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Some notes on "Made in USA": Conspiracies and Correspondences

And freedom, when everything’s fenced into place?

All that Heaven Allows

Godard has two answers, at least. Certainly, there’s a worry, as in Oshima and Kubrick movies, that doubling—one character reflected by another, as Karina reflects the movie icons—is a signal of anonymity, that people are images easily reproducible. Here, for example, the girls are just part of the patterning, like the food products in Tout va bien:

Yet Godard continues the shot—a tracking shot left—to show Rodin’s Thinker morphed into a modern girl on a bicycle who seems to have come to the gym to work out her thoughts.

Homeomorphs and echoes—those parallels, that make one situation a variation off another, one character another metamorphosed—are the first answer. With homeomorphs, characters, events, shots, lines, and music no longer have to be stringently defined and signify only one thing. They can be opened up to possibilities—and freedom (“just another word for nothing left to lose”) is in possibility.

Imitation of Life

Does “VO” signify “voice-over” in USA terms, or “voix originale,” (to signify a film hasn’t been dubbed) in French terms? Both—voice-overs and direct sound—are integral to the film, and of course quite opposed. Or is it shorthand for female organs, in universal terms?

As the word games in The Big Sleep about horses entering the backstretch seem to signal all varieties of extremely fun sexual misconduct, and cloak lascivious suggestions as the ready-laid flirts (everyone in The Big Sleep is one, Bogie, a book vendress…) cloak themselves as bookworms, so the disguise, modus operandi of detectives and actors and Marx Brothers, allows Karina a release from belonging to the world she’d prefer to explore as spectator. Identities in Made in USA are pulled on and off at will like the sweater Karina dons to become a walking Mondrian—but then, are just more simplified images with which people represent themselves. Gas station attendants call themselves Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon; everyone talks in funny voices. Or sings.

But just as Godard’s cinematography, laying faces and pinball machines against white walls, both flattens his actors into billboards and removes everyday objects onto a blank canvas so that we can see them for their ready-made impact alone (see, for example, that the pinball machine is both a billboard and, like a cup of coffee, an alternate cosmos unto itself, and a pretty shabby one), so too the disguises are both 2-D caricaturing and a recontextualization—Godard defining his characters crisply at the same time he opens up new possibilities on how to see them. Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense is a great American representative, but dress up the guy as a gas attendant, and he becomes the common assassin he is (and his honest, business approach to murder looks absurd).

There’s Always Tomorrow

Similarly, Godard’s repetitions of shots—in new contexts, in different takes—give us alternate possibilities, as though, Marienbad-like, what we are seeing is only the alternate ways a scene might have taken place (as Godard’s puns show us alternate meanings words or sentences might have had).

When a shot of Karina moving around a garage and looking for “evidence” is repeated scenes later in the same location, but in a different take, we may think she’s still searching for a solution to her lover’s death—which is exactly what she’s doing. But the soundtrack of the second scene is a voice-over from Karina recapitulating what Jean-Pierre Léaud said in the scene we’re watching, as though the scene could be her memory misremembered, as though she’s confused the two occasions as one (which Godard separates out as he gives us independent shots of Léaud in the present scene and shots of Karina still walking around from the former). If we assume we’re watching a shot from a former scene, we’ll have to conclude that the circling camera would circle back around to László Szabó, as it does in the former scene. This isn’t possible, of course; but neither is Karina’s subsequent murder of Léaud (talking like a combination of Cagney in White Heat and Hitler—a neat conflation) from off-screen unless she’s picked up an unseen weapon (and nobody would trust the sound of the gun, since Godard’s just matched sounds of a machine-gun with Léaud’s pantomiming the shooting of one).

This isn’t possible, and yet, Godard is showing us alternate possibilities: a different way her walk might have looked, a different context it might have had, just as he cuts from a wide-shot to a medium-shot with Karina repeating a line as though separate takes were spliced together, and just as he cuts to different mug-shot angles on Karina’s face in the bar as she delivers different lines of poetry (in reference to Vivre sa Vie). Like a poem—a Shakespeare sonnet—or a cubist painting, Godard wants to match different, hypothetical variations of ways to see a scene, or a person, and the effect has the loveliness of a jazz riff that regenerates a melody as something slapdash new. Such renewal is the point of “year zeros” and genre adaptations. But is there a true example? What “really” happened? Karina’s question becomes the spectator’s. The first example, played naturally, may be true, but even if it is, it’s replaced by something else: experiential truth?

This same pattern—shots played objectively, then subjectively—recurs. Karina’s walk around a garden, repeated twice in a row in different takes, led in by the same music both times, also plays like jazz, a riff tried-again to gain momentum. But it’s also a simple demonstration on two alternate perspectives, exterior and interior, in which the first gives us the sound of the wind and the second gives us the sound of Karina’s thoughts, as voice-over. Neither’s any truer. They both happened—not that either can be seen or held.

And likewise, Doris Mizoguchi’s song, repeated twice, is played first as part of the scene (she sings it), and then as an abstraction (the soundtrack) when she’s found dead—as in the other two examples, as though the truth has been filtered into memory, a memory that of course associates Doris Mizoguchi with the sounds she made. They become her dirge, as “As Tears Go By,” repeated in fragments throughout, gradually seems to become Karina’s.

