Adapting Life Into Pop Art : Godard’s Made In U.S.A.

made in usa_posterIf there were one film director most analogous to Bob Dylan it would probably be Jean-Luc Godard. Both released an astounding amount of brilliant, medium changing content representative of sixties culture (Godard 18 films, Dylan 9 albums) only to completely shift gears in the 1970s. While Dylan zoned in on the personal and started to sing about family life and how great it was to catch rainbow trout, Godard began branching out into the cold world of politics.

Although Godard had explored politics in earlier films such as Les Carabiniers and Le Petit Soldat much of his mid 60s work also focused on the personal; what is Contempt if not a story of failed love? It was Made In U.S.A. that merged the personal intimacy of Godard’s earlier films such as Breathless with the political urgency (and even propaganda) that would encompass his 70s films.

Released in 1966 in France, failing to get a full release in America due to copyright issues (the film is very loosely based on a novel, The Jugger by Richard Stark), Made In U.S.A. has all the features of a typical Godard film: discontinuous editing, asynchronous sound, beautiful women, and leftist politics.

Godard’s so called “muse”, Anna Karina, appears in what would be her last feature with him as Paula Nelson, a tough investigator trying to discover something about her husband’s death. What that something is, even Paula does not really know. Every time the husband’s name is mentioned some loud sound obscures it, all the audience learns is that his name is Richard P. The narrative is really just a framework for Godard to interrogate problems of language (there is wonderful scene at a bar which reads like an essay by Sassure), American and French imperialism and of course, the artifice of film.

Paula roams around “Atlantic City” (which is actually made up of a series of pop-art set designs) telling the audience, that she feels as though she is in “a Walt Disney movie with blood.” All the while characters walk in and out of the movie, some are killed, some kill; all are unique.  The film’s character names consist of a super group of politicians, cultural figures and filmic heroes including Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Don Siegel. This all plays into Godard’s condemnation of France which as Paula comments always seem to be about “blood, fear, politics, money.”

The cast of actors however does include New Wave favorites Jean-Pierre Léaud and László Szabó. Léaud randomly appears almost to call attention to the fact that this is a New Wave film. In that respect as some have argued, Léaud’s character stands in for Godard, merely following Karina around for about half the movie.

Paula, and thus Karina really become the focal point of Made In U.S.A. Framed almost perfectly by Godard regular, Raoul Coutard, and the camera stares longingly, as though it was in love with Karina. There are countless shots that linger on her face, putting Karina’s beauty on display. Close-ups become more exaggerated as often the backgrounds are plain. Draped in multicolor dresses, Karina stands out amongst the grey suited cops and robbers that inhabit “Atlantic City.” Being that Karina and Godard were in the middle of a divorce when filming, László Szabó’s description of the movie as “a love letter” seems more than apt. The male gaze is in full effect.

The film’s title thus seems to serve both a critical and humorous purpose. On a strictly plot based level Made In U.S.A. harkens back to film noir classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. It is as hectic as those movies, but just like classic noirs, Made In U.S.A. is never dull. Even when seemingly nothing is going on, Godard is able to capture the beauty of monotony, while at the same time criticizing it.

The femme fatale has been merged with the main protagonist and thus resulted in Paula. The film itself is dedicated to Nick Ray and Sam Fuller, two American auteurs that Godard admired quite a bit. Other than these similarities, Made In U.S.A. is distinctly French, and even more so, distinctly Godardian.

This may all seem entirely chaotic, and the film is to a degree; the script is constantly referencing political documents, films, and cultural touchstones. But as with many of Godard’s other features, the loose plot does not prohibit emotional attachment. Made In U.S.A. is perhaps the last film of the 60s that Godard still cares to follow a single person and not worry strictly about the politics (this is what makes some of his later movies so cold). In that sense we should relish the fact that finally, Made In U.S.A. has received release in America. It may not be among Godard’s best, but Made In U.S.A. still has something to say both about a broader political climate of absolutism, and the personal struggle for truth, both of which still have relevance today. That alone is a rare, and extraordinary feat.

Special Features:

As can be expected from a Criterion release, Made In U.S.A. comes with an interesting set of special features and a beautiful video transfer. Coutard’s cinematography really stands out and the colors contrast beautifully. The essay included by J. Hoberman details Made in U.S.A. as a seminal Godard film that paved the way for the agitprop that would follow. Included on the DVD is interesting documentary about the concurrent productions of Made in U.S.A. and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Running about 25 minutes and featuring Godard biographers Richard Brody and Colin MacCabe, it discusses many of the films political references. Also included are interviews Szabó with Karina. Both verge on hagiography as Karina recounts Godard’s genius, and Szabó explains why Made in U.S.A. is so great. Perhaps the most interesting special feature however is a 20-minute piece tracing the origins of the references in Made in U.S.A. Godard was clearly in tune with the world of pop culture, as well as current events and its interesting to see how they merge together in Made in U.S.A. Trailers are included as well.

-Nicholas Forster

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, based on the story “The Jugger” by Donald Westlake; director of photography, Raoul Coutard; edited by Francois Collin and Agnes Guillemot; produced by Georges de Beauregard,; released by: Rialto Pictures; DVD released by Criterion Collection. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes

WITH: Anna Karina (Paula Nelson), Jean-Pierre Léaud(Donald Siegel), László Szabó(Richard Widmark), Marianne Faithfull (Marianne Faithfull), and Yves Afonso (David Goodis)

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