Sunday, July 5, 2009

Everything Dies: Part Two

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966, 90 mins.)

Click here for part one

In Made in U.S.A., the plot isn't the point, though the film does have one, loosely borrowed from Richard Stark's novel The Jugger* and Howard Hawks' noir The Big Sleep. In JLG's post-modern policier, newly-retired reporter Paula Nelson (Godard's ex-wife, Anna Karina) sets out to determine what happened to her lover, Richard. When he turns up dead, she tries to figure out who killed him. Or so she says.

Since Karina is such a sympathetic presence and since the proceedings play out from Paula's perspective, it's easy to side with her trenchcoat-clad femme fatale even as she murders several men, putting her proclaimed innocence in serious doubt.

Just as the location is an abstraction, death also plays for laughs until Paula's final homicide, which brings her to tears. When she shoots Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud), however, he dies in such a comical fashion, it's hard to suppress a smile.

Aside from Siegel, a reference to the Baby Face Nelson auteur, JLG's Atlantic City features Ben Hecht and Preminger Streets and characters named Inspector Aldrich, Miss Daisy Kenyon, Paul (not Richard) Widmark, and David Goodis, author of the tome behind Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. As is his wont, Godard also works in nods to Italian poetry, German psychology, and Japanese film, as embodied by Doris Mizoguchi (Kyoko Kosaka), who sings a lovely little number in Paula's tub.

Furthermore, JLG and DP Raoul Coutard use the color red here much as in Pierrot le Fou and La Chinoise. It saturates the scene in spectacularly vivid form. When blood flows, it looks more like cherry-flavored cough syrup than actual sanguination.

That said, Made in U.S.A. isn't a comedy, not when JLG aligns the plight of Paula's paramour with left-wing Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka, who also disappear-
ed for months before his body was discovered (he had been tortured to death).

Consequently, tone and pacing tend to vary wildly, contributing to the picture's poor reception in some quarters, although a few contemporary critics, like David Phelps and Jonathan Rosenbaum, consider it among the filmmaker's finest works.

It's also worth noting that JLG shot his 12th film at the same time as Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which has been more widely seen and celebrated over the years. Nonetheless, I prefer Made in U.S.A., particularly since Godard largely avoids the didacticism that would mar much of his output in subsequent decades. Just as Chinatown and Atlantic City signify places and ideas of places, Made in U.S.A. signifies a place and an idea of a place: the inside of Jean-Luc Godard's big, beautiful brain.

* The pen name of author Donald E. Westlake, whose novel inspired Point Blank.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

"I started off intending to make a simple film; and for the first time I tried to tell
a story. But it isn't my way of doing things. I don't know how to tell stories. I want
to cover the whole ground, from all possible angles, saying everything at once."
-- Jean-Luc Godard, La Nouvel Observateur (1966)

Made in U.S.A. continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/9 at 7 and 9pm.
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Incidentally, though never before available in the US, Criterion now lists a DVD release date of 7/21. Images from The Auteurs and DVD Beaver.

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