Download as PDF Download PDF

Made in USA

The Question of Real Tears

 

Made in USA could be seen as a film that shows Jean-Luc Godard’s astonishing ability to do two things at once, or might be viewed as illustrating his capacity to knock off a film even if it was barely conceived except as a financial necessity. Colin McCabe, in Godard offers the former belief when he talks about Godard’s genius, saying the director would shoot Made in USA in the morning, and then go out and shoot Two or Three Things I Know About Her in the afternoon. Richard Brody, though, in Everything is Cinema, sees Godard’s pragmatism as more pronounced than his brilliance: the producer Georges de Beauregard needed money and could only get it by having a film in production; Godard saw it as an opportunity to pay off back taxes. Few films are immune to the practicalities of their making, but does production history really help us to understand the art work under discussion? Often not, and yet we might wish to keep in mind not so much the casually anecdotal nature of production history, but the specifically Godardian approach to making films that will allow us to explore certain questions of form in Made in USA.

The first concerns colour, the second music, the third, the actor and the fourth, the story, or rather how a certain sense of time obliterates its possibility. Obviously these concerns are vital to many of Godard’s films, but our purpose here is to see how Godard attacks them in this mid-sixties work. When we think of colour in film, is it possible that colour generates a dawdle that black and white refuses: that we are so struck sometimes by colour that we are not interested in where the film is going, but want to remain instead fixated on the visual texture of the scene? Godard was one of the great colourist directors of the sixties. Alongside Agnes Varda with Le Bonheur, her husband Jacques Demy with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Alain Resnais with Muriel, he discovered colour. This was different from the American directors preceding them, including Nicholas Ray with Rebel without a Cause and Bigger than Life, Douglas Sirk with Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind, Vincente Minnelli with Brigadoon and Lust for Life, and Hitchcock with Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Whatever the brilliant colour usage in these earlier films, they remained within the context of plausible, even subtle, mise-en-scene, the sort of plausibility well expressed by V. F. Perkins in Film as Film. Talking of Hitchcock’s remake of the director’s own The Man Who Knew Too Much, Perkins says that where in the black and white original the child (kidnapped by the baddies to guarantee the mother won’t reveal an assassination plot) is invoked crudely, in the remake it is invoked more suggestively. In both versions it is important that in a key scene in the Albert Hall where the assassination will take place, the mother’s anxiety over her child is clearly present to the viewer. She frets over the murder about to happen, but also about the child. If she opens her mouth and stops the assassination, she will be condemning her own offspring. “In the earlier film, this device is obvious to the point of crudity. The mother clutches a badge which belonged to her child…Hitchcock’s use of colour in the remake creates a more subtle effect. Throughout the picture the child is associated with the colour red. Once inside the auditorium of the Albert Hall, the threat to the child is represented by the bright red drapes which play an obtrusive, but natural, part in the images.” This is an integrated colourism practised by numerous fine fifties filmmakers, and central to a properly expressive mise-en-scene. But the French directors, and none more so than Godard, appeared to be searching out a different relationship with colour, an abstract colourism that shared affinities with abstract expressionism in art, and where the image was not held by representation, but capable of deviating from it.

Thus when Stanley Cavell says in The World Viewed on an excursus on modernist painting, “one fact of painting it discovered is as primitive as any: not exactly that a painting is flat, but that its flatness, together with its being of a limited extent, means that it is totally there.” When we look at a Rothko, Mondrian or Newland painting, we see what is called ‘color field’, an instance where, according to Wikipedia, “color is freed from objective context and becomes the subject in itself.” We don’t want to exaggerate the eschewal of narrative in many of these sixties films, but we do believe that the notion of the color field is much more pertinent to Godard and co. than to Hitchcock and others. If we accept Perkins’ claim that Hitchcock uses colour as a means by which to arrive at a subtler response to a pertinent piece of psychology, then Godard instead uses colour not simply to undermine psychology, but to give colour a formal property of its own. If we are aware of the woman’s anxiety through the use of  colour in The Man Who Knew Too Much, in Made in USA we are aware of the colour to the very detriment of psychology. We can think of the lengthy scene with Anna Karina’s central figure wearing a knitted dress with multi-coloured squares, and the bathrobe of the writer, a brilliant white and red of vertical stripes. The dress hints at Mondrian; the dressing gown, Bridget Riley. Yet our purpose isn’t to draw direct links between images in the film and Abstract Expressionist paintings (a Riley next to the dressing gown wouldn’t offer that much of a resemblance, though a dress Karina later wears would) but more generally to explore how Godard’s colour is abstracted. As he said in an interview in Cahiers du Cinema, around the time of Made in USA, talking of Antonioni’s bold use of colour in The Red Desert, “I don’t think I know how to manufacture a film like that. Except that maybe I am beginning to be tempted to try something of the sort. Made in USA was the first sign of that temptation. That’s why it wasn’t understood, the audience watched it as if it were a representational film, whereas it was something else.”

