MADE IN THE U.S.A

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In grad school at Columbia, we were able to study a private print of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. Never theatrically released in America, its scarcity made it special, so I watched it repeatedly. It was one of the experiences that made me unafraid of movie art; drawn-in by Godard’s dense narrative and thrilled by its Cinemascope colors. The story of Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) searching a town called Atlantic City for her lost lover and uncovering a political conspiracy uncannily resembled the fun and adventure of film watching.
Now that Made in U.S.A. is finally receiving its American premiere at Film Forum, Godard’s dedication “To Sam Fuller and Nick Ray who raised me to love sound and image” has even greater resonance. Godard’s vital art chastens this strange period when cinema has been divided into empty commercialism and elite esoterica. The 1966 Made in U.S.A. was already—boldly—commenting on the spiritual chasm between citizens and the way popular culture had unwittingly divided our pleasure from our needs. During Paula’s investigation, she says, “I feel caught up in a Walt Disney movie but with Humphrey Bogart, so it’s a political movie.”
Post-Tarantino, that sounds cute; but it is Godard wittily apprehending the moral significance we inevitably apply to pop art. That’s why he satirizes the film-noir genre by flipping its conventions with a female heroine whose ardent pursuit uncovers political subterfuge. Paula’s adventures in a contrived America simulate Alice-in-Wonderland bafflement that simultaneously critiques genre and modern Western ideology.
What’s made in the U.S.A. (although the film is based on The Jugger, a novel by Donald Westlake whose rights issues kept the film from U.S. distribution) is a generalized escapist neurosis, imported to the rest of the world, disguising political paranoia and social distrust. Paula’s sexy, funny, terrifying encounters with assassins and agents, Widmark (Lázsló Szabó) and Donald (Jean-Pierre Leaud) parody movie escapism. It was timely response to the romantic inanity of the 1963 Audrey Hepburn–Cary Grant hit Charade—only Godard’s charade pantomimed existential suspense. Paula’s political suspicion and gradual enlightenment proves “the personal is political” (a 1970s adage Godard ingeniously anticipated).

László Szabó (left), Claude Bouillon and Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A.

László Szabó (left), Claude Bouillon and Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A.

Amidst self-conscious film references, Paula suspects “fiction overtakes reality” as when she walks through a cinema and is dwarfed by huge, Rosenquist-like movie posters, or enters a blooming garden and muses, “It’s the kind of day to take out a camera and make a color movie”—evoking a scene from Mailer’s An American Dream and prefiguring Godard’s nature etudes in Nouvelle Vague (1990). The imagery, editing and sound design keep one aesthetically alert as in Antonioni’s revolutionary Red Desert, only Godard situates Paula’s crisis in the political world of 1960s assassinations from Ben Barka to JFK—using cartoon-panels depicting violence as visual onomatopoeia—pondering its spiritual effect.
During Paula’s café discussion on language, the young pop star Marianne Faithfull appears reciting her mid-1960s hit “As Tears Go By.” After 42 years, this sound/image of fragile innocence evokes the epoch’s poignant, soon-to-be-lost yearning. It’s astounding that Godard places it in a montage that corresponds to Altman’s “I’m Easy” montage in Nashville.
Made in U.S.A. is a tonic experience; its style is both vibrant and severe like Godard’s 1985 Detective. But it’s also Godard’s most soulful movie. Karina’s declaration “Whatever I do, I cannot shirk my responsibility to others. I place at the center of my existence, a benchmark: ethics” summarizes beliefs that contemporary film artists from Fincher to Van Sant to P.T. Anderson have lost. Paula’s political disclosures are not merely accusatory; her compassion would shock today’s liberals: “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.” As a grad student that moved me greatly, but I didn’t know then that Godard was a prophet.

Made in the U.S.A.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, At Film Forum Jan. 9-22
Running Time: 86 min.

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