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.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Alphaville

A typically post-modernist approach from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, with a continual juxtaposition between content and presentation that works amidst a series of experiments established by the contrast between genre (references) and narrative (reflexivity), all used to create an intelligent rumination on the notions of love, individuality, physical expression and the concept of free-will. It is, perhaps more so than any other film of Godard's early "classical" period, representative of the filmmaker's distinctive approach to cinema; as various ideas that are lifted from a variety of different sources are placed against a setting and a subject-matter that is radical and highly atypical in both appearance and approach. This central contrast between the post-war crime thriller set against an exterior of B-movie science-fiction references is illustrated by the casting of Eddie Constantine and the appropriation of the character of "Lemmy Caution", the laconic super-spy of popular French genre serials, including the films La Môme vert de gris (Poison Ivy, 1952) and À toi de faire... mignonne (Your Turn, Darling, 1963), by which the drama and the tension within the narrative is created by a central juxtaposition between these two largely divergent, cinematic worlds.

By taking this character and this particular approach, Godard is able to balance the cinematic with the philosophical, underlining not just the film's central ideology, but the filmmaker's creative intent. It also allows Godard the room to examine the various socio-political concerns that had been developing in his work over the preceding years; with the characteristics of dystopian science-fiction and its obvious references to the themes of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1948) and Huxley's Brave New World (published in 1932) being used to draw attention to the absurdities of the state of the world, regardless of the past, present or future, where the general principals of liberty, equality and fraternity are seemingly threatened by a dominant culture of government manipulation, censorship and control. So, we have the world of Alphaville turned into a literal machine, unfeeling and unresponsive; where the future is a reflection of the past and the bible has been replaced by the dictionary. Into this world, Godard gives us the familiar presentation of the hero as reporter, bringing to mind the central character from his earliest political film La Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963), where the character must document the proceedings as he is simultaneously embroiled within them; creating a further self-reflexive rhetoric between the film, the viewer and the character himself.


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:

[Theme: the hero as reporter; the ghost in the machine]



[Theme: the death of expression]




The presentation of the character, when combined with Godard's approach to the narrative, allows for the bold and imaginative subversion of the various codes and conventions of the film noir genre - and, in particular, the kind of lurid, kiss-kiss bang-bang style of storytelling that the character of Lemmy Caution originated from - to create the perfect vehicle for the filmmaker to experiment with this combination of sound and image, character and convention. In keeping with this, the film becomes as much about the director's experiments with the medium as it is about the presentation of the plot; with the use of sound and music and the way in which these devises are juxtaposed against the images in order to suggest moments of drama, romance, tension and dread (though never as we would normally expect them). In this respect the film is constantly reminding us of the presence of the filmmaker; with the stamp of authorial control present in every aspect of the production, from the bold use of locations, keen eye for fashion and general approach to the manufacture of the images conspiring to demystify the more fantastical or escapist elements of the film, though never to the extent of Godard's subsequent, more analytical works.

Regardless of such creative or thematic experiments, the film works because the narrative is strong enough and enigmatic enough to draw us in; beguiling us with that unconventional view of the future and the presentation of the character himself - a pulp fiction hero for a science fiction age. The contrast works perfectly, with the tone and approach of Godard being perfectly suggested from the very first scene, with the introduction to Caution as a shadowy figure, steeped in the visual iconography of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, as he sits slouched in the driver's seat of his Ford Galaxie, with only the vaguest sense of his countenance illuminated by the flare of his cigarette. It's a classic film noir moment, illustrating Godard's knowledge of the codes and conventions of the sub-genre, perfectly contrasted by the science-fiction aspect of the story and the more personal ideas about freedom of expression, love and free-will. This notion is also expressed through the very careful characterisation of Anna Karina as the enigmatic Natasha Von Braun, who's cold, calculated (seemingly) all-knowing quality is contrasted perfectly by the earthiness and macho bravado of Caution; showing something of an obvious influence on the thematic subtext of director Ridley Scott's subsequent Philip K. Dick adaptation, Blade Runner (1982).


