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Some notes on “Made in USA”: Unreal City

Atlantic City (Made in USA’s Paris suburb theme park), 1967, and the revolutionaries, like filmmakers, are dreamers. Dreaming, if they’re the nouveaux réalistes or the situationists, of tearing down reality to scraps. Scraps can be decontextualized, like readymades set in an all-white room—or put a new context altogether. Reality, in any case, must be reassembled. Surrealists and futurists tend to be left-wing.

Made in USA, which opens with Anna Karina waking up, and ends with her nodding off, could be something of that dream.

“Mise-en-scène, mise-en-scène, ooo, mise-en-scène,” cackles one character off-screen. “It’s what you believed in. Everyone did.” Karina’s just suggested the possibility that her dead lover Richard was just a dreamer. “Mise-en-scène,” the donkey-faced man responds, as if to say, “just?”

Because—it’s Godard's point throughout—dreamers, revolutionaries and artists, are metteurs-en-scène, and thus, dangerous: they set up worlds self-contained. (Literally, “mise-en-scène” means “the arrangement of a scene”, or perhaps, “put-in-place”). Human beings are the pieces filmmakers and politicians play with—placing them into an order with its internal laws and logic, directing their actions, assassinating them (mentions of Auschwitz and Vietnam recur and the Mehdi Ben Barka case is a deliberate echo to Richard’s own). Art is a form of politics, and “advertising,” Karina says, “is a form of fascism.”

For advertising does exactly what Godard’s openly artificial mise-en-scène threatens to do at every step: flattens, objectifies, and abstracts human endeavor to a series of simplified forms and ideas. Advertising, John Berger tells us, is just images that serve as signs, interpreting the world, directing our actions, and telling us that happiness lies in purple toilet paper. And the world of Made in USA is nothing but signs. Sometimes, quite literally.

In the film’s centerpiece, Karina visits a warehouse of cardboard icons that echo her pose—like the hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai—at every step, as if to say she, too, is just an image for consumption:

“Disney” is held; Karina’s been playing in voice-over with the idea that her life’s a Disney movie (played by Humphrey Bogart, in blood), and Godard grants her cartoon fantasies reality by dropping her into a world of comic cut-outs—and effectively turning her into a cartoon among them. It’s here that she’ll be laughed at for trusting mise-en-scène, since the cardboard warehouse, of course, is the ultimate in mise-en-scène, perfectly arranged scenes (from movies) arranged together, one after the other, to seal off almost any space that isn’t a flat painting of a movie scene that itself is a depiction of some staged reality. This is the created, self-contained reality with which Godard is constantly at odds to show real life, in which plots aren’t solved neatly, and in which Karina's discoveries have little to do with each other (except on a thematic level). The warehouse shows off still-lives that for the most part don’t look imitated but invented; art here, like David Goodis’ story at the end, paralyzes reality by exchanging it for rigor-mortis-stiff illusions. Characters are set neatly against the posters, which set illustrated ideas (of the wilderness, no less) neatly into place, and are—of course—just publicity.

So if Made in USA is a lot of loopy neo-surrealism set in a misnamed Paris that accomodates a "rue Preminger" and a "rue Allan Dwan," it’s because Godard claims—or rather, understands—that people (in Atlantic City, 1967) don’t spend much time in reality at all. They live in their dreams, and in the past, and in paranoid conspiracies of their own devising, and they live in a world wallpapered with empty foreign images telling them what to think and devised, if not by corporations, then by a government who kills off those who don’t think likewise—dictates, like a director, their actions and whereabouts. (These are simplifications, but they are Godard’s.) Karina lives in all of these. Her wardrobe holds a sweater with an icon of Beethoven (labeled: “Beethoven”), filched from Billy Wilder’s own great black valentine to the empty images and mythic stereotypes America propagates, Kiss Me Stupid, as a blatant sign, once again, of how culture’s been branded flat into trademarks. The clothes Karina actually wears during the same scene make her look like a walking Mondrian (though if Anna Karina’s just another artwork, has there ever been a better image to consume?). And whereas Band of Outsiders takes to the suburbs as a last refuge of wind and leaves and water (all flickering), in Godard’s ode to the impressionists, here, when the characters finally escape walled-in civilization, the only nature to be found is a small, bulky garden, fenced in by a few shit wires, that hangs behind them like a doormat.

And freedom? When everything’s fenced into place?

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