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Some Notes on "Made in U.S.A.": It's All True

Made in USA is, like about all Godard’s works, just a documentary of a time, of some places, of some people. A home movie bearing witness to 1967, politically, personally—and the two, here, are the same. And in that sense, Rossellini, whose characters are often little more than what they see (dead-end societies of tenements and seasides), is Godard’s explicit predecessor, though he saw one Godard film (Vivre sa vie), and didn’t like it. As Rossellini filters public realities through personal melodramas, Made in USA comes with Godard’s fullest awareness that a documentary of the age must show both outside lives and inner lives, can’t simply capture events and habits; it must capture the people’s fantasies, the poetry on their minds, their feelings, their thoughts, their theories, the songs that run through their heads, their political concerns, what they think they want for dinner. Society’s unconscious. Even literalize it.
But it also must capture, as Ordet does, as Man with a Movie Camera does, the commonplace events and habits. Godard remains a revolutionary and a Bazinian, dedicated to cinema’s power to give ideas concrete reality. Made in USA, a film of abstract art, is also a film that features a shot in a bar as characters talk theory, Karina twirls her hair, the barkeep pours the drinks, patrons drink them, the barkeep cleans the glasses, characters enter and idly thumb through books. The shot is over six-minutes long, just a casual observation of a usual process in a bar, and of the particular ways that Karina looked and acted during the moments the scene was shot. That nobody in a bar has ever talked like the characters do—of semantics—is nullified by the understanding that they did, once, and we’re watching it. Whether or not they’re actors, a functional bartender and some functional drinkers are in a bar, and the conversation took place as much as they drank and scratched themselves while it happened. It’s a real scene, like scenes of John Wayne hunting wild game in Hatari! are real. They happened; we’re aware of them happening.
Make it real is Godard’s motto implicit throughout. All those news items and pop stars on the outskirts of public awareness that people read about like fictions—Godard takes these unrealities, these nightmares and glamour dreams far from “real” life, and puts them into everyday contexts. Marianne Faithfull sings the song Mick Jagger wrote for her to herself in the bar. Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara are gas attendants. Casual assassinations are the norm here, as they are increasingly in Godard’s 60s films, because they’re an illustration of Vietnam brought home to quotidian life and the streets: and inevitably, the spectators react to the murders as if they’d simply read about them in the news. They shake their head and sip their coffee.
Representations aren’t enough. Vietnam should be shown as slaughter, not just of a race, but of individuals. (“Governments have no more right than people to commit murder,” Godard whispers in Histoire(s) du Cinéma.) Of course, Made in USA offers almost nothing more than representations (signifiers—pantomimes and recordings and acronyms) and ambiguities (the relation of a shot to another is as unclear as that of any character to any other, and the films abounds with parallels and alternate possibilities for scenes to turn out). Just as dropping celebrities in cafés and politicians in gas stations is really less neo-realism than surrealism, these representations and ambiguities acknowledge we’re in a world of fiction: where parallels are planned, where editing is a lie. Godard’s up to his usual self-reflexive Brechtian tricks—but then, the fiction may be designed from Karina’s performative Paula Nelson, or by a society that kills abroad and walls its citizens in with posters of Disney rangers. Godard shows up his own film as Technicolor lies because he’s looking for the truth. Which is?
Godard’s next and last project with Karina is his entirely straightforward short, Anticipation (spoilers). In the future, a man orders a prostitute—but she is specialized only to arouse with her words, not her body. She fails; he needs the actual thing; representations aren’t enough. So she discovers another way to speak with her mouth, and the film flickers from charcoal blue to full-out color just after a voice-over tells us that we’ve switched from the “couleur soviétique” and the “couleur chinoise” to the “couleur américaine” as passions burst à la Fuller or Ray.
The lovers of the short do about what André Bazin did: realize that a recognition of reality comes with a belief in bodily presence, in a living person living in real time, in a real place—for the lovers, with gestures entirely unique to both that assert that they exist in the moment (if film is truth at 24 times a second, of course, it’s got to change 24 times a second), and in the space.
For me, this is what makes Made in USA such a work of beauty. The characters breathe; as in Ordet, we hear their breaths. And here, it anticipates the works of two or three filmmakers Godard would support a militant year or two on. The first is Philippe Garrel: the grand poet of drowsiness, of just watching his characters in place, on the edge of humming, thinking to themselves. (DeMille supposedly said Griffith’s real revolution was showing characters thinking; similarly, in Histoire(s), Godard, claiming Manet’s daydreaming girls as the foundation of cinema, will call film “a form that thinks”). Like Godard’s, Garrel’s kids fantasize to themselves and miss the outside world moving on without them. The difference—one of them—is that Garrel’s characters remain silent, while Godard’s express whatever they’re thinking, often as recitals, often of citations.
