Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Impromptu Review of Godard's "Made in U.S.A."

Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in USA" (1966) might be the movie for the 2016 electoral season. Here is why:
Godard was something of a visionary. He was a director who came to believe that narrative-driven movies were an unnecessary limitation on the medium, and sought to break free of that limitation by creating movies that had more in common with poetry or a dense philosophical tract that a traditional story. I consider "Alphaville" to be a good example of Godard's vision at its finest (it is considered a New Wave, sci-fi classic for good reason!). "Made in USA” is another good attempt at this vision, if not as enjoyable as Alphaville. Regardless, I ultimately found it to be a very timely movie because of its political content.
Ostensibly, "Made in USA" is a movie about a noirish secret agent/tabloid journalist (I like that combo!) "Paula," played by log-time Godard actress/wife Anna Karina, who sets out to discover the cause of death of her lover, Richard P*, a political operative (I write "Richard P*" because Godard consistently blots out Richard’s last name with background noise, a trick people might recognize from a movie that borrows more than a little from “Made in USA,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”). In keeping with Godard’s desire to make a narrative free movie, this thin story is little more than a pretext for Godard to do two things: first, ruminate on his failing marriage with Anna Karina, and secondly, to explore the world of revolutionary politics, something Godard was becoming fascinated with due to his growing disenchantment with France’s political scene of the 1960s, as well as America’s growing involvement in Vietnam.
As for the former, there is not much to be said as Godard only really explores his failed marriage by having overly long takes on Karina, takes that at times seemed to border on the obsessive. However, there is one scene near the film's end where Godard opens his heart a bit more artistically. Here, Paula begins to close out the scene by quoting some verse that is quintessentially femme fatale: “If I speak of time, it’s not yet come to pass. If I speak of place, it’s vanished into space. If I speak of time, it’s gone without a trace. If I speak of a man, he’s soon to breath his last.” Paula then tearfully but determinedly shoots her friend David Goodis. The dying Goodis' last words are, “Oh, Paula, you robbed me of my youth.” Godard's sense of betrayal was on full display with this scene.
I found his political ruminations more interesting. “Made in USA” takes place in Atlantic-Cite. As with the eponymous Alphaville (which, if I recall correctly, is variously described in the film as being a location on Earth, a planet of its own, and ultimately another galaxy!), Atlantic-Cite seems to be located in its own nebulous spot on Earth, somewhere between America’s decadent “Atlantic City” (hence, the thin “Made in USA” connection) and a French Atlantic-Cite, something that I understand can best be translated as “Atlantic-Housing Projects,” i.e., a small community of low rent apartment buildings. If you are going to watch a Godard flick, you can’t get caught up in such minor details as location! Be that as it may, Atlantic Cite will be where all the political skulduggery of the movie takes place. Early into the film, Godard kicks off the politics with what is perhaps the funniest and most prescient line of the film. As she mopes around her flat, Paula asks a maid about the latest election results for Atlantic-Cite. “Weren’t the Communists beaten here last year in the local elections?” The maid replies, “Yes, they wanted to requisition bathrooms if they won.” I laughed as I was reminded of the modern American Left's intrusion into American bathrooms as well. Some things never change.
And that is precisely one of Godard’s political messages. In some ways, “Made in USA” is a fascinating exercise because you can see Godard struggling with his disgust of the modern world (as also seen in “Alphaville”), as well as his disgust with the moral compromises one must make if he seeks to use politics as a vehicle of change. Indeed, Paula sums up the deplorable state of contemporary politics when she describes politics as “Walt Disney plus blood.” It is an accurate summation, especially in light of America’s 2016 election. Politics is a cartoonish farce, but one where people can get killed. Paula, in one of her more introspective moments as a political operative, confesses to the camera, “It’s always blood, fear, politics, money. How can I not feel like puking after being mixed up in that for so long?” Good question.

