Monday, September 14, 2009

Made in U.S.A (1966) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard

As a turning point in Jean Luc-Godard's career, Made in U.S.A is also one of the director's strangest endeavors, an overtly self-indulgent grab bag that chops up the American film noir by way of dry political musings and random allusions to movie lore and historical figures. It features Anna Karina playing a modish private eye named Paula Nelson investigating the story surrounding her recently dead ex-lover in an imaginary oasis of France called Atlantic-Cité, encountering hip political workers and ominous buffoons linked tangentially to crimes committed along the way. For a film that is so readily billed as a substantial, albeit unusual, narrative - Criterion even wittily calls it "a Looney Tunes rendition of The Big Sleep gone New Wave" - the film could hardly be less plotless, even by Godard's standards. One expects the narratives of Godard's late films to be nonexistent, but in 1966, Made in U.S.A was an explosive deconstruction of filmmaking conventions, while simultaneously being rooted in them in a giddy, almost childlike manner. What Godard is doing in the film is leaving behind any commercial perception of what makes a film interesting, and is instead using the medium as a launching pad for his own obsessions, preoccupations, and ideas, in no matter how frenzied a manner.

And yet, for all the times Made in U.S.A is labeled as one of the defining moments for a revolutionary, the film is hardly suitable for anyone but Godard. Shot in an improvisational manner in extreme brevity, no less during the shooting of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, one can't help but think it was merely a hiccup for him. With characters carelessly named Doris Mizoguchi, Richard Nixon, and David Goodis, a hapless slapstick cameo by New-Wave favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud, and pounds of obscure poetic tidbits spoken by Karina, the feeling that Godard was simply pulling arbitrarily from his catalog of cinematic, literary, and political knowledge is never inconspicuous. In some of the most technically harsh moments in Godard's career, he rants on and on over a small radio system about the political state of French, the consolidation of the Left and Right, and the necessary onslaught of Maoism, all while the soundtrack blares in a high frequency for god know's why. While this type of explicit directorial intrusion is no surprise in the New Wave master's oeuvre, here it drones on so incessantly and with such little inflection that it stands as one more irksome departure from the alleged story.

His leftover infatuation with Karina, a subtext already explored heavily in Vivre Sa Vie and Pierrot Le Fou, is also omnipresent. For the entirety of Made in U.S.A, the camera is less interested in the content of what she is doing than it is in how she's doing it, pausing all forward motion to watch her lie down and mutter cryptic lines about her lost lover, jaunt around a crime scene as if a hooker looking for a client, and stare longingly into the camera in pristine panoramas that look like fashion spreads for Alienation Weekly. She looks gorgeous throughout the film with her makeup perpetually laid on just right, and Godard is aware of this when he subjects her to such prolonged scrutiny. But there's also a hostility in her screen presence, as if Godard is creating a pointedly mysterious and unlikeable character to justify his own divorce. The character of Paula Nelson lines right up with the rest of the modern women from 60's arthouse cinema as a beautiful but cold and indifferent enigma that will ruin a man with the same level of seeming carelessness, even shooting characters in Made in U.S.A with the gun that is persistently slung by her side.

In terms of this violence, despite its frequency, Godard presents it as non-violently and unrealistically as possible. Karina seems to brush off murderous acts with the same nonchalance with which she commits them. Furthermore, victims of gun-shooting in the film display only the scantest and most laughable evidence of physical disintegration, with either a perfect circle of vibrant red dabbed on their forehead or a puddle of the same substance that looks like red leather. The dead victim usually remains locked in a pose that could still pass off as fashionable, with their skin and clothes remaining in tip-top shape. This is not to say that Godard can't tell real from fake if his life depended on it; rather, one can see it as hysterically cartoonish violence for a point. It is both flagrant mockery of the Hollywood predilection to only equate overt believability with substance, and further proof of Godard's ongoing inclination to question the nature of the image, to challenge the notion that "seeing is believing". At the same time, given the pop-art aesthetic of the film, Godard sees these stylistic touches as all part of the same form. To him, flashing a cartoon still of the word "BING!" when Karina is pulled from her path by an unidentified stranger is just as effective and valuable a film technique as adding the appropriate sound effect to the scene.

These instances, along with several magnificent compositions courtesy of Raoul Coutard's typically flashy cinematography (one of the finest being Karina wandering through a backroom between gargantuan film posters), give Made in U.S.A a tickle of interest. When it comes down to it though, the film only contains a smattering of ideas rather than a coherent picture. I'm still unsure of what is gained by setting the visual essay loosely around the genre of film noir or procedural crime drama, other than that it vaguely comments upon these frameworks in a purely reverential manner, something that is by no means new to Godard's work. Whereas Two or Three Things was held together firmly by its thematic base, Made in U.S.A dances around a jumble of slightly interconnected themes, so there is nothing to grab onto besides Karina's face and Coutard's colors. And when Godard sloppily adds another disjunctive sound effect that smacks ten decibels too high, I'm not struck by the denial of film form it embodies, but rather, I'm just annoyed.


Ed Howard said...

I don't dislike this film nearly as much as you, but I do agree that it's a fairly minor work in comparison to the other films Godard was making around this time in the late 60s, generally one of the most important and pivotal eras in his career. I think Made in USA is best appreciated as the missing other half of the film JLG made at the same time, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which is by contrast one of his very best films. Since Godard made these films at the same time, I think he was quite consciously splitting out two sides of his cinematic personality, funnelling his playful genre pastiche into Made in USA and his essayistic explorations into 2 or 3 Things. The former is the past, the latter the future. So in that sense I enjoy Made in USA as one last fond look back at Godard's roots in Hollywood genre films, which would be much less important to him for the next decade or so. It's one last goofy parody/deconstruction of film noirs, with the bright primary color palette of Godard's late 60s political work replacing the grainy b&w of the originals he's referencing. As you say, it's not an especially important film for Godard's career or an especially great one in comparison to his other 60s highlights, but it does have its minor pleasures.

Carson Lund said...

Ed, incidentally, I do agree with basically everything you say here. But while I do like the concept of it overall, especially its reworking of film noir inside a pop-art milieu, I think its execution is just scattershot and ultimately bland. I especially like your interpretation of the two films as a cinematic split of Godard's personality.

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