All I Desire

Yet for Karina’s Paula Nelson, life seems best viewed silently (“there’s too much noise,” Made in USA’s silent trailer says in intertitle).  Repeatedly, she whispers her own desire to be silent—because that’s when she and Richard were the closest. Presumably, devoid of expression in Made in USA’s pop-bang universe, in which everything is expressions, they were able to be like each other—or like each other. “I sit and watch the evening play / Doing things I used to do / They think are new / I sit and watch the tears go by,” goes "As Tears Go By". And Karina, sitting and watching silently, will not only face her own losses, but see a world that reflects her thoughts and feelings.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal?

Or is that just because she’s a blank slate—a silent, vague enigma? Abstract characters enough, don’t fill them in with particular quirks or backgrounds, and like Picasso’s puzzle-piece people, they’ll start to resemble each other as forms. But in Made in USA, there still is a possibility of liberation—from one’s own life and character—political and personal, and really, for Godard the two are the same—in metamorphosis. If one scene can turn into another, so can one person into someone else (the easiest way’s to put on a disguise). When Karina and Faithfull share a bar, Karina thinks to herself (in voice-over), “at least tell me something,” and a few minutes later Faithfull, channeling her thoughts out-loud, says it to the man next to her—only to be abandoned by him (as Karina's been abandoned by her lover). When Faithfull sings “As Tears Go By” in reaction, she’s singing Karina’s song, and the connection’s cemented by a series of strange close-ups between the characters as they stop talking and look around. Paradoxically, Karina finds a connection with the pop star in mutual loneliness (Faithfull, singing a cappella, and beautifully, is left to herself; it’s in the lyrics too). It’s as though Karina glimpses another life she might have had, another person she might have been. Or might be. She could be singing—if she could sing.

“See that earthy type, with the curly hair and the moustache? It’s Rembrandt. Or maybe Balzac… They’re only two of the characters that haunt me. Every human being is a whole colony, you know.” – Pablo Picasso

We see the connection again when Godard cuts back and forth between Karina, in some indeterminate space, and a woman in a doctor’s office (the shots of each are repeated again and again).

In this blatant deconstruction of the Kuleshov Effect, like the garage scene’s dubious shot-reverse-shots of Karina and Léaud, Godard again inserts a shot of Karina that has nothing to do with the scene at hand and Karina seems to look at the unsuspecting girl in her office, who dons her uniform as Karina does her trenchcoat, and—the two alternating on screen—the girls look like variations off each other. Again Karina seems to see another life she might have had—or might have. Like any movie watcher, Karina’s Paula Nelson watches lives in self-contained scenes and seems to pretend that they’re her own. Her life to live is anyone’s. And she, the anonymous dick, is everybody and nobody at all. Pure potential, like a story waiting to be written.

Written on the Wind

In all these recontextualizations, Godard lifts Karina out of the scenes in which she plays to indicate she isn’t subjected to this world at all, that half the time, she doesn’t even seem to belong to the scene: there are different ways she can act; her identity is her own creation; she has silent echoes with people around her as if they act as she might; and she hardly belongs to scenes because she’s mostly isolated in some undefined space, is laughing to herself, and seems spliced into the scene, as though her participation in most of the movie is merely hypothetical. And yet while mise-en-scène is to put in place, and Godard, in his abstractions, takes characters out of it, the irony of all his open-fisted devices offering alternate scenes and takes—to show different ways characters might act, and we might interpret their actions—is that it’s all director’s ploys. Karina’s taken out of the unreal world by impossible movie tricks which only affirm the sense of unreality: did Karina walk around the garden that way or that way?; is that guy David Goodis or Louis Aragon?

There is, however, another antidote to Made in USA’s pervasive unreality. It’s to sit silently and watch.

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What’s with this movie and people looking at the edge of the frame? It’s like a sly version of Bresson’s characters who look down, then up, then down, almost mechanically, except Godard’s aren’t looking at anything but the reaches of the ’scope frame. I almost considered doing an image series on that theme with this movie but the results were silly, Szabo looking left, then right, then down, then left…
Karina’s performance is probably her best here, I think, because she’s completely self-sustaining: chuckling to herself, clicking to herself, smiling to herself, grimacing to herself. And it’s perfect for the film: Godard plays tricks with impossible off-screen sounds and impossible reverse shots to undermine any certainty that she’s actually in the same scene as the people we hear around her or seem to be talking to her in the same space. There’s one shot where the little man at the start is yelling at her (nevermind she’s checking herself out in a mirror most of the scene), and she’s nodding off—and I thought, of course, this was filmed separately, perhaps Godard was talking to her and filming her reactions, and then put the shot in as a false continuity. But suddenly she straightens up and responds to him—perfectly aware. So why are people looking at the edge of the frame? Well, because there’s always something off-screen, maybe (Godard, like Hawks and Rohmer and Resnais and Manet, is as interested in people’s reactions to the scene as the scene itself). Or maybe because it lets Godard create all those dubious continuities—we see a character gaze off-screen in any movie, and we’ll assume the next shot is what they’re seeing (Bresson, Hitchcock, and Rossellini like to actually show the character’s POV—who else?)—so that he can connect unrelated shots and leave us skeptical if these characters are actually in the same scene as what we assume they’re seeing. That what you meant?

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