One of the greatest mysteries of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA (1966) is just what the mystery is. Ex-journalist Anna Karina slinks around in a trenchcoat asking about an old lover who’s disappeared, is told by a doctor there’s no mystery, kills a man, is given info, once by an off-screen voice (Godard’s?) handing her an address, is trailed by and trails two detectives who inhabit the address (a garage) and later admit to being murderers themselves, tries to help them solve the murder she committed, and in the end, after having gone everywhere and nowhere, concocts a couple stories to explain everything away, but kills her friend David Goodis, who was writing the Louis Aragon autobiography called Le Roman Inachevé (The Unfinished Novel), because he would have finished his novel by taking her story as his own.
The point isn’t so much to interpret all this as to recognize Godard, like Preminger (invoked again and again) in Anatomy for a Murder, is only providing interpretations: people’s dubious guesses and confessions—stories—of what’s actually happened. Even when a murder is shown, it’s shown like this—
—a hieroglyphic representation of a shoe hitting a face with a paint smear on the side that serves as a sign of murder without showing anything actually like it.
“What would a picture be if it were not a sign? A tableau vivant? Ah, of course, if one were an artist! But when one is only Cézanne or wretched Van Gogh, or Goya, then one paints signs.” – Pablo Picasso
Like Picasso, Godard sees the world in crystalline glimpses: hardened, perfectly defined features that belong only to a particular texture, face, voice, or moment but are, usually, abstracted from surrounding space and time to emphasize they are merely signs of a fuller, more three-dimensional reality beyond. Made in USA is obsessed with such representations and reenactments: repeated pantomimes, and songs sung, and a cryptic tape player, and poetry recitations, and the cardboard icons, and a typewriter typing, and people telling stories, and Karina recapping the on-screen action in voice-over, and people calling themselves Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon, and Anna Karina sporting a trench-coat to signal she’s a Private Eye, and opening titles with names reduced to initials as simplified signifiers of the names and people, all simply represent, like a word, a Picasso painting, or a close-up, a basic idea, an abstraction. They’re depictions—signs—of some truth. It's the detective’s job to figure out what they mean.
Because detectives, like Godard, trade in signs and stories and clues that only abstract and distort and, at best, glimpse the truth. It’s not postmodern games: early on, Karina asks the camera for proof; “Stop telling me stories,” she says later. “I want the truth.” It’s just that the truth, of her lover, and with him, has disappeared.
With Contempt, Made in USA is Godard’s other great elegy of the decade; it’s Godard’s farewell to Anna Karina, framed as Karina’s farewell to him, as it nearly opens with her holding a book titled Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour (which another detective reads through later). What’s dead is a love affair as much as a lover, and when, early in the film, Karina, like an aging Gabin called in for one last heist, pauses to look in a mirror as she tells a man off-screen, “il y a longtemps que c’est fini tout ça” (“that all ended long ago”), it’s clear she’s not just talking of war (though the affair seems to have been that too). Eventually, she confesses: “to find out why Richard died is to find out why I live.” Like My Life to Live (1962), Made in USA is, on all levels, about a woman trying to live an independent existence from the world and yet one devoted to it; Karina’s opening lines, spoken as she wakes up, and written (in slightly different order) by Samuel Beckett in a little abstract story on the anxiety of influence and the eternality of love the year before, haunt everything that follows:
« Le bonheur par exemple. Chaque fois qu’il désirait une chose moi aussi. Ou la gloire ? Pour lui. Quand il ne désirait rien moi non plus. Si bien que je ne vivais pas sans désirs. Pour lui. Quand il se taisait il devait être comme moi. Je n’avais que les désirs qu’il manifestait. »
(“Happiness for example. Every time he wanted something I did too. Or the glory? For him. When he didn’t want anything, I didn’t either. So well that I lived without wants. For him. When he was silent he became like me. I didn’t have any wants but those he showed.”)
Later, she simply confides: “I choose to exist and to become more and more present to myself, to Dick, and to others.” And this is her search. Made in USA is about many things, but all of them engaged with the impossibility and necessity of existing for oneself and as oneself—which is to say, as a grand Hollywood myth and for a lover, for those are to be subsumed in one’s idea of self as the renewal of a whole world, past and present and on the street, just as, as in a dream, Godard conflates David Goodis and Louis Aragon and Yves Afonso as all the exact same person; modernism starts with Manet, Godard says in Histoire(s), because with Manet women’s private existence and thoughts become worthy of the cosmos—in modern times, of mass-production and mass-murders, 1967.
“Liberté” is a persistent title card, returning in different colors, though each time it’s shot up by a gun squad.
A basic dialectic that recurs throughout Made in USA (every Godard film has got one): things that are unending, and things that end. Karina replies that that’s all over, but the man tells her wars never end, and lists the ones that have been going on and on. Le Roman Inachevé is, by name, an unending project that Karina can’t let Goodis finish (he must die instead). A final scene will be devoted to the theme—that things go on—but Godard ends with a “fin,” as a reminder, like all of Godard’s sound tricks, that life is boundless but art circumscribes.
And there’s the problem that Richard’s death must have meaning through her life; she must live on for a dead man, and the only way to do so is to insist his death is a mystery she can spend her life investigating. Explicitly when the detectives decide to solve the murders by naming themselves as murderers, but all throughout, Karina is merely creating paranoid plots for herself to solve. It’s an ongoing project, as she pretends, like the criminals of Bande à part (1964), that she’s living in a Disney or a Bogart film—though later it’ll turn out that thanks to mass production, she’s living in a Disney and Bogart theme park, sealed off from the world.
Or, like Rivette’s Celine and Julie, who also play detective to plots of their own imaginings, Karina makes the grave and gay mistake—it’s one Rivette and Godard always insist we make—of taking fiction for fact, and assuming art and stories are to be enacted and lived. And the truth? Karina eventually discovers that art murders the truth: “Nobody can know the truth. If we talk of a time, it’s because it no longer exists. If we talk of a place, it’s because it’s disappeared. If we talk of a man, it’s because he’s dead.” They’re the central lines of the film, that make the point of all Godard’s mannerist games explicit: that art takes a scene out of time, frames it, glimpses it, and interprets it in limited vocabulary of words or notes or shapes as a set or series of ideas and echoing patterns; that art takes the life out of life. It’s only a stale representation—to translate life into art is to set it down in fixed, crystalline terms, as Godard does all throughout Made in USA (while his parallel film, Two or Three Things I Know About Her , is disguised as documentary). A man must die so Karina’s—Paula Nelson’s detective work—her art project—can continue, unsolved (just as Balzac’s painter can’t finish his painting, or he’d have nothing else to live for).
And Godard’s style, as usual, makes it impossible for anyone to make her mistake of assuming this isn't art.
And yet Godard’s camera is on the search for the truth: “capturing” all it can of everyday surrounding life, in cafés and gyms and doctors’ offices, all real places inhabited by cartoon characters. Characters are lined up against walls, as in Masculin Feminin, Godard’s first spin on documentary, as though under interrogation: Karina’s and the camera’s (Godard isn’t showing us the truth; he’s showing us, as in similarly styled Wes Anderson features, how characters represent themselves). In this, probably Godard’s most Rivettian film (there are occasional cutaways, as in Out 1, to a character at the outskirts fostering the mystery, here with a telephone; a tape recorder threatening apocalypse seems right from Paris Belongs to Us; and everyone here is part of the conspiracy, though nobody seems to know quite what it entails), the ruling metaphor seems like a nudge forward to Out 1 itself. The director is lead conspirator; the camera, a detective.
More notes: Picasso >>