(1966) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 04/04/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
I don’t know why it’s taken so many years, but I’ve finally become smitten by the French New Wave. Mostly, actually, via the films of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his earlier works, starting with Band of Outsiders (1964) and most recently with Pierrot le fou (1965). And while I’ve actually seen about half of the films he produced in the 1960’s. Mostly, I am catching up on DVD, but when opportunity arises, I like to see these films theatrically.
So, when Made in U.S.A. was being shown at the Castro Theatre, I thought to myself “I am so there!” And I was. But oddly enough, Made in U.S.A. actually harkened more of one of the first of Godard’s films that I’d seen, his 1967 film Weekend, which I saw in film school and then again on some other trope, probably film school again, and I really didn’t care for it. It’s a more politicized film, less romantic, full of chaos and random “noise”, a dissonant film that was not meant for “pleasure”. And really, in Made in U.S.A., you have a similar sensibility at work, not yet as fully as we see in Weekend, but one that is moving in that direction.
I think that this is what set me away from Godard initially. I think that I assumed that all his films had a politicized, unromanticized, anti-cinema aesthetic that went with them, one in which visual pleasure or cinematic enjoyment were incisively challenged. And it’s not that there are not aspects of his working against many of narrative cinema’s mechanisms in all of his films, but in some, especially Band of Outsiders, you see joy and love amidst the critique, and there is visual pleasure, comedy and fun as well. It’s this sort of character of his films that has drawn me towards his work more of late.
Made in U.S.A. is really a half-way point between these two sensibilities. This showing of the film in the United States is essentially the film’s first release here. Godard borrowed a narrative from a Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake) crime novel and reanimated it with uber-irony and comic play, a lens through which his critiques and ideas are formed here. Apparently, due to having never paid Westlake for the rights, the film was never allowed into the United States, perhaps furthering the irony of the title and possibly part of the film’s critiques. It’s also the final feature film of his that starred his beautiful then-wife Anna Karina, with whom he was going through a divorce at the time of the film’s production.
Shot in vivid color, the film does in fact “play” a lot. At one point, there is a comment that the film is like a crime film directed by Walt Disney or something. It’s saying quite literally what it’s playing with, Americana and the detective genre, but strange, cartoony perhaps. Karina is usually wearing bright colors and is often off-set by bright background colors, often primary colors, of painted building facades, or signage. Advertising imagery, pinball machine decorations, pop art, all played out against a paint-by-colors detective story, yet still one where information needs to be uncovered. There stands the simple genre structure, deconstructed, yet utilized. Of course, the mystery is much less about what happened to Anna Karina’s lover Richard (as the narrative tries to unfold), but the mystery is much more about what the heck is going on in the film?
Godard drops cultural references all over the place from characters named David Goodis and Otto Preminger to Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara. There are stabs are broader humor, which are (intentionally) flat. And ultimately there is a politicized dialogue/monologues about “the left” and “the right”, the Communist Party, and a was in Algeria.
The mixture is also interspersed with acutal noise. Richard’s last name is always bleated out by airplane noise, car horns, or machine gun noise. Airplane noise is a constant as well, and the taped recording of a voice is highly dissonant as well. When contemplating the film’s qualities, the question arises about the amount of intended pleasure versus the amount of intended displeasure. And the other question is about how much of the film’s actual “meaning” is meant to be understood. Or is the film mainly playing to open dialogue, inspire questions, or just make one constantly aware that they are watching a film that is nothing like a relaxing movie-going ride that one might be more used to.
Like Weekend, I think the film has much intentional dissonance, visually, audiably, and even intellectually. From some early moments, it feels like it still wants to have fun. Perhaps they were having fun in making it. But the experience on the outside is one of not so easy answers, not so easy responses, and certainly no belly laughs. Do I “get” this film? I don’t know. Did I enjoy it? Not so much. Does that mean I think it was not good? Not necessarily. Would I recommend it to anyone? Serious filmgoers only. Not the casual approach to the French New Wave. Perhaps this is a place in which the French New Wave starts waving goodbye, moving into the politicized late 1960’s, influenced by the Vietnam War, and the social revolutions and changes taking place. It’s no longer the suave and hip late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the honeymoon (and the marriage) is over. The social criticism is ripe, and cinema is no longer as beautified and idolated. It’s time to get radical.