Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MADE IN USA: Someone left a Maoist in the Rain

"We were in a political movie, which means Walt Disney with blood."

It's exciting times for Godard lovers as two of his 1966 films: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in the USA make their way to the few remaining stores next week. Set in "Year Zero" at some Alphaville-esque locale called "Atlantic City," (apparently Suburban France), Made in USA is a great little road marker connecting the dots of Godard's earlier and later pop cinematic narrative deconstructions like Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and First Name: Carmen (1983), the stuff before and after his anti-entertainment unionist phase, providing surrealist wordplay, collage, satire, intellectual critique of the right/left dichotomy, a eulogy for countercultural idealism almost before it starts (May '68 was still a couple years off), and a last waltz for his crumbling marriage to the leading lady, the heavenly Anna Karina (she looks weary, as if she's been screaming at him between takes).

If you've ever basked in the primary pop glow of Pierrot Le Fou and wished Godard had made a whole slew of movies in widescreen color with Karina, guns and anti-American sloganeering, then Made in USA is your film. It delivers the goods while showing you just how much less good such goods are a second time. Made just one year after Fou, it seems as if it's the end of a twenty year run of sequels. Karina's femme fatale is still beautiful but less fresh, less gaminesque. There's no trickster male of Jean Paul Belmondo's manly charisma to balance her star wattage and sex appeal (Jean Pierre-Leaud tries hard to be manic, and maybe that's the problem) and so she has only the mirror to work with. In this noirscape of bright primary colors Paula Nelson (Karina) is all alone with a sea of bit players, trying to find the one guy she liked from earlier films, a raving commie intellectual believed dead, named Richard P. Though hard to find, we get to hear him ranting away in the form of shrill tape recordings (of Godard reading Maoist obtuse ideology with the terseness of Milenay and pomp of Renfraux).

Paula is a possible spy for either side of the left/right divide but her true motives for wanting to find Richard P. remain unclear; we assume he's an on-again/off-again boyfriend and/or symbol for Godard's own lost idealism, a Maoist Rosebud. As she hunts this invisible, presumed murdered Communist through Raoul Coutard's impressionistic landscape (at one point Karina name checks Monet while standing in the foreground of a backyard full of beautiful trees out of focus behind her -- was Impressionism a symptom of weak eyesight?) we get the notion that this is just one of those films that masters make when they're off their A game, like Dial M for Murder or Testament of Orpheus.

I don't mean to disrespect it, because many a master's B game is still fascinating and worship-worthy, maybe even more so than their A game (I like Made in USA much more than the dreary industrial landscaping of 2 or 3 Things, which most critics consider superior and I'm sure they're right) so long as they include deconstructions of B-movies and B-games into the films themselves, as in riding right along with audience expectations and observations, tweaking or thwarting them at every turn (without turning them off) and yet delivering what is promised in such a way that our own desire for it is called into question. Ideally, this anti-art leaves with a pretty face to gaze at when nothing else happens, rather than the grimly pocked reptilian mug of Lemmy Caution.

What Godard is chronicling here, then, perhaps, maybe, (probably not), is the evolution of noir convention from The Big Sleep to Easy Rider. The exact second you realize that the hot blond waif sitting in the background at the bar looks a bit like a really young Marianne Faithful (above), she suddenly starts singing "As Tears Go By" - not lip syncing, but singing right there, a capella, trilling her voice gently and feeling every word of the song, expressing some longing we have no idea about but the mood of wistful sadness overwhelms the film in a mod love tsunami, before it's even begun, only to resume its dry sand babbling even before she finishes the song. Compared to this bit of subdued emotionalism from a rising starlet of British rock royalty, the ensuing G. Marxist wordplay between Leaud and the bartender suddenly seems tired, yesterday's papers. There's a new sincerity in town and it's cool to have feelings, or at any rate it's cool if you're Marianne Faithfull, the type of girl men fought dragons for, as Alan Delon once said. 

Karina, on the other hand, is trying on the outfit of a bitchy too-cool-for-pop modernism diva (the host instead of the contestant on Europe's Next Top Alienated Model), trying but not buying (or not buying, just standing there...) She's not about to pick up a flower and take off her shoes just because the other kids are doing it. So instead she just freezes from the knees down and looks at the floral arrangements like a penniless, starving lotus eater.

No wonder in the next scene Karina visits a health spa beauty parlor, where-- fittingly--any possibility for tranquility amidst the clients is destroyed by shrill announcements blaring over a crackly PA system. When Karina tells the resident doctor Ludwig during her interrogation to stop "dicking around," you feel through her weary rage that she's indirectly talking to Godard, wishing he'd just write a script and stick to it so she could go home on time and put her feet up. She must have been full sick of his 'dicking around' by then, of waiting around on a hot set for his little direction notes, film after film. It shows. Only when she gets to be mean does she light up with the synthesis of truth and illusion.

And yet, thanks at least in some small part to her and her (soon-divorced) husband, the counterculture was beginning to catch fire in 1966. She has the burns and battle scars from getting the blaze going, part of the first wave. Faithfull by contrast looks like she was recently conjured out of a magic cloud of smoke, or pulled out of a junior high school gym class before she bruised her complexion in dodgeball. Godard and Karina were already burning out on decadence and freedom. Even if that's not true, it shows. This isn't complaint, just observation, since Godard naturally ties in this weariness to the film itself, the way for example, Tippi Hedren's bitchiness about working with an obsessive like Hitchcock may have led to the audience-alienating (but great!) outbursts of castrating rage in MARNIE.