It is this political ambivalence that ultimately snakes its way through the movie. I think Godard’s political confusion is well expressed in the best scene of the movie where, in typical film noir fashion, we (inexplicably) find Paula killing time in a bar with an assortment of patrons, including a cameo by Marianne Faithfull who quietly sings a few lines from her hit, “As Tears Go By.” The most interesting conversation is between the barkeep and a guest at the bar where they explore the importance of perspective. The bartender asks, “What does one do with words?” The patron replies that he tries to make sentences but doesn’t like to because “sentences are useless or empty words.” The bartender chides him that if he doesn’t speak in sentences, how can he serve him? So, the patron agrees to try, resulting in a series of non sequiturs such as “The glass is not in my wine. The bartender is in the pocket of the pencil’s jacket. The bar gives the young lady a few kicks. The floor is stubbed out on the cigarette. The tables are on the glasses. The ceiling hangs from the lamp,” and so on. Godard’s point is clear: we use words to define reality, but words, being so fluid in their meaning and usages, don’t always describe the same reality from person to person. In light of that, how can we be sure of anything expressed by words? Especially political words?
Godard struggles with this confusion about politics right up to the last moments of the film.  While Godard at times uses his film to stridently advocate for far left politics (he would eventually adopt Maoism in the 1970s!), he ultimately remains very equivocal about it, something made clear when Paula rides out of Atlantic Cite by hitching a ride with an old journalist pal. Paula expresses her concern that she will not be able to keep up the revolutionary struggles begun by her lover, Richard. Her friend tries to get her to take a more practical view of the world’s political struggles. “There is no changing her,” he replies.  “Remember Elisabeth in Les Enfants Terribles? Left and Right are the same. There is no changing them. The Right, because it’s so cruel it’s brainless. The Left, because it is sentimental.” Godard’s summation might be a reversal of reality, but it is ultimately an inconsequential one because of the journalist's next observation. “Besides, Left or Right are completely obsolete notions. We shouldn’t phrase things in those terms.” Paula asks, “How then?” He has no answer.

So ends the film on a suitably insightful point for our politically chaotic times, one that seems on the cusp of birthing some new and terrible political alignment. Indeed, "Right" and "Left" is seeming more obsolete with each passing election.
Now, at the beginning of this impromptu review I said I didn’t enjoy this movie as I did “Alphaville.” The reason why is twofold. First, I felt this was a sloppily made production. I understand Godard was making “Made in USA” at the same time he was making another movie called,”1 or 2 Things I Know About Her.” I think Godard’s divided attention is evident as this movie just seems like a fast and dirty production with little care being taken to get things just right. For example, there are at least two occasions of some dreadful overacting, something Godard should have spotted from a mile away. Likewise, I found “Made in USA’s” cinematography to be flat and uninteresting, lacking all the noir-inspired style of "Alphaville." At times, “Made in USA” almost resembles the type of movie an amateur would make with a handheld camera. Overall, this production just seems overly casual from the get-go. The second thing I didn’t care for was Godard injecting contemporary French politics into the heart of the film. He does so via voice recordings of him ranting and raving about what he perceived as the injustices of the French government of the time. While the reel to reel recordings are very reminiscent of Kurtz’s political diatribes in Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Apocalypse Now” (I doubt that is a coincidence!), Godard chose to focus on real politics rather than vague political ideology, as Coppola smartly chose to do. As a result, these recordings just date the movie instead of bringing some desperately needed character development to Richard, a ghost the movie struggles with throughout its run time. Likewise, it misses an opportunity to better flesh out the semi-fictitious setting of Atlantic Cite as the disembodied voice of Alpha 60 does for “Alphaville.” So, not as good as “Alphaville.” But having said that, “Made in USA” is a movie art house cinephiles owe it to themselves to check out for no other reason than it is another uniquely artistic experience presented by a man who truly did try to reinvent cinema. While no means his best work, it is nonetheless a timely if confused tale about the Mickey Mouse politics of our age.