The Girl Can’t Help It
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Made in U.S.A.
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, Rialto Pictures, 1966
As evidenced by Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima and Steven Soderbergh’s separable diptych Che, paired feature films have recently become common occurrences. But, as usual, Jean-Luc Godard was there first, and long before. Produced at the same time as Two or Three Things I Know About Her (literally—Two or Three Things was shot in the mornings and its counterpart in the afternoons), Godard’s 1966 Made in U.S.A. serves as a sort of cinematic B-side to the far more canonical former film, a playful, yet ominous, inversion of its companion piece’s Lego block¬–colored realism—Godard even suggested, in the spirit of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, that the two films be projected together in alternated reels. Two or Three Things gets the good stuff, the philosophic, sociological, and semiotic highlights—haunting voice-over musings on being and nothingness, investigations into economic and spiritual prostitution, Bouvard and Pécuchet-style/Dadaist book excerpt mishmashes—while Made in U.S.A. takes up generic experimentation and allusion, the kind of through-the-looking-glass venture into the subversive possibilities of Hollywood B-movies that Godard, on the cusp of his political allegiance to Marxist anti-commercial filmmaking, was just beginning to lose interest in. Needless to say, it’s a qualitative imbalance to the often-confused Made in U.S.A.’s considerable disadvantage.
Gravitating toward Two or Three Things has long been the common-sense bet for the critic, an act of favoritism helped by Godard himself, who wrote in May 1967, just after the release of that film a few months following Made in U.S.A., “Two or Three Things I Know About Her is much more ambitious (than Made in U.S.A.), both on the documentary level, since it is about the replanning of the Parisian area, and on the level of pure research, since it is a film in which I am continually asking myself what I’m doing.” Created in haste as a favor to strapped producer friend Georges de Beauregard (who knew best Godard’s ability to work fast and cheap) and as a way of giving former spouse Anna Karina desperately needed work, Made in U.S.A. would seem to be an afterthought. And indeed, among Godard’s exponentially groundbreaking Sixties work it’s one of his weakest efforts, with little thematic unity or formal innovation to have it stand out in the most fecund period of his career. Like Dylan, who from ’65 to ’67 produced three masterpiece records (including double-album Blonde on Blonde), Godard was during the same time on his own incredible run, ending one phase of his work with personal apocalypse Pierrot le fou and then turning out Masculin féminin, Two or Three Things, La Chinoise, and Weekend, the last an apocalypse on every conceivable scale. Made in U.S.A. gets lost in that brilliant shuffle, but like another prolific Sixties musical artist—albeit group of artists—the Beatles, even his B-sides were going places few others could imagine. Godard may be repeating and spreading himself thin in Made in U.S.A., but in it there are still worlds to explore and experience, especially beyond its own confines.
“Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like Breathless very much, but now I see where it belongs—along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface.” So stated Godard in an interview just before the production of Les Carabiniers, a demented antiwar fairy tale on the same continuum as Lewis Carroll¬—just like Breathless and, eventually, Made in U.S.A. Fantasy has been one of the most neglected elements of Godard’s work, more frequently associated as it is with extremes of formal stylization (jump cuts, long takes, pop art decor) or else abrasive Brechtianism (direct address, foregrounded artifice, quotation). Made in U.S.A. takes place in some bizarre hybrid Franco-American imaginary world where a Parisian suburb is called Atlantic City, Anna Karina’s trenchcoated P.I. and/or journalist Paula Nelson recalls a long tradition of Hollywood gumshoes, and various characters are named David Goodis, Donald Siegel, Paul Widmark, Richard Nixon, and Robert McNamara. Based on a crime novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), Made in U.S.A. incorporates events of the contemporaneous Ben Barka affair, in which a Marxist leader of the Moroccan left was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the French secret police and Moroccan authorities, and thus, in its mixture of cartoonish impossibility and up-to-the-minute real life intrigue, realizes Nelson’s observation that she is taking part in “a film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart—and therefore a political film.”
