Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie … Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to “The Big Sleep,” a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake’s Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 — very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd.
Westlake’s Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard’s soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film’s colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a “film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart–therefore a political film.” A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

…while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

…There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.

The Times does not devote much attention to the film’s explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer — the former lover of the film’s protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a “vast right-wing conspiracy” almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title “Made in U.S.A.” almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard’s homage to “The Big Sleep” says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well — one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in “The Big Sleep,” the murderer’s identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler’s original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally “made in America.” Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ’s “Great Society” produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a “pink lady” harboring “communist sympathies.”

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war’s end failed to kill the national security state.

Cross-posted from my personal blog on this Nerd Friday because I have not been adding anything here this summer. Sorry about that.