What saves MADE from being just a misfire, in the end, is the way Godard accommodates his ingenue's hostility by linking it to the shocking effect of watching people get casually and suddenly shot--or seduced--without all the usual booming orchestral music of Hollywood that gives each romance or death such magnified resonance in Hollywood movies. MADE teaches us that in real life people don't have to brandish their gun and make speeches before firing- it can be so random and sudden that you never know what hit you until you wonder why you're suddenly feeling warm liquid run down your pants when it's not raining. During a philosophical discussion with a suspect, for example, she asks, "Would you prefer a long slow old age death or a short exciting death in the moment?" and when he answers the latter, she shoots him on the spot. No fanfare, no warning. Crack!

In addition to the violence, there's some welcome cultural intolerance: When Paula meets a guy who does an impersonation of a typical American--a lobotomized hick Jerry Lewis--Karina ups the ante by making slanty eyes to indicate it's "all Chinese to her." In addition to that kind of thing, the usual disruptions appear: random silences, the roar of passing planes or honking cars, and many stabs of Ludwig Van's 5th, making full grasp of the plot impossible, though oblique interview sequences help, as do peculiar conversations overhead in front of comic book splashes, movie stills, streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht, and of course a pinball machine, though every bell and ping seems to hurt Karina's hangover. Ugh. Mine too.

More than most of the films that would follow in Godard's cannon, MADE actually struggles to maintain just enough plot to flirt with your attention span, luring you close enough to the amniotic wall between alienation and narrative immersion that you feel like your whole movie-going life is flashing before your eyes, as in the slim gap between watching a film and the act of reading its back cover synopsis aloud to your friend at the video store while deciding what to rent. Godard's idea of a mystery film is to have a character read Dashiell Hammett aloud in front of a gas station. Luckily, for MADE, though the characters do read aloud a bit, they at least still shoot each other. Bang! Bang!

The shooting is key, since it fits the anti-American ruthless amorality on display (i.e. our production code wherein femme fatales must never go unpunished). Paula is a lethal combination of unpunished femme fatale and Chandleresque gumshoe. Her blase attitude towards being arrested and/or murdering people in cold blood is charming and alienating at the same time. Dario Argento could have diced her into three separate characters, but Godard is too political to divide a fractured psyche for the purpose of mere suspense; even the climactic showdowns are filtered through rhetoric and suffused with ennui, as when Paula--almost apologetic for the film's inertness--remarks:
We live in a part of the universe that's already old, nothing much happens, while elsewhere new galaxies are exploding into action.
A fatal mistake of many lesser filmmakers is the idea that mid-career crises make good cinema. You just tie a film up with past tricks and successful ideas like a greatest hits collection, knowing deep deep down it wont work on either front, unless you keep the energy high (as in Scorsese's Casino, which moves too fast and vicious to let you realize it's got nothing whatever insightful to say). Godard is too frenetic and hip to let the acres of sadness between Karina and himself sink the movie's energy level, so he focuses his rage on Madison Avenue, which has dared to co-opt Brechtian "full disclosure" (recuperation!) and metatextual self-mockery. Godard wants Brechtian cut-up techniques to be sole domain of the French Communist Party, but Madison Avenue wants to use Godard's methods so they can appear to enjoy his intellectual loathing. For example, if Godard says "Down with Kelloggs!" then Kelloggs' says "Godard says get 'down with Kelloggs!'" to which Godard can only get redder in face and party, trying to end the game by saying "Death to those within advertising that tries to co-opt the tactics of Debord and detournement, to infinity squared!"

To a Brechtian post-modernist who loves quotations as much as Godard does, this is the ultimate defeat: you can't critique a power system that incorporates its own critique--Todd McGowan wrote about this in his Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment:
The insight into the functioning of power... has the effect of cementing power's hold over us rather than relaxing it. It does this by cutting off all lines of critique prior to their articulation. (54)
In the end, none of it matters, because we have Anna Karina. Young and gorgeous (though tired around the eyes), she's preserved for all time in vibrant, colorful dresses against the same color scheme of Pierrot Le Fou, which is probably the movie to see first if you're new to the game.

After Made in the USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (shot at the same time, with Godard originally wanting to show them in alternating reels), Godard would begin his descent into nihilistic ranting (Weekend) and trust fund Marxist pedagogy (La Chinoise, Tout Va Bien). Still witty, but sullen and sanctimonious as well, enraged that his rage hasn't made a discernible difference, his became for awhile a fate that I've watched subsume many a Cultural Studies professor. When you get mad at contemporary culture for ignoring your past years of expressed madness, you are as the control freak gardener might get mad at a reticent flower. All the yelling in the world will not budge an inch, only love, compromise, compost, water, and sun will make the difference. And most of all,  stop caring. A good teacher knows when to dial themselves back. If you get mad it mean the system has won. Go to the mountaintop and meditate. The flower blooms then.

Luckily, old Godard got his Baudrillard-esque groove back as a mid-life crisis 80s reward for doing more or less just that. Fiinding a vein of poetry deep under absurdity's skin and he's been popping it ever since. And even now, 40 years later, Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull are paragons of cool, still appearing regularly on TV and in movies, acting and singing with their beautifully smoke-ravaged voices and faces. In an era when our own president is harassed by the media for occasionally having a cigarette, these two ladies are reminders that you can all just take a fucking walk / and I guess that I just don't know / and I guess that you've come a long way... baby. Virginia Slims - made in just where you think.


  1. I always feel so guilty watching movies like Made in U.S.A. because I get so much enjoyment out of its bourgeois pleasures: Anna Karina nattily attired in trench coat, the glowing primary colors, the giant movie poster images, the goofiness of the men, especially Laszlo Szabo. The beauty ends up alienating me from the the thing Godard wants to alienate me towards.

    Love the ending. It's like Karina hitches a ride out of Godardville. Just in time. Heaven help her if she'd ended up in Weekend.

  2. Amen, Brian. And there's nothing bourgeois about that.


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