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:


Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, 1982:


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:


The vision of Alphaville is one of highly stylised retro-futurism; a world of concrete and steel, glass and cold neon, filmed on the streets of 60s Paris but abstracted perfectly by the influence of the cinéma-vérité approach to the editing and cinematography. Perhaps more than anything, Alphaville is an absolute marvel of abstract design concepts, from the architecture and the fashions, to Godard's fantastic use of composition, framing and physical choreography, all of which stands out within the science-fiction genre for going beyond the usual depiction of vast, glowing metropolises or monsters from outer space. Here, the threat to the human race comes from within; with our freedom compromised by an all-seeing government that conspires to replace our natural instinct for human empathy and emotion with a cold and unfeeling reliance on logic, order and efficiency. Like the concept of "liberty" in the subsequent Made in U.S.A. (1966), itself a fantasy abstraction of genre and convention, the deeper themes established by Godard can be seen as a sharp, satirical comment on the state of France under the still lingering shadow of the President of the French Republic Charles De Gaulle and his arguably dogmatic cultural administrations.


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


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:

[Presentation: windows within windows]



[One of Godard's favourite themes, the selling of sex; an example of the future art of "Alphaville"]




This idea can again be seen in the look and design of the film, which shows us a future that is in decline; grey and dirty, made up of low-rent apartment buildings and industrial locations contrasted by the opulent hotel in which our characters hide out. In this respect, the film is as influential to the science-fiction film as Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was to the western; suggesting the depiction of a world that - although a fantasy/recreation for the audience - is a living, breathing environment for its characters. It also ties into the maxim of the Alpha 60 computer; the idea that "no one will ever live in the past... or the future". Both concepts exist within the same circle, like life and death. I'd argue that it is as influential on the genre as Scott's aforementioned Blade Runner, the theatrical release of which stole the ending from Godard's film, as well as the central dynamics between our hero and heroine. For me, it is a much better film than Blade Runner - which is still an admittedly great work - with the more emotional aspects of the characters and the very recognisable ideas and themes woven throughout striking a chord with viewers in a way that they might not necessarily expect.




Of course, it is ironic somewhat that a film about androids and computers turns out to be Godard's most human film of this period; with the relationship between the characters played by Constantine and Karina expressing a very basic need for love and understanding, which is beautifully realised by Godard's cut and paste regard for dialog, which blends poetic and philosophical rumination alongside scientific equations, technological-jargon and the deliberately hard-boiled dialog of Constantine as the archetypical gumshoe Lemmy Caution; the image of Dick Tracy on Mars. So, we have a film that conveys an obvious emotional connection, and yet, remains one of the most purely deconstructive works of the director's career; filled with intelligent ideas quoted from everyone from Borges, Murnau, Bazin and Barthes, amusing word games and visual references to John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (Orphée, 1949) and his shorter work The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un Poete, 1930), Michelangelo Antonioni's celebrated La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) respectively.

Godard would return to the themes of Alphaville twice more, firstly in his segment of the collaborative project, Le Plus vieux métier du monde (The Oldest Profession in the World, 1967), called Anticipation, ou l'amour en l'an 2000 (Anticipation, or Love in the year 2000) - in which a business man of the future rejects a prostitute offering only physical gratification for one who talks but does not touch - and then later in the film Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Allemagne 90 neuf zero, 1991), in which we see a return from Lemmy Caution, this time in the reunited Germany, where East has finally met West. The themes of romance, communication and perception, as well as the central philosophy of the death of expression(ism) are each conveyed by Godard in a way that is immediately recognisable on both an emotional and an intellectual level, combined with that world in which the future is the present, by way of the past, and where "everything has been said, providing words don't change their meaning... or meanings their words". It should, above all else, be seen as one of the defining films of Godard's early career, showing the wit, intelligence, imagination and creative flare that carved out his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers of the post-war era.