Saturday, 5 September 2009
MADE IN USA (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
For many years, one of the more difficult to see of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s films was Made in USA, a film Godard makes in between a number of what I feel are among the greatest in film history. It is made after Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Masculine Feminine (1966) and before Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). This run of films by Godard, and in fact the whole decade of his 1960s filmmaking, mark one of the most incredible runs in film history. This is not to say that Godard has not continued to make great films. Rather, this time period allowed for the unique convergence of experimentation taking place by a highly visible celebrity artist (Godard's celebrity in France at the time was rather enormous). The fact that Godard had the ability to act as a public intellectual while continuing to make aesthetically dazzling work remains one of the great achievements in cinema history. And, luckily, the Criterion Collection has gradually been releasing many of these works on high quality DVD packages over the last number of years. Most recently, Made in USA and Two or Three Things I Know About Her finally made their appearance on the Criterion label, and as usual the quality of the productions in great, both in terms of the image and the supporting extras.
Seeing Made in USA for the first time was quite a surprising experience. Being made after the essay-like Masculine Feminine and before the even more anti-narrative films like Two or Three Things, La Chinoise, and Weekend, I was expecting Made in USA to be something similar. However, with Godard, it shouldn't have been a shock that it didn't fit into my expectations. Made in USA is more in line with something like Pierrot le Fou or Alphaville, or even the much earlier A Woman is a Woman. It is a genre piece, a detective story, and is filled with a huge number of references to Classic Hollywood. Old actors and detectives dominate the character names and dialogue to a very blatant degree for any cinephile, and it is clear where Tarantino gets his influence. Of course, the similarity between the two stops there. As the excellent Criterion supplemental reference guide points out, the cinema references are only one context of allusion: there is also literature and, most critically, politics. And while I got most of the cinema references, the politics of the period were less familiar. What this did was make me learn this context, which Criterion helps provide, at least as a starting point.
Now, the question arises as to how "entertaining" all of this is, and it is a legitimate question to try to answer. But it is not one we should answer uncritically. Most younger film fans, when asked about whether they prefer Godard or Tarantino, would answer Tarantino, provided they even heard of Godard, because Tarantino gives a much easier access to cinematic pleasure. Tarantino does not want to question, at least on any fundamental level, the dominant mode of cinematic address. Godard clearly does, but I would maintain that he does so in a highly entertaining manner. The images of this film are incredibly pleasurable and arresting. The problem lies in Godard's lack of interest in telling generic stories. Unlike Tarantino, he was unwilling, almost from the start, to play the game. He does not want to break expectations as much as destroy them from the start and have the audience approach the film in a radically different way. In another of the extras from the DVD, Godard biographer Richard Brody states that Made in USA, despite being dedicated to Nicolas Ray and Samuel Fuller, does not show the influence of either Ray, Fuller, or the whole film noir tradition. This is true narratively, but certainly not in terms of the actual dedication, which is to the sounds and images of the two directors. Looking at Made in USA, the work of Ray in particular cannot be ignored. If Godard was willing to give in to audiences in terms of story, I'm convinced his images would be capable of mass appeal.
But I hardly think we should want this kind of concession from Godard. And I'm not trying to simply dismiss Tarantino (whose work I very much like) or popular narrative in general. But I do feel someone like Godard, given the rather easy acceptance of the cultural industry given by most fans and even many scholars, is still very valuable and needs to be seriously considered in today's cultural world. This is why I highly recommend checking out his work on these Criterion DVDs, which really provide a wealth of additional material that properly contextualizes Godard and can lead to greater enjoyment of his very challenging and still important work.