Friday, June 14, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Made in U.S.A. (1966)

Made in USA (1966)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard based on the novel  by Donald E. Westlake.
Starring: Anna Karina (Paula Nelson), László Szabó (Richard Widmark), Jean-Pierre Léaud (Donald Siegel), Marianne Faithfull (Marianne Faithfull), Yves Afonso (David Goodis).

So once again, I must tackle the difficult, thorny issue of Jean-Luc Godard. Few directors can claim to have had a bigger impact on cinema history than Godard has had – even if he had never directed again, after his first film, Breathless, the same could be said. But through the early and mid-1960s, Godard made some truly wonderful films – films in love with movies themselves, yet also bold and different than anything that was being done by anyone else – even his New Wave cohorts. Not all of those films are great, but they are all interesting (and I still have a few left to see). But his 1966 film Made in USA is quite obviously a turning point for him. There is still a love of movies on display in this film – hell Godard even said one of his motivating factors in making this film was to remake Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep with Anna Karaina, his muse and ex-wife, in the Humphrey Bogart role. Yet, Made in USA also points Godard in the far more political direction his career was about to take. Shot simultaneously as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (which personally, I thought was awful), Made in USA is as bold and different as anything Godard has ever made. But it’s not as satisfying as some of his other films – Breathless, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders or Contempt to name a few.

The plot is pretty much incomprehensible, which is what Godard wanted. After all, if he was inspired by The Big Sleep, than it would pretty much have to be complex, as even Hawks has admitted he has no idea who committed one murder (he thought he knew, until someone pointed out to him that character had committed suicide before the murder took place). It has Anna Karina as Paula Nelson, a sort of PI, who shows up in “Atlantic City” (although it’s clearly Paris) looking to find her boyfriend, and discovering that he is already dead. She tries to piece together the clues of what happened, but Godard is simply playing with us. He doesn’t want us to figure out the plot, or else he wouldn’t end scenes abruptly, before we find out what we need to know, or obscure important dialogue with street noise and other sound tricks. The movie sets off its action when Paula kills a meddlesome man who barges into her hotel room. But if you can figure out why she killed him, or why he barged in on her in the first place, you’re a step ahead of me.

And so, what we are left with is a movie that really isn’t about its plot as much as it is about itself, and about Karina. By 1966, she had become a cinematic and style icon, and at times in Made in USA, with ever changing costumes, and the way she walks, you get the sense that you are watching a fashion show. Her bold, bright outfits are the highlights of Godard’s bold, bright movie. She is also the only character who the movie has any sort of focus on. The rest of the characters drift in and out – including Jean-Pierre Leaud (Antoine Doinel himself), who has perhaps the most hilariously over the top death scene I have ever seen.

But Made in USA also points Godard in the more political direction his films would take – both obviously, and not so. He has two characters named Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara, who claim to like violence and killing. And the whole murder plot wasn’t just a reference to The Big Sleep, but also to the murder of Ben Baraka, a Morrocan revolutionary caught by the French, and the apparent suicide of gangster/film producer Georges Figon. That might have been helpful information to know before I saw the movie, but I doubt it.

But if Made in USA isn’t as satisfying as some of Godard’s other early films, it is at least fascinating to look at and ponder. Somewhere along the way, Godard has become lost in his own pretensions, so we end up with a film like Film Socialisme (2010) that makes no sense, but has defenders who twist themselves into knots trying to explain its brilliance. Made in USA is balanced precariously between the filmmaker Godard was, and the one he would become.

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