Monday, July 20, 2009

The long goodbye: pop culture collage + politics + genre deconstruction + divorce = Made in USA

When Paula Nelson wakes in her dormatorial hotel room in some place called Atlantic-Cité she finds at her door a dwarf with high blood pressure who knows her from some shady dealings in their past. Their arrivals here, it would seem, were prompted by the same thing, the suspicious death of one Richard Politzer. But before their relations become unduly friendly Paula beats the dwarf unconscious with a lovely shoe—a blue one, as requested by the dwarf—and the talismanic appearance of his blood becomes Paula’s entrance into an adventure where reality and fiction blur. She soon meets the dwarf’s nephew, a novelist named David Goodis, and his companion, who sings folk songs in the bathroom and whose last name in Mizoguchi. Soon she’ll meet a sinister young man named Donald Siegel and a police inspector named Aldrich. She’ll visit a bar where a very young Marianne Faithful sings ‘As Tears Go By’ a cappella, and a spa where Daisy Kenyon and Ruby Gentry are being paged. As she sinks deeper into mystery she’ll be directed to streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht.

If any of this means anything to you, you probably cherish classical Hollywood, the Japanese masters, detective fiction, or the rich cultural palate of the hip 1960s in general. (You’ll also note that the picture is affectionately dedicated to directors Nicolas Ray and Sam Fuller.) The ravenously referential postmodernism of
Made in USA (1966) offers a superb example of what once tied Jean-Luc Godard to his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan especially. Though where Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ spun out for nearly 12 minutes on a effervescent wave of irresistible border town melodics and expressive guitar figures, Godard’s long-lost feature is a less inviting, more difficult mélange of imagery, homage and intertext. Made in USA came at the end of a frenetic creative period launched explosively with Breathless (60). Godard had already divorced Anna Karina, and Paula Nelson would be her final role for him. He was becoming increasingly politicized and this would be described as his final attempt at a genre picture. But Made in USA is only a thriller in the most notional sense. So unconcerned with thrills, its shot mainly in front of nondescript walls, and its violence is rendered quite literally as cartoons.

The script was based, though uncredited upon its original release, on Richard Stark’s terse crime novel
The Jugger (65). But Godard, never very interested in conventional narrative models at the best of times, giddily changed the gender of its protagonist and took from his source material only the most skeletal framework—though when you think about it Made in USA is only a marginally more liberal adaptation of Stark than the haunted, dreamlike and lyrical Point Blank (67), vaguely based on The Hunter (62). Fact is that the Stark novels featured an antihero from another time, where these films are so very much products of the 1960s. Among the virtues of Godard’s film is its value as an artifact that speaks to the present. The dead Politzer, whose strident political provocations are heard via a cache of tape recordings, was a communist still intensely bitter about recent French colonial misadventures and newly enraged by Vietnam. Godard’s dream of cinema as a progressive art form is conveyed most openly by the unapologetic, sometimes absurd merging of politics and pop culture, revolutionary esprit in creative life being aligned with like struggle in the war of ideas and policy. So in this sense the title of the film is almost a joke, a punk rock robbery where the vestiges of Old Hollywood’s glory days and American iconography are lovingly sewn into a quilt, only to be battered and sullied beyond recognition. It makes for dense viewing at times, but the carefully staged chaos can also be exhilarating.

Made in USA is clearly a different experience when the viewer shares a modicum of Godard’s cultural knowledge base. In Criterion’s terrific new DVD of the film they even provide a video essay that functions as a sort of Coles Notes explaining each of the film’s most important references, as well as another featurette rife with insightful comments and helpful history from Godard biographers Colin McCabe and Richard Brody. Yet, rather surprisingly, the context that McCabe and Brody provide us with deepens our ability to read the film’s emotional undercurrents just as much, if not more, than its intellectual ones. As I watched Made in USA I was struck by how strangely touching certain moments seemed. Strange because so much feels cryptic and cool as can be. Yet Karina’s performance, already very fun and seductive—and so well dressed—is imbued with an elegiac weight, which transmits in one melancholically adoring close-up after another. Politzer, after all, was once Paula’s fiancé, and when she first speaks in the film she’s sleepily recalling the time when she was once “the mirror of his desires,” the virtual embodiment of his dreams. Politzer’s voice, it begs mention, was provided by Godard himself. Paula’s interests in investigating his death are too layered to fully comprehend, but on one very direct level she’s come to say goodbye to him, to meditate on the cause they once shared, and this ostensibly cerebral collage piece leaves us with the impression of having watched something once so ambitious and impassioned slowly fade to black, like the horizon vanishing behind Paula as she’s driven away from that place called Atlantic-Cité.

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