Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Made in USA (1966): A Film to Look at Not Watch



Here is the short review of Made in USA from the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide:

Journalist (Anna) Karina turns into a trench-coated shamus to discover who killed her lover and gets mixed up in a labyrinthine mystery in a place called Atlantic City (even though the action is clearly set in France). Thoroughly whacked-out and completely unauthorized adaptation of a Richard Stark (Donald E.Westlake) novel is a bracing (if sometimes incomprehensible) homage to American noir, filled with typical Godardian movie references, allusions to political conspiracies and assassinations, and characters named Richard Widmark, Donald Siegel, Inspector Aldrich, David Goodis, Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon.”

This review gives a nice little overview and saves me from bothering with any more discussion of the narrative, because it’s pretty nonsensical, and most of the dialogue can safely be ignored. After about 20 minutes I was ready to give up on this film. You don’t even try to follow the plot because it’s clear right away from the way people talk - in non-sequiturs - that it’s meant to be a joke. We’re shown people waving guns around but they’re treated as if they were brandishing kitchen utensils instead. They utter grave threats but nobody cares. The director is obviously just mocking movie conventions, or showing how little he cares for narrative. But he’s done that before - in A Bout De Souffle and Bande A Part and other films - and there was nothing new here. I also felt he was doing all kinds of unconventional things with the sound, throwing in odd silences and airplane noises for example, but with little point. It was like a child experimenting on a toy robot he doesn’t understand. He can make it ‘do’ lots of things, but why would any of the rest of us want to watch?

But then I started to get the strange feeling that the combination of sound and visuals was kind of enchanting. I didn’t mind that the characters were all spouting nonsense in a monotone because just the rhythm of that, mixed in with a recurring and very melodic classical piano theme, was kind of pleasant. It was a pleasant enough background at least for what must be the main attraction of the picture: its striking visuals. When a Godard film doesn’t have those strong visuals, such as in Masculin-Feminin or some of his other black and white films, the lack of relatable narrative can be maddening. But here it works. In a previous review of Contempt I mentioned how it sometimes seems Godard should have been a painter rather than a film-maker, and this film re-enforced that view. He has such a great visual style, but no dramatic sense whatsoever (he always seems contemptuous of the notion of drama) and his dialogue is boring and irritating. Yet sometimes one of Godard’s colour films from the mid-60’s can be just what your brain needs to reinvigorate it. Made in USA is an amazing smorgasbord of bright primary colours, especially red, and it wakes you up not in any intellectual sense, but in a sensory one.

The colour Godard movies of this period are nearly always filled with sunny weather, and France looks beautiful in them, plus the actors - especially Anna Karina - look cool and the modernist settings are interesting. But most of all the combination of costume, production design and Raoul Coutard’s cinematography make for images different from anything else then or now. Often figures are framed against backgrounds deliberately chosen to provide maximum contrast, and nearly every shot has a patch of bright red, blue, yellow or green which draws the eye (see screenshots). These films use the basic but effective colour-schemes of national flags and fast-food restaurants (which also go heavy on the reds and the blues) and they end up looking like a cooler version of Teletubbies. The images are very deliberately composed to exclude the usual background ‘clutter’ of your average movie, and there’s little or no shadow, just stark contrasts of colour. It’s unnatural but bracing and interesting; the images pop out at you.

With Made in USA I didn’t so much watch the film as look at it. I appreciated it as a kind of slide-show - of great set-ups designed to stand alone, like album covers. For decades I’ve been watching Godard movies and have often been bored by them. I feel that with this one maybe I’ve finally found the key to appreciating his work i.e. don’t listen to the words at all, watch the visuals instead, and attend closely to the backgrounds. A few times in the film we’re shown actual brand-name logos, so I also wondered if Godard adopted this striking colour-scheme as a comment on, or at least an unconscious reflection of, the fact that American advertising and branding were taking over the world. That’s an appropriate idea for a film named Made in USA at least. But then this scheme also appears in Contempt, Pierrot Le Fou, La Chinoise and Weekend.

PS Marianne Faithful is in the film too, singing the Stones song she made famous, ‘As Tears Go By’. She was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, and it made me think what a great period this must have been for her: hanging out with the Stones in London, nipping over to Paris to do a cameo in a Godard film. For a brief moment she was at the centre of both the music and the film revolutions going on at that time…

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