We might feel Godard is exaggerating his conservatism here; that his colorist inclinations in Un femme et une femme, Le mepris and Pierrot le fou were all pushing the representational into the abstract, and all were made before Made in USA. Yet Made in USA goes further, and seems the film where we can most fruitfully explore this notion of abstract colourism, this fascination with colour that nevertheless does not serve the story, but that leaves us more inclined to ponder the colours within it to the very detriment of narrative progression. If we think of the scene slightly before the moment with the writer, we see Paula (Karina) in her hotel room and perhaps start to notice in the wake of noticing the burst of colour that is her dress, other colours, and particularly the use of powder blue. This would be the natural colour of Karina’s eyes, but it then becomes the overriding colour in the mise-en-scene. We notice it first on her eyelids, then on the wall, then on the window frames, and then even on one of the cars when she looks out the window.

Where red is everywhere in the Albert Hall sequence in Hitchcock’s film (in the foyer and in the auditorium), Perkins feels under no obligation to be specific about the shade of red that is utilized. The importance resides in its dramatic use, not in its absolute colour specificity. We notice Hitchcock’s colour; we don’t quite see it. When we look at Rothko’s work we often get the sense of colour against colour, as though searching out the specificity of each tone. Paintings like Ochre and Red on Red, White Over Red and Red Orange, make us see colour. Though Rothko might have said it was never chiefly about the colour, it certainly wasn’t about representation either. We don’t notice the colour on our way to seeing something else: the colour is what we see, and something of this seeing is central to Made in USA. Godard works from the fact of his ex-wife’s very specific eye colour, and creates a mise-en-scene around it.

In Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody says, “Godard filmed Made in USA with an indifferent and blank flatness. The only images that Godard invested with energy in Made in USA are those of Anna Karina.” It is a remark indicating Godard’s casual attitude to the film’s aesthetic, but we can see just how specific that interest in Karina can be. If Godard could say that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun, Made in USA is an exemplification of this statement especially in relation to the girl. Karina’s presence brings out colour, it makes us think of powder blue as an abstract expressionist will make us think of the specificity of colour tone.

Yet to turn the film into a version of a painting is of only limited usefulness. Godard’s purpose is to get us to see film rather than notice it: colour is one aspect of this pursuit, and the others are consistent with it in approach. Just as an abstract expressionist creates a space in which colour can be seen for itself without representational givens, so in Godard’s work he often tries not to integrate elements into a whole, but separates them into discrete structures. We don’t notice the elements in a Godard film, we see, and hear them, as if they exist unto themselves, firstly, and within an integrated whole secondly. Usually cinema offers the reverse: the discrete elements are very much incorporated into the entire artwork and become invisible as they become indivisible. Godard’s the opposite, and we notice this here in Godard’s use of the other elements of the film too.