The second filmmakers, then, are the team of Danièlle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. (Godard had just paid for a screening of their very great Not Reconciled at Venice the year before; he would help finance their very great The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach the next). As Straub and Huillet turn realism into a practical method of direct sound (the soundtrack of every shot is the sound filmed at the moment of the shot from the perspective of the camera), Godard, despite his added sound effects, often does likewise, so that each cut within a scene gives over to a new perspective of image and sound both. The effect is, deliberately, the same: this rigorous adherence to realism exposes the artificiality of the scene altogether, as the background sounds shift throughout a scene that’s supposedly continuous. Foregrounding naturalism foregrounds the illusion.
More importantly, like those two, Godard likes to simply place his camera in front of a character—Karina in the opening shot, Doris Mizoguchi in the bathroom, Faithfull in the bar, a tape recorder on a table (but that last one reminding us we’re not hearing anything directly, that it’s all distorted representations)—to set the person away from the scene, into their own space where they can think and breathe, and listen to what they say. And as in Straub-Huillet, what they say is not some off-the-cuff soliloquy but text now recited studiedly—in Made in USA, Beckett, a guitar song, “As Tears Go By,” and a communist manifesto, respectively.
These monologues have about the same implications for Godard and Straub-Huillet, that art should live. First, there is pleasure of watching theory and abstract poetry given concrete, material form in the living bodies delivering them, as though these are not just texts anybody can relate to, but texts personalized by the characters, who look like they’re in a trance in Godard (they’ll come out of it), and look like they’re ghosts in Straub-Huillet (they won’t).
Second, they’re Marxist gestures by artists who believe art is not a museum refuge, but speaks to everyday life, and thus, should be spoken by the people: a redistribution of aesthetic wealth that Godard will follow to illogical conclusions throughout his career. “Made in USA,” said Jean-Pierre Gorin, “is still a very interesting film in its attempt to link together two words which have a lot more in common than the first two letters: politics and poetry.”
And third. Tag Gallagher writes on Straub-Huillet: “Explains Straub: 'I don’t take myself for Cézanne but if you look at a Cézanne canvas, it doesn’t provoke sensations in you, you see there sensations materialized.' Art is not emotion, art is a form for emotion. Like in [John] Ford.” I didn’t understand what he meant until I saw Made in USA. But the idea is the same. When the characters quote poetry or sing, they don’t express their emotion directly (these scenes, shot flatly, are done without affectation, often in measured monotone by Godard’s and Straub-Huillet’s characters both). Instead, they express a text that is itself a meticulously formed expression—in the rhythm and the tone of the song and the words—of their emotion and speaks for them in ways they wouldn’t be able to speak for themselves. Some critics reasonably find this evidence of Brechtian self-reflexivity—an acknowledgement that the art work is perfectly formed without any attempt at spontaneity. I find it moving.
The final many-minute shot gives us these elements: Anna Karina and real-life journalist Philippe Labro (as himself) discussing politics in a car; the car; the view out the back of the highway in constant recession; and some sinuous Wagnerian music getting louder and softer, refusing to resolve, swelling to a final chord that only comes with the intertitle “fin” and is, at that point, cut off abruptly. It’s freedom at last for Karina as she escapes Atlantic Cité with her friend, and just as she’s spent most of the film being trapped in tableaux against the Cité’s walls, the film shoots into three dimensions; just as she’s spent most of the film trapped in cubistic glimpses, the shot gives her the chance to stretch out, move a bit, and breathe. But Godard isn’t abandoning rigorous form. As Karina and Labro discuss ’67 politics and wonder where it’s going (the question provides the movie’s final words, and Karina asks them, nods off, and looks back out the window, then forward), as they posit that all things will pass but institutions will never change, Godard gives a composition that’s a deliberate echo: looking out the rear window, we see where we are and where we’ve been and have no idea where we’re going (there’s no going back). The music’s ebb and flow only matches this portrait of flux, of one landscape fluidly giving way to another, of one conversation topic to another, one gesture to another: finally, nothing is held in place, but everything feels indeterminate. Which only means, once again, that there are possibilities, for what our characters look like, for what will happen next. A revolution? Made in USA is, like so many of Godard’s films, a film utterly of its time, and beyond it.
The first is Philippe Garrel: the grand poet of drowsiness, of just watching his characters in place, on the edge of humming, thinking to themselves A beautiful and precise characterization, one of the best of Garrel’s work I’ve read.

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