“Year Zero,” the term from Rossellini, might be Godard’s favorite mantra, signaled in Made in USA, stated throughout the ’70s, and situated neatly in the title of Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, his portrait of a country rebuilding itself from scratch and the scraps of other nations’ cultural debris. Break it down, atomize, isolate the elements of a scene and then reconstruct them discriminately or not on a clean, blank slate: it’s mise-en-scène, one of Godard’s perpetual pursuits, and more or less the goal of A Married Woman. But, on the other hand, as Carl Theodor Dreyer—the master of the blank slate—writes, in the year of Vampyr—
“If one is striving to create a realistic room atmosphere, one must do the same thing as far as the sound atmosphere is concerned. While I am writing these lines, I can hear church bells ring in the distance; now I perceive the buzzing of the elevator; the distant, very-far-away clang of a streetcar, the clock of city hall, a door slamming. All these sounds would exist, too, if the walls in my room, instead of seeing a man working, were witnessing a moving, dramatic scene as background to which these sounds might even take on symbolic value—is it then right to leave them out?”
In La Chinoise, a girl shows a guy that he can process two ideas at once when she puts on swollen music to break up with him (really, the words and music are a single, sad idea; she plays director, coordinating plot and direction), while in Made in USA, a worker in a bar lists all the things he sees at once in demonstration of the multitudinous, possibly unrelated sensations, visual and aural, that collage into a single instantaneous impression. Words can identify objects, and abstract them from their scene (and even their own, individual qualities). As can abstract art and close-ups; both feature throughout Made in USA, a film that stacks traffic sounds and off-screen conversations and classical music on top of the on-screen sounds, then places and yanks these layers at will.
Earlier Godard plays similarly, but Made in USA’s montage marks the sustained command of a master as—as in a Hollywood movie by Fuller or Ray where the music matches (even dictates) the emotion, or Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, where a donkey’s bray makes an interlude to a Schumann song—an orchestra blast can take the place of speaking, a typewriter’s typing can fit a classical song, and extradiegetic sounds usually pull out in close-up, as a character is held suspended from the rest of the scene. Nearly every cut changes the composition of a scene—or, perhaps, marks a change in a character’s perception of it—as clothes change, people are shifted around, and new characters manifest in the bathroom. In wide-screen wideshots, even as the camera fixes on single people or objects, other characters, enacting other scenes, pass by quickly in the foreground, often pacing back and forth. In the ’80s, this swarm of off-screen, even off-scene actions and impressions will become Godard’s norm. In Made in USA, though, Godard takes on the chaos of everyday sensations mixed together not just with the intent to individuate them, rhyme them, and remix them, but to simplify. Three colors, two dimensions. Like a flag, blue, white, and red: French, or American.
“All the electric thrill of a Rauschenberg painting in motion,” Jonathan Rosenbaum brands Made in USA, and Godard makes a neat abstract impressionist, his film slapping together scraps of quotidian debris (pop stars and pop songs and newspapers and news items reenacted and discussed) with flat, cardboard Hollywood icons and long, flowing stretches of classical music as adhesive over the fragments like Rauschenberg would smear a timeless blue or red over his topical cut-outs. Both see daily life above all for its color in abstract. As images.
Or are those readymades that echo Anna Karina’s figure, itself echoed later by the man she’s already killed?
Certainly, there’s Lichtenstein-like pop—
—and though Godard wasn’t watching Warhol’s films at the time, a parallel fascination, once again, of all the unrelated elements that can inhabit a scene at once—more ingredients of a collage. Two people can talk simultaneously; a girl can play guitar while a man is dead and another writes a book; one can dance, two can watch, and a man can get tortured by a candle off in background-right.
Is Made in USA itself just collage of mod art movements of its time? Its closest ancestry’s has got to be the stripped-up garbage and posters of the Nouveaux Réalistes’ décollages (opposite of collages: tear down, not build up)—
—and the lettrists’ hypergraphy, proposing that words are images, and images are signs.
Everything’s up for grabs: it’s all art, Made in USA, with the rest of Godard, one giant art projection.
"Let us compare a Cubist painting of a chair with a Fra Angelico altarpiece.
The differences may at first be startling, but there are also similarities. In both paintings there is a delight in clarity. (Not necessarily a clarity of meaning, but a clarity of the forms.)...In both paintings the space in which the objects exist is clearly very much part of the artist's concern, although the laws of that space are very differrent: in the Fra Angelico the space is like that of a stage-set seen from the auditorium; in the Picasso the space is more like that of a landscape seen from the air. Lastly, in both paintings there is a simplicity and lightness... which suggests an almost blithe confidence. One might think that one could find the same qualities in paintings from any period, but this is not the case. There is nothing comparable in the five centuries between."
Picasso’s interpretations of Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger seem to take Delacroix’s suggestions—of a flattened space in which doors are set haphazardly on a wall and a gaggle of half-drugged women, ornamented lavishly by Oriental robes that blend them in with the patterned walls around them, stare out into a space they don’t notice and we don’t see—and literalize them. The women, their clothes, and their surroundings are all just shapes, inter-mixed components of a larger patterning, a single impression they form together like puzzle pieces and from which they’re not to be identified or distinguished (this is, of course, part of the feeling of being high, that you’re part of the world around you, and vice-versa). But as Berger says, Picasso, long past cubism, is still just going back to year zero to represent in the flattest, simplest forms he can, to let his abstractions suggest the reality from which they derive.
And similarly, Godard interprets a detective story (The Big Sleep, with its own mishmash of unrelated characters and scenes) by flattening space—like early, Méliès-like two-dimensional tableaux in which descending layers of the background move independently of each other, but are stacked parallel to the camera—as characters are laid against walls (as if before the firing squad heard repeatedly throughout), walls which, as in a Lang film, are either intricately textured so that the character (in zippy clothes) recedes into it as decoration, or a single blank color, so the character looks abstracted from it altogether.
That last shot hints at three-dimensions, but the girl’s conveniently aligned to block the corner of the room; instead, the two walls look like one stretching behind her like a matte. A painting.
Images above from films and paintings by Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol, Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé, Eugene Delacroix, and Pablo Picasso.
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