Incorporating a popular song into one’s film is common enough now even if it was less common in the mid-sixties, yet Godard’s use of Marianne Faithfull singing As Tears Go By would remain distinctive even today. Here in the film she is a character sitting in a cafe but any diegetic purpose she has as a character is secondary to Godard using her as an obtrusively diegetic presence, as a ‘soundtrack’. At one moment during the scene, Godard cuts to Karina looking on, and cuts also to other characters within the scene played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Laszlo Szabo. In one beautiful moment of brief montage we see the glances of the three characters as they listen to Faithfull singing, but because there has been no establishing shot we can’t say exactly who is looking at who. When we first cut to Karina we might assume she is looking at Faithfull, which would be consistent with the logic of the cut and the direction of her eyes, which she then flicks slightly as if now looking at what we might assume is Szabos’ character, Paul Widmark. But we might remember a little earlier in the cafe, before the sequence led into a brief montage insert, that she was at the far end of the bar with Leaud and Szabo standing at the bar also. It would make more sense if we assume the spatial arrangement is the same and that she is looking at one of them, and most especially at Szabo to whom she had earlier offered a long and lingering look. Yet at no stage does Godard ‘establish’ the shot, at no moment can we make a categorical claim about the whereabouts of each character. All the while the song is diegetic, yet without the usual coordinates that are expected when a film uses music that plays within the scene.

On this question of music in film we can think of four distinct uses of the diegetic to help us understand the originality of Godard’s utilisation. First, there is the music that is played on the radio, CD or record player within the scene, evident in anything from The Color of Money where Tom Cruise plays pool to Werewolves of London, to Pulp Fiction when Uma Thurman arrives home and plays Girl, You’ll be a Woman. The second is the concert characters got to in films like Nine Songs, where the film is made up of the nine gigs the characters attend, or in Short Cuts, where early on several of the films leading characters are shown at a classical concert. The third is in a musical where someone within the sequence gets up and bursts into song or dance. Gene Kelly does both when Singin’ in the Rain; Bjork likewise in Dancer the Dark. A fourth lies in the move between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. In The Color of Money, the music from the car radio becomes the music of the film, as Scorsese cuts from the inside of the car to a long shot from far outside it after Paul Newman turns it up. In Cousin Angelica, a young girl asks to turn the radio up and then the music in the scene becomes again the film’s as the characters play outside the car and the sound moves from within the story to outside it.

These are all approaches commonly deployed, but Godard wants the uncommonly utilised, and finds it in Faithfull’s rendition of the Rolling Stones song As Tears Go by, sung without instrumental accompaniment. As the person next to Faithfull gets up to leave, she sits alone and starts to sing, and the song becomes a wonderful hymn to loneliness and longing all the more pronounced because Faithfull has no other purpose in the film beyond the song, sings it in a state of solitude both physical and musical, and also in the process hints at the loneliness and longing in the other characters as well. Godard achieves something rare here: the abstraction of form with the concreteness of feeling. Just as he manages to use colour happily, returning us to a state of child-like fondness for colour, so he manages to use a song as if randomly that nevertheless keys into a very strong sense of solitude. These are feelings not only for the character who is singing, and who is barely a character at all, and almost a cameo part from a burgeoning celebrity, but for the three other characters who seem to be listening to her sing too.

Godard was of course a director constantly in danger of alienating an audience, and Cavell claims that while Godard might be seen as a filmmaker achieving the Brechtian, with critics admiring Godard’s capacity for creating a distance between character and role, for Cavell “while I do not deny in this idea the possibility of a major discovery for the movie, I do not find that on the whole Godard has achieved it in the films.” Yet in this scene with Faithfull, Godard manages to eschew character without at all denying feeling. It is not the story that makes us sad, but the moment of isolation in isolation. He manages to digress from the film’s ‘plot’ without undermining the affective. He remains one of the few filmmakers to achieve alienation with affectivity, because he understands that cinema is never too far away from the pro-filmic, from the fact that it is a reality filmed.

This leads us into the third aspect of the film that interests us, and  we will again go a little anecdotal to bring out the quality of ‘acting’ in the director’s work, and the importance of time and distance that are central to it. This was the last feature collaboration between Godard and Karina, a final cinematic gift if we take into account Karina’s albeit grandiose claim that “all these movies were presents from Jean-Luc to me,” (LA Weekly). Appearing in Vivre sa vie, Une femme est une femme, Pierrot le fou and other Godard films, Karina would also later be seen in work by Visconti, Fassbinder, Schlondorff and Delvaux, but her films for Godard is the body of work for which she is known, and the other films augment it. Brody goes so far as to say “this exercise in torment and condemnation was Karina’s farewell to Godard as he had constructed it, forcing her to bear responsibility on-screen for destroying him.” At the end of the film Karina’s character shoots dead the very character, a novelist, who shortly before had saved her life, and now she kills the film’s creative figure. If all Godard’s films with Karina were presents to the actress, then we can read this as Karina killing the goose that laid the golden eggs and who presented them to her, and if we are wary of saying this is a reading of the film, we can nevertheless acknowledge that, in a filmmaker so given to intertextuality, such a meaning needn’t be meaninglessly dawdling in the film’s margins, but part of a work that denies any ready centre. If for example we were to say that Vertigo was a film about the director’s own insecurities in the face of feminine beauty, then that would be all very well, but there is undeniably a strong narrative suggesting such a take would be quite arbitrary: we would be ignoring what is going on within the film for what is speculation beyond it.

