Made in USA
“As Tears Go By”, sings Marianne Faithfull a cappella in her fluttery, late-teenage voice: a plaintive, melancholic, lyrical scene in the typically Nouvelle Vague setting of a bar. In the Godardian context of 1966, however, tears should also be heard/read as rips – and there are plenty of them going by the spectator of Made in USA.
It’s a film of fragments, bits and pieces, a collage submitted to a (radical) montage. Jacques Rivette remarked of it in a 1969 Cahiers du cinéma symposium that “Godard leaves the impression of an earlier film, rejected, contested, defaced, torn to shreds: destroyed as such, but still ‘subjacent’ …”. (1) It was invented very quickly (three weeks from the first phone call to the start of shooting; made, completed and more-or-less released at the same time as the far richer Two or Three Things I Know About Her – “Now I am going to drag along the fatigue of my twin films during the next two at least”, he wrote near the end of ‘66) to help out a producer pal, Georges de Beauregard, who was in a fiscal fix after the official banning of Rivette’s The Nun. (2)
Ian Cameron was right to characterise Made in USA, in 1967, as “a film with little at its centre but with a very strong periphery” – exactly the kind of seemingly deep (or, at the very least, busy) movie that whips up a troubling storm of incomprehensibility and drives critics to “either blanket adulation or invective” in their desperate grasping at a “value judgement”. (3) One has, in fact, rarely encountered a work in which there is such a rift between its nominal centre – a story of political and investigative intrigue – and everything that surrounds that centre: for want of a better word, its texture, the material from which it is woven in what Marie-Claire Ropars dubbed a “symphonic recomposition”. (4)
There is not really a discrepancy or contradiction between these levels; the economy of Godard’s films has never worked in that more-or-less classical way. But Made in USA, more than anything else by Godard, gives the impression of being conjured from almost nothing, improvised on-the-fly – and, as he remarked ruefully 20 years on at the time of Détéctive (1985), when you’re exhausted, you draw and what you already know and what you’ve already done. Hence, and again more than anything else by Godard, Made in USA relies on self-quotations, reprises of set-ups and devices, formal doodles and stylistic squiggles borrowed from the full gamut of his previous 11 features. People talk into the camera; death throes are histrionically mimicked (by Jean-Pierre Léaud); Anna Karina recites poetry in close-ups; cinephilic allusions to American action genres and their prize auteurs (Ray, Fuller, Aldrich, Preminger) abound.
By the mid ‘60s – as Suzanne Schiffman, his indispensable assistant in that era, often recounted (5) – Godard would regularly ask aloud on set how many minutes of the prospective feature-length he had so far filled; if the count was lacking, he would have the performers read out newspapers, tell a joke or recite a literary passage (perhaps whispered into an earpiece to speed up the instant memorisation process) – anything to trigger an extended long-take – and a great deal of this appears to have occurred in the making of Made in USA, with its stretched-out set-piece blocks (which are then dutifully chopped up and sometimes redistributed in the editing). Godard had exactly this impression of it when he rewatched it 12 years later for the lectures transcribed in Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television.
It’s an odd kind of embroidery, designed to keep Godard and us amused while the plot “machine” at the centre splutters on (“I have respected story continuity for the first time in Made in USA”, he rather weirdly boasted in ‘66). (6) What is that centre? The film stages the crossing of two items that were uppermost in JLG’s mind when the project suddenly arose. First, triggered by a randomly chosen “Parker” novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), there was the amorphous history of American crime-action-noir cinema that he had already mined at least four times since À bout de souffle (1960), but now détourned to a near-hysterical pitch of anti-Americanism (Ropars took it as “an attack on America … accomplished through a violent destruction of American cinema”), (7) as well as hero-gender-switched. Second, “a marginal episode from the Ben Barka affair” (as Godard evoked it) (8) involving Georges Figon, a journalist (Time magazine unfussily called him “a French ex-convict and freelance barbouze [undercover agent]”) who claimed to have witnessed Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan politician, being tortured (with the alleged aid of French police) and left to die by General Mohamed Oufikir, a former Moroccan Interior Minister. Once the story broke, Figon was, in turn, soon found dead – having killed himself when cops arrived at his door, or so the official account ran.
