Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Made in U.S.A.

Often dismissed by even the most forgiving of Godard's critics, Made in U.S.A. (1966) is nonetheless a film worthy of reconsideration. Though some have argued that it lacks the overall finesse or sense of 'greater' purpose found in his more iconic films from this same period - such as Bande à part (1964) or Pierrot le fou (1965) - it remains, irrespective of this, a work that is alive with a creative spirit, energy and imagination characteristic of the filmmaker's output from this initial phase of his career. In keeping with the general tone of the period, the film presents a continual bombardment of bold primary colours, clever use of music, self-aware dialog and the persistently self-reflexive references to cinema, literature, politics and art, each being exploited to tell a story (in the vaguest possible sense of the word) about revenge, corruption and the pursuit of information.

Taking these thematic concerns into consideration, the film could be seen as an obvious companion-piece to Godard's earlier film, Alphaville (1965), in which the contrast between the post-war crime-thriller was set against an exterior of B-movie science-fiction references to create an intelligent meditation on the notions of love, individuality, physical expression and the concept of freewill. In keeping with this fundamental idea, the main theme of Made in U.S.A. becomes focused on the idea of personal liberty; how the basic freedoms were being compromised by the political situations in Algeria, Morocco, the US and Vietnam, as well as the increasing air of political unrest and confrontation that had been developing in Paris as a direct result of the regimes of the then-President of the French Republic, Charles De Gaulle (a situation that would eventually lead into Godard's more aggressive trilogy of films from 1967, as well as the significant events of May, 1968).

To illustrate the various concepts more clearly, Godard creates a plot that is, on one level, a detective story; a film in which the ever luminous Anna Karina features as the wife of a missing political activist (voiced by the director himself) attempting to get to the bottom of her husband's disappearance (and possible murder) in the midst of a government conspiracy.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

[Adieu la vie, adieu l'amour: a different kind of mystery]

With this basic narrative device in place, the filmmaker is free to create a platform to discuss the deeper implications of "liberty" and how the conventions of such have been seemingly threatened by the particularly volatile political climate. To convey this idea more concisely, Godard takes direct influence from both the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka - the "travelling salesman of the revolution" and a still revered figure in the Moroccan left-wing opposition - and the general fear of conspiracy and cover-up that had escalated in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963.

It's a testament to Godard's talent, intelligence and creative energy that even a film considered to be nothing more than a mere throwaway work by many critics is still layered with the same intensity of detail and information as many of his more widely acknowledged pictures; with the real power of the film coming not just from the political perspective and the obvious exchange of information and ideas between the filmmaker and his audience but from the actual filmmaking presentation; the extraordinary use of location and production design, the costumes and the cinematography, and the director's always clever use of quotes, wordplay and inter-textual self-reference.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

[Down the rabbit hole: If Alphaville functioned, on one level, as a sci-fi variation on Cocteau's Orphée (1949), then Made in U.S.A. presents a kind of film-noir take on the themes of Lewis Carroll]

To better appreciate the film we should first look at the social context and then apply it to Godard's own creative intentions, which, as ever, draw as much on the process of manufacturing expression (as sound is applied to image to create meanings and moments that draw attention to their own artificiality: "the film as a film") and the subtle mining of a more complicated emotional transposition that is created through the dynamics of the narrative and the prevailing character of Paula Nelson. Again, as with Alphaville, the moments of drama and tension developed within the story are created by the appropriation of this unconventional character being placed into a world that is seemingly beyond their own natural comprehension. Abstracted by Godard's myriad of references and clever creative experiments, Paula becomes a kind of 'Alice' like figure, plunged into an artificial wonderland of icons and characteristics, codes and connotations, clichés and conventions, etc.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

["Already fiction wins over reality, already there is blood and mystery! Already I feel like I'm in a Disney Movie; but one starring Humphrey Bogart" - Paula Nelson]

At one point, the film shows the creation of a literal cardboard landscape of styles and self-reference, made up of cine-literate stylisations and a sense of personal homage that is alluded to by Godard's opening dedication to the filmmakers Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray (illustrating that juxtaposition between form and content, idea and interpretation). It goes back to the implications of the title - "Made in U.S.A." - giving us a contrast between the USA of hard-boiled crime stories and detective fiction - the worlds of John Huston or Howard Hawks - and the USA of presidential assassinations, cover-ups and conspiracies, the war in Vietnam.

In keeping with this, Godard sets the film in a fictional 'Atlantic City'; a suburb of France, which, again like the city of Alphaville, seems to exist outside of the recognisable presentation of the past, present or future. Unlike the more obvious film-noir expectations of downtown squalor and the harsh, black and white decay that we might normally find in a film about detectives and backroom intimidation, the appearance of Godard's fictional metropolis is a world of full colour (of widescreen compositions in a mostly domesticated setting); where the characters are named after a combination of movie-stars, film directors and contemporary U.S. political figures in a further illustration of the film's central ideology.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

[A different kind of film violence: The fate of the enigmatic Richard P. (voiced by Godard himself) is revealed through a series of black and white movie stills. The presentation further illustrates Godard's post-modern deconstruction of this fictional world being explored by a character from the real world, and the idea of a world where fiction and reality (cinema and life) have become irrevocably linked]

As Paula herself points out in the film's "noir-like" narration, it is a world "where fiction wins over reality"; unfortunate for a central character who finds herself asking "why tell stories when all I want is the truth?" As the film progresses, the mechanics of the plot become secondary to the intentions of the character and the political message that Godard is attempting to convey; as the two strands eventually intertwine and we realise that Paula is more au fait with the current political situation than we immediately suspected.