However, part of Godard’s very Brechtianism is the blurring of boundaries between diegetic content and extra-diegetic fact, with Karina both a character and an actress playing the part. However, with the role so thinly sketched, isn’t it entirely likely that we see Karina at least as present if not more so than the character she plays? Here the question of production history returns, but we hope not as casual gossip but as pertinent enquiry: what exactly constitutes acting? When Szabo told Brody that Karina’s tears were for real at the end of the film, we might feel that the tears are all the more Karina’s because there is so little story and character to hang them off. Now if for example we hear that Ellen Burstyn’s tears in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore were for real in a scene where she auditions in a bar as a singer, then despite the knowledge we may have that she was a key figure behind the production, had just won a best supporting Oscar for The Last Picture Show and had a huge hit with The Exorcist, they would still seem much less Burstyn’s than the character she plays. Director Martin Scorsese  may have seen it as a vehicle for her talents rather than an exploration of his own: “it was her project, she had hired him” is how Peter Biskind describes the situation in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. However, when Burstyn cries her tears are completely integrated into situation and character. Here is a mother of a teenage boy trying to make ends meet after her husband dies and she leaves the town in which they were all living. We feel her frustration and need, her loneliness and her desire for a bit of warmth. They are all evident in the story; we don’t need to surmize beyond it and think about where these tears are coming from.

In Made in USA the observations we make beyond the film are also part of the film. Godard may have famously claimed that “every film is a documentary of the actors”, but this is a question of degree. Last Tango in Paris is more a ‘documentary’ of Brando than On the Waterfront. The degree to which the story is a revelation depends not only on what the actor says about the production (Brando talked of feeling violated by director Bernardo Bertolucci on the latter), but the absence of character so that the performance appears more exposed. When near the beginning of Made in USA Paula lies on the bed and talks of searching for happiness it isn’t that Karina is talking about herself, but that there isn’t quite a character being developed that makes it clear she is talking through a character. When tears form in Karina’s eyes when she shoots the writer David in the head just after he has saved her life by killing Widmark, there is only a fragment of narrative indicating that the tears are part of that story. Even if we didn’t know that the tears were Karina’s own and that she was somehow reflecting on the end of her career with her ex-husband, we still might wonder about them, believing they haven’t been diegetically integrated. When Burstyn cries in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, we readily identify with the character, well aware that they have been.

Is this Godard’s failure or a certain type of radical success? Cavell would seem to see it as an act of self-defeatism, saying “for a film director does not begin with a medium in which actor and  character have conventionally or momentarily coalesced, nor with a conventional or passing denial of the distance between the stage and a coherent audience. “Actor” and “audience” lack a clear application to film.” But equally we cannot say of the theatre what Godard says of film: that  every film is a documentary of the actor. Godard is not seeking the Brechtian distance that shows the audience the gap between character and actor in the audience’s presence, but showing the gap in the audience’s absence. It is a document not an enactment. Brechtian theatre, according to Martin Esslin, “by abandoning the pretence that the audience is eavesdropping on actual events, by openly admitting that the theatre is a theatre and not the world itself, the Brechtian stage approximates to the lecture hall to which audiences come in the expectation that they will be informed; but also to the circus arena, where an audience, without identification or illusion, watches performers exhibit their special skills.” (The Theatre of the Absurd) Godard’s work is not the live theatre of the lecture, but it is the documentative, taking into account his own comment on actors, and the fact that a film is a temporally mediated event. In other words it isn’t only removed from space as a live sporting event happens to be, where the mediation is only spatial as we watch a game of football in Brazil on television in the UK, but in time also.

