Made in U.S.A.: American Premiere of Godard's 1965 Film

By Dante A. Ciampaglia


For American audiences, “Made in U.S.A” is gaping hole in the filmography of the seminal French director Jean-Luc Godard. With the exception of a screening at the 1967 New York Film Festival, the film has never had an official U.S. theatrical release.

 

Godard based the 1966 film on the novel “The Jugger” by Richard Stark, nom de guerre of mystery writer Donald Westlake. The film and the book center on the search of one character for another person and finding out the's dead. But that's where the similarities end.  In Westlake's book, the protagonist is a man; in “Made in U.S.A,” it's a woman.  In the book, the man is a crook named Parker looking for a stool pigeon; in the movie, the woman is a journalist named Paula looking for a former lover. In the book, Westlake returned to an often-used character (Parker); Godard called on his former wife and inspiration (Anna Karina). The book is a hard-boiled crime pulp; the movie is a politically infused pop critique of the growing Americanization of France.

 

The two works would seem different enough to co-exist, but Godard never paid for the book rights, and Westlake blocked the American distribution of the film.  Near the end of his life, though, Westlake (who died of a heart attack at the age of 75 in 2008) let up and gave his blessing for its release.  Film Forum in New York presented “Made in U.S.A.” in a two-week run in January 2009, after which it will play in smaller art theaters around the country.

 

This long overdue American debut of Godard's work is an event akin to the 2006 U.S. premiere of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 “Army of Shadows.” These delayed American releases provide an opportunity to experience cinema from another era, in this case, a film available only as bootleg or reference in histories and biographies.

 

Shot concurrently with “Two or Three Things I know About Her,” a superior film, “Made in U.S.A.” was helmed at the time Godard was emerging from his visionary moment, a span of six years that began with Breathless in 1959, continued through “A Woman is a Woman,” “Contempt,” “Band of Outsiders,” “Alphaville,” and “Pierrot le fou,” and culminated with Masculine-Feminine in 1966, before entering a more politicized and deconstructionist period.

In this second phase of his career, cinema became politicized and Godard played even faster and looser with film form than he had in the early 1960s. He reduced the medium down to its foundational elements–sound and image–and weaponized them by assaulting the audience with a barrage of almost disparate soundtracks, dialogue, and images with little regard to conventional narrative.  So complete was Godard in his destruction of cinematic norms that he declared at the conclusion of “Weekend” in 1967:  “End of Cinema.” “Made in U.S.A.” is the beginning of that end, and watching it is to witness the pangs of Godard's transformation from populist filmmaker to solitary artist.

 

A title card dedicates the film to “Sam and Nick, who educated me in the use of sound and image” (That would be the American directors Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray.)   But then in the ensuing film Godard breaks every mainstream rule about sound and image.  Sounds repeat for no reason. Sound effects obscure the full name of the man Paula is looking for. The image skips and repeats numerous times. Godard withholds images of people speaking so that he can present narratively unmotivated close-ups of Karina. And in a nod to Roy Lichtenstein, frames of comic books with onomatopoeia sound effects overtake moving images of the things causing the sounds.

 

All the while, Godard sets out to follow a rather conventional hard-boiled detective narrative done up in mod colors. The storytelling is done in a fairly straightforward way, “Made in U.S.A.” begins with Paula looking for her lover in a backwater town called Atlantic City and ends with her returning to the big city of Paris after shes found her answers. Some characters get double-crossed, others get killed, and in the end Paula is no better off than when she started.

 

With “Made in U.S.A.,” Godard tries to look forward as a director while wistfully looking backward. The cinematic deconstruction that permeates This film portents his work that would follow, while his choice of subject matter (the American detective story) recalls “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders.” He is also creating a sense of finality to his relationship with Karina while embracing his inextinguishable flame for her.  This was their last collaboration, but he obsessively frames her in close-ups as if knowing that this is the only way they will ever be close again.

 

This mixture of styles and approaches and obsessions presents an interesting portrait of a director remaking himself.  But “Made in U.S.A.” is flawed, because Godard doesn't commit to one way of doing things, leading to weird  changes of tone, stilted characters, and unclear motivations.  Unlike his later films, where we might be simultaneously perplexed and engaged, we're shuttled between the two in “Made in U.S.A.,” engaged one minute, baffled the next. The result is a work that tries interesting things with form but that is narratively problematic.

 

In an interview given at the time, Godard said, “I started off intending to make a simple film, and for the first time I tried to tell a story, but it isn't my way of doing things.” This is obvious while watching the film, revealing Godard's uncertainties as a filmmaker.

 

“Made in U.S.A.” is lacking as narrative, but from a connoisseur point of view it's still vital cinema.  Perhaps more importantly, as a portrait of an artist at a creative crossroads, it provides a context for Godard's later work while revealing his opinions about his earlier career.  “Made in U.S.A.” has problems, but all serious film lovers owe it to themselves to seek it out.

 

Cast:

 

Anna Karina (Paula Nelson)

Jean-Pierre Léaud (Donald Siegel)

László Szabó (Richard Widmark)

 

Credits:

 

Rialto Pictures presents an Anouchka Films/Rome Paris Films/S.E.P.I.C. production

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, based on the novel The Jugger by Donald Westlake

Cinematography:

 

Running time: 81 minutes