It is to Karina's credit as an actress that she manages to create an emotional connection between this character and the audience that works in spite of Godard's continual attempts to disarm and provoke the viewer into avenues of discussion and interpretation; with her contrast between the cold avenger, armed with a gun and that duplicitous smile, and a woman mourning the loss of her husband; eyes wide and filled with sadness; her agony expressed by the quiet, a cappella rendition of the Jagger/Richards composition As Tears Go By, sung sweetly by a young Marianne Faithfull in a local bar, turning Paula into more than just a mere cinematic archetype, but a real, fully-functioning character (perhaps the only one in the film).

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

[The appearance of Marianne Faithfull may seem like a simple nod to the 60's scene, as Godard makes history by being the first filmmaker to use a Jagger/Richards song in a theatrical feature. However, I like to see it as an accidental prelude to his later film, the controversial One Plus One (1968); in which Godard documented the recording process of the Rolling Stones' iconic Sympathy for the Devil as a counter-point to his progressively more provocative political vignettes]

Made in U.S.A. is a notable feature in the director's career for this very reason, featuring perhaps the strongest female character of any of Godard's 60s set work; with Karina's "avenging angel" exacting revenge with her trusty Colt revolver hidden inside a copy of Larousse Gastronomique, and her variety of stripy, multi-coloured, tight-fitting dresses contrasting perfectly with the grey, formal significance of the raincoat; again reminding us of the grizzled appearance of Alphaville's laconic super-spy, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine).

This is a confident character, pushed to extremes and willing to go to any lengths in order to get to the bottom of this unfathomable mystery and the fate of her missing husband; a world away from the shy young girl of Bande à part only two years before, or indeed, the cold, deliberately robotic presentation of Natasha Von Braun in the preceding Alphaville. More so than any of the films that the couple had produced before, Paula Nelson is the closest that Godard and Karina ever came to a bona-fide femme-fatale; cool and calculated and always self-aware, but filled with an emotion and a conviction that is nonetheless believable.

Bande à part directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1964:

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

[Theme: Freedom under attack]

As the plot becomes more and more convoluted and obscured by the underlining socio-political aspect of the film's weighty ideological subtext, Godard continues to disrupt and deconstruct the natural flow of the film and the intentions of his characters in an effort designed to show up the artificiality of the world that these characters inhabit. The result is a world that is topsy-turvy; where the "girl is kicked by the counter" and the "floor is stubbed out on the cigarette", and where answers lead to questions and nothing is what it seems ("this is the evening of the day").

As ever with Godard, the film demands a great deal from its audience, with the continual onslaught of genre references and audio/visual information presented in the director's typical approach - in which the presentation attempts to stretch the recognisable boundaries of conventional cinematic storytelling in a way that is progressive as well as provocative - while simultaneously indulging in a number of playful thematic subversions that conspire to further break apart the recognisable codes and conventions of the genre at its most basic and crucial level.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

Made in U.S.A. is without question one of Godard's strangest and most idiosyncratic works; described by his own central character as "a real political film... like Walt Disney with blood". It is almost too eccentric, too peculiar and too free of convention to recommend to many viewers; especially those with a limited knowledge or appreciation of Godard's work. And yet at the same time I feel it is a film too clever, too beautiful and simply too much fun to merely dismiss as either a throwaway or failure.

The ending of the film, or more specifically, the final few minutes following the convoluted three-way conflict - where ally becomes adversary and friend becomes foe - might seem incredibly superficial; as Godard sidesteps the conventions of narrative and genre all together in order to engage in a last minute political discussion that makes explicit the themes and ideas previously discussed throughout. It seems like an obvious slap in the face for anyone who engaged with the drama and attempted to wade through the continual experiments and expressions in order to better understand the character and her plight. And yet, the final scene manages to add yet another layer of interpretation to the proceedings; adding commentary through the dialog of these two characters and introducing the themes that Godard would further explore for the next few years of his career.

Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:

Throughout the film, Paula reminds the audience that they're experiencing fiction. In this final scene, the character is able to break out of the narrative and into the real world; no need to tell stories when the truth is crystal clear. It also works in the allegorical sense, showing the evolution of Karina from Le Petit Soldat (1963) - where she was overwhelmed by the political situation; eventually becoming a victim to the conspiracies of the central character - to the film in question - where she takes full control of the situation; strong and defiant: ready to cast off the memory of her husband and hit the road into a turbulent and uncertain future.

Although the couple would work together once more, on the portmanteau film Le Plus vieux métier du monde (The Oldest Profession in the World, 1967), Made in U.S.A. represents the final film of Godard and Karina, and as such, represents the final stage of the director's "classical" period before the more challenging and adventurous films to come.