The fact that the film’s plot is barely comprehensible, due to a cubistic fragmentation of story and shot structure, makes it no less political, and fantastical absurdity—Looney Tunes sound effects, non sequitur locales, and a gallery of grotesques (an image out of Franju appears in the form of a skull with eyeballs)—allows Godard to do anything he wants. At a bar Nelson drops into while pondering the disappearance of lover Richard P---- (the last name is never heard, always drowned out by screaming overhead jets or ringing telephones), a working class patron offers examples of syntactic sense and semantic nonsense: “The glass is not in my wine. The barman is in the pocket of the pencil’s jacket. The counter is kicking Mademoiselle . . .” etc. Even spoken language must start again at zero, and though it fails to achieve the grandeur of Two or Three’s ontological intrusions into the quotidian compromises of modern life, Made in U.S.A. itself returns to zero to rework the American noir’s interrogatory narrative as a Mondrian-like jigsaw, an attempt at cinema for which Godard puzzles out a new filmic language, struggling with every image and every object contained therein as an aesthetically and politically justifiable creation. The movie we see is a compendium of everything Godard had discovered up to then, distilled down to its essence: the detritus of (Made in America) modernity—garage tools, giant movie posters, and advertisements—arranged in primary colored still-life tableaux; 360-degree pans surveying/flattening auto body shops; text-as-image agitprop ironies (“Liberté” graffiti riddled with bullet holes; an all-caps comic strip BING! filling the frame); mismatched cuts, associative montage sequences, doubled back dialogue and shots.
One element holds the chaos together. Made in U.S.A. was the last film (aside from the 1967 short Anticipation, or Love in the Year 2000) Godard would make starring his recent ex-wife and muse, Anna Karina, and in this respect one can detect personal, elegiac notes underneath the film’s confrontational, free-style experiments, as well as a mournful awareness of the end of one of the great director-actor partnerships in film history. There is, of course, the moment baffled U.S.A. viewers most readily latch on to for sure footing: Marianne Faithfull’s gorgeous a cappella pub rendition of the Rolling Stones’ plaintive “As Tears Go By,” an autumnal ballad lamenting lost innocence that evokes memories of Godard’s not yet entirely disillusioned early efforts—A Woman Is a Woman, Band of Outsiders—that starred his spouse. (As an aside, I’ve always found Faithfull and the Stones’ late-60s collaborations with both Godard and Kenneth Anger—two filmmakers with virtually nothing in common—strange and ironic. As a young critic Godard once called Anger’s films “of unbelievable mediocrity.”)
But there’s also Godard’s obsession with Karina (and, therefore, Woman) as a work of art, especially her beautiful, almost painfully perfect countenance. This fascination is felt strongly, for example, in Pierrot le fou when the director compares Karina to a Renoir portrait, but it goes all the way back to Karina’s first Godard appearance in Le petit soldat, his Breathless follow-up and rarely discussed, banned political thriller. In that 1960 film, Michel Subor can’t stop photographing Karina’s lovely, exotic ingénue as she childishly hops up and down on a bed to a buoyant Mozart recording. Subor acts as an almost embarrassingly explicit surrogate for Godard, who cannot help but best pay reverence to this woman and the mysterious desires she provokes via his one true love, the camera. The discovery of love is the discovery of the image, but by Made in U.S.A. Karina is elusive, a paradox given her stunning appearance by way of extraordinarily intimate close ups (and not supermod dresses). To hone in on a subject just out of reach, whether as performer or partner, seems to invite Godard’s self-scrutiny, and so he fittingly he gives Karina some of his best inward-looking dialogue: “Either this life is nothing or else it must be everything. By contemplating the possibility of losing it rather than submitting it to action, I place in the very center of my relative existence a point of absolute reference: morality.” It’s a clear, reflective, and fervent declaration in bold contrast to Godard’s still wishy-washy political commitment, which finds expression in the brutally distorted and muddled recorded speeches of Richard P---- (Godard’s own voice) as well as the film’s unresolved ending, where both left and right are taken to task for their individual failings and for collaborating in an antiquated ideological “equation.”
Throughout Made in U.S.A. Godard seems to be hiding something, because he might just be lost. Characters speak simultaneously, shots refuse to cohere into an understandable narrative, soundtrack music abruptly intrudes and then dies away without warning. Always confrontational, elliptical, dialectical, Godard had rarely before been evasive (the subtitle of Masculin féminin is “15 Precise Facts”), but that is what one comes away sensing from Made in U.S.A., that despite its inquiries into form, it’s the work of a director who could at the moment make a political film, but not a political statement. Far more comfortable with his own personal mythology (Pierrot le fou), the Sixties generation (Masculin féminin), or, contemporaneously, the political-as-personal (Two or Three Things), Godard was still not quite ready to throw his hat into the arena and choose sides. When he soon did his films would become even more radically anti-entertainment—indeed, dogmatically so—but at the time of Made in U.S.A. there was only the “absolute reference” of artistic morality to steer him through the greatest sea change of his life, and the life of his ideas. And Karina, heartbreakingly (“It is the evening of the day”), was still there to keep vigilance.