In the film, Figon becomes Richard Politzer (whom we never see), the ex-lover (in True History, this character is intriguingly misremembered as a “daughter”, since Godard knew Figon’s daughter) of reporter Paula (Karina). Godard makes direct use of a popular line from the satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné (still going today) that this unlikely hero “committed suicide with a shot fired against him from point-blank range”. Speculation about the Ben Barka affair and its complicated global tangle of players (French, American, Moroccan, Israeli) raged until the publication of Ronen Bergman’s exhaustively researched Rise and Kill First in 2018.
Does that sound like the basis for a reasonably lucid political parable? Although often hailed (or damned) as inscrutable and deliberately impossible to follow (in the vein of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep ), there actually isn’t much that’s hard to figure out in Made in USA: Paula meets a string of people, most of them die along the way, and ultimately either the killers confess, or Paula ferrets them out – before herself firing a trusty gun to end their lives and careers in this shady netherworld of power and manipulation. Who’s ultimately to blame, who’s really calling the shots? Things get fuzzy on that level, just as they were for an earlier, right-leaning Godard in Le Petit soldat (1960). Yet form and content, centre and periphery, never truly mesh, or find a mutual resonance here. It ain’t Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones (2021), which truly comes on like a shredded, finely ambiguous clash of possible, reversible, hyperreal scenarios.
As Cameron remarks, Paula talks Left but acts Right: like a proto-Dirty Harry (or, a model from further back, Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly  and I, the Jury ), her bullets decide who the villains are and condemns them accordingly – and Godard simultaneously mocks and enjoys this hardboiled reflex. (9) Yet, by the same token, Paula the Righteous Avenger also seals the lid on the Truth of the case ever coming to light. The film leaves her literally out on Paris’ West highway (the drive-off is an Alphaville  reprise) conversing with another journalist (real-life muckraking writer and later filmmaker – a bad one, according to JLG – Philippe Labro) about how “we can no longer pose the equation [of politics] like that”, in the old Left/Right terms. How, then? In 1966, for Godard, it’s an open question without the glimmer of an answer. The confusion may have been sincerely expressed at that precise historical moment, but it’s also a mystification and an evasion; there’s an odd continuity, across five-and-a-half decades, between the stylishly generic and amoral international-power-play fun-and-games of the TV series Killing Eve (2018-2022) and the exhausted, muddled crime story of Made in USA.
Cameron made no bones about classing Made in USA as (up to ’67) Godard’s “slightest film” (10); Godard in ’78 didn’t rank it much higher. What does it have going for it? An incredible palette of Pop Art colours (something of which, years later, Godard remained proud) courtesy of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, surely owing a good deal to Agnès Varda’s experimentation the previous year in Le Bonheur (1965); what evolved into a running gag (thanks to censorship) of contentious dialogue references (names, especially) blotted out by roaring planes, ringing telephones and clanging slot machines (Luis Buñuel borrowed that joke and played it cooler in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ); an orgy of deframed bodies and heads placed offside of vast negative spaces; passages of strangely beautiful, sudden silence, mixing-board faders pulled down as the mouths flap on; wild, fragmented edits timed to the tiniest cues wrested from Beethoven or Schumann. In this spirit, Ropars inadvertently channelled Manny Farber when in ’67 she evoked the “lacerating flashes of a few telescoped shots in which people are thrown against a wall and pinned there, along with freedom”. (11) There’s also a particular sociology of place, or what would later be called non-place, to which Gilles Jacob well attested.
It is the meeting places (bars, cafés, swimming pools), the places you pass through (garages, airport waiting-rooms), the deserted places (movie theatres, streets), the antechambers of anguish (doctors’ offices) and the temporary shelters (hotel rooms, unfurnished apartments) of these settings that emerge in a lacerating fashion. (12)
It is effectively the first film in which Godard ditches, once and for all, the conventional conception of fictional characters. You could “care” – discontinuously, on and off – for the lonely Nana in Vivre sa vie (1962) or the increasingly tormented/alienated lovers in Contempt (1963), Bande à part (1964), Pierrot le fou (1965) or Masculin féminin (1966); you could even (if this is your, like rum biographer Brody’s, bag) find poignant autobiographical echoes of the filmmaker’s ongoing sentimental education (or misery) there – just as you can again, later, in the great decade-long cycle initiated by Sauve qui peut (1980). But everybody in Made in USA is a cartoon figure (and Laszlo Szabo literally provides the appropriate cartoon faces and voices). Or as Cameron put it in ’67: “The actors are, even by Godard’s standards, very little concerned with the traditional business of creating characters”. (13) These figures are ciphers, emblems, flags of this or that film-type or ideological position; whatever emotion is evoked in and by the film (and that can vary, as well as displace itself, from one viewing to the next), it floats frees of them. Another intriguing rift.
Alain Bergala, while fatally faulting Made in USA in retrospect for “not having a real subject” (and Godard agreed with that in ‘78), nonetheless salvages it as a kind of inventory à la Jacques Prévert or lightly fictionalised catalogue of signs à la Georges Perec: in this sense, a valuable chronicle of (the surfaces of) the 1960s. (14) That archival utility (and fascination) of Godard cannot be downplayed, especially as time goes by: his films give you the Arcade of Walter Benjamin’s writerly-dream in all its gaudy splendour, equally in sound as in image. Jacob, in 1967, took an approach similar to Bergala’s.
And if, in 50 or 100 years, Godard comes to be considered, as a few of us predict, as one of the most important creators of our era, it is precisely because he will have given us the least superficial chronicle of it by using the most superficial of its elements – pictures, posters, comic strips, newspaper clippings, book titles, graffiti … everything which, for a sociologist storing up the present for the future, constitutes the word filled with its true meaning before misunderstanding has transformed it into a lie. (15)
But for Godard in ’66, “the word” – language – is not yet “filled with its true meaning”; maybe it never has been, and he is very anguished about it. In the same bistro sequence as Faithfull’s cameo, there is a stretched-out verbal play (Bergala describes it as “an Oulipist delirium à la Raymond Queneau”) (16) that expresses a familiar, post-existentialist problematic of troubling indifference, words meaning nothing or everything, depending on the sequence and context in which they are placed (and the same goes, naturally, for shots in cinema); there’s the giddiness of free poetry at one end and the solidity of fascist propaganda at the other end of the continuum, but the uncontrollable vacillation between these options creates only an abyssal vertigo. For Ropars, Made in USA therefore demonstrates Godard’s “inability to organise a political language” – it’s the Big Problem of Content in his work – but nonetheless she counted it in ‘67 among his “best films”, of a “tremendous beauty”: “Made in USA is a poetic film because in it Godard settles his accounts with poetry, because in it poetry never stops dying beneath the blows of history”. (17) It’s a fragile tension to maintain.
Two or Three Things will prolong
and deepen the anguished but equally semi-Utopian reflection on lost language
(of every kind). But, once that anguish has been finally uncoupled from the
vicissitudes of lyrical love (as tears go by … ) and hitched to the swiftly
vaulting extremism of ultra-Left commitment, Godard will embrace a new form of
discursive certainty (the “master discourses” of Althusser, Mao, etc.) – and it
will take him quite a while to recover from the fanaticism of that
self-inflicted blow. Godard, thrown against a wall and pinned there, along with
2. See Jean-Luc Godard, “One or Two Things”, in Toby Mussman (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968), pp. 274-275; and Alain Bergala, “Made in USA”, Spécial Godard: trente ans depuis, Cahiers du cinéma hors-série (1990), p. 117. back
3. Ian Cameron, “Made in USA”, in Cameron (ed.), The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Studio Vista, 1969), pp. 132, 135. back
4. Marie-Claire Ropars, “Form and Substance, or the Avatars of the Narrative”, in Royal S. Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), p. 95. back
5. See, for instance, Michel Cournot’s interview with Schiffman, “A Leap Into Emptiness”, in Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard, pp. 46-49. back
6. Godard, “One or Two Things”, p. 275. back
7. Ropars, “Form and Substance”, pp. 91-92. back
8. Godard, “One or Two Things”, p. 275. back
9. Cameron, “Made in USA”, p. 139. back
10. Ibid., p. 132. back
11. Ropars, “Form and Substance”, p. 94. back
12. Gilles Jacob, “Atonal Cinema for Zombies”, in Brown (ed.), Focus on Godard, pp. 150-151. back
13. Cameron, “Made in USA”, p. 132. back
14. Bergala, “Made in USA”, p. 117. back
15. Jacob, “Atonal Cinema”, p. 149. back
16. Bergala, “Made in USA”, p. 117. back
17. Ropars, “Form and Substance”, pp. 106-108.
© Adrian Martin 13 April 2022