What Godard so wonderfully captures is this temporal schism that film has the potential to play up more than any other art form, and this is perhaps why he is so suspicious of narrative, as if there are so many other ways in which film creates meaning. After all, cinema enlarges; it hyperbolizes the moment and turns even the most mundane of details into fetishitic potential: a point Douglas Gordon astutely recognized with his art installation on Psycho, as if taking another Godard comment (that “cinema is truth 24 times a second”) and wondering what happens when you slow a film down so that it plays over twenty four hours. As James Stewart once said, “what you’re doing is, you’re giving people… little, tiny pieces of time… that they never forget.’ (Who the Hell’s In It) This is remembrance of things past in film form; not at all the live smell of a madeleine, but the evocative time of the image.

If Cavell feels that Godard never quite gives us pleasure, it is because he has a different conception of film time than Godard. When he says “it is sometimes claimed that the demand for a “position” from an artist is an archaic demand, a holdover from a romantic or moralistic view of art. Why can’t the artist simply provide us with pleasure or merely show us the way things are?” (The World Viewed) Godard does not offer this pleasure to Cavell, and he feels that “works that do provide me with pleasure or a knowledge of the way things are equally provide me with a sense of the artist’s position towards this revelation – a position, say, of complete conviction, of delight, or ironic amusement…” But Cavell, a very important film thinker, nevertheless here seems to be missing the point by asking Godard to provide for Cavell’s wants over Godard’s own aesthetic needs. If Godard remains an enormously significant filmmaker it is partly because he understands that this position Cavell wishes for is couched in narrative that obliterates rather than accentuates time. If we think again of the moment in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, we are in the film’s narrative present as we think about the job Alice desperately needs to get. We aren’t thinking chiefly of Burstyn being filmed by Scorsese at a particular moment in her life. This doesn’t mean we cannot allow the actress to eclipse the character when we are watching the film, but it is an option not a demand. Godard creates such deliberately flimsy characterizations that we are watching the gap between the actor and the part, but in a very different way from that of Epic Theatre in Brecht. What Cavell regards as Godard’s failure, we’re inclined to regard as another type of success, as if Godard was aware that making the film and watching it takes place in two different time zones, and film ought to acknowledge this distance.

Of course, and in conclusion, one of the best ways to do this is to eschew narrative rather than promote it. One reason why films have so often used home movie footage to designate the distance between time past and time now resides in its documentative detail to the detriment of any narrative present. If someone were to say that many of Godard’s sixties films are home movies to his actress wife, that wouldn’t be entirely untrue, but it might be a facetious remark that contains within it cinematic fundamentals that are being missed. When in the scene where Karina hits a character with a stilletoed shoe, and he falls down dead, she says: “here we are. Fiction triumphs over reality. Already there is blood and mystery”, few directors more than Godard refuse that triumph, and thus here the story never really takes hold – it is a loose, fragmentary series of episodes that allow for the conjunction of the fictional and the real. What matters more is time, and Godard films with the idea that we cannot know the present because it awaits its contextualization into the future. Even the idea that this would be Karina’s last film with the director we can only offer with hindsight. At the time it was her final work with Godard, but then there were no other Godard films yet made. We now know it was their last feature length collaboration, and so the tears Karina sheds carry an extra-diegetic frisson they wouldn’t have possessed had she gone on to make another film with him. (She appeared shortly afterward in a Godard short, but no other full length work). It would be a bit like those hugs and handshakes you offer a friend after you part, only to bump into him all over again an hour later in another cafe. The pathos of the moment turns into the bathos of the reencounter. Godard and Karina had no such feature reunion, and so the moment holds, but it is time that has partly created it.

Thus when Cavell wonders if Godard can find a position upon which to comment on the material he chooses to present to us, the answer lies in the negative. But it isn’t that the director is uninterested in saying what he thinks (his directorial interventions are more pronounced than most), but that he acknowledges there is a temporal dimension to the work which goes beyond narrative time and covers that of historical time, and this is partly where the work fits. It is as though Godard