stays focused on the other one. In this way, two images are layered on top of each other. In the 2D film, this registers as a simple superimposition of images, nothing spectacular. But with 3D, the viewer becomes aware that by closing one eye and then the other, it becomes possible to see both images by themselves. The responsibility to “edit” the footage, to decide which image is more important or interesting to look at, is given entirely to the viewer. No other 3D film (or at least not since the 1920s) has been so playful with the visual possibilities of the medium. Outside of those two scenes, I found the 3D to be interesting if not essential. With the added dimension, I always become more aware of the placement of people and objects in the frame. (Table lamps, for whatever reason, always seem to jump out at me.) Godard’s use of old movie clips stands out in this format, distinctly two-dimensional television screens placed in rooms with real depth to them. His cinematic shout-outs this time around go to such classics as Metropolis (1927), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Piranha 3D (2010).
At the time, Goodbye to Language was hailed as a new threshold in 3D film artistry, a bright spot for technology that was still seen to be, in the main, a flimsy marketing ploy for Hollywood. In a rapidly changing world, 3D movies were beginning to be seen as an intermediate step, a pallid forerunner to truly immersive virtual reality. There’s no reason to think otherwise now. Blockbusters still carry the option of putting on the funny glasses, but 3D really isn’t even part of the cultural conversation anymore. The innovations Godard and Aragno introduced have not been picked up. This is a real shame, because the 69-minute Goodbye to Language only scratches the surface of what might be done with the technology beyond cheap tricks. The definition of cinema itself continues to be variously expanded, diluted, monopolized and democratized. What it might be in twenty or thirty years is distressingly unknowable. But I’m grateful for that brief post-Avatar period when I learned to respect this particular “gimmick.” Goodbye to Language, at the very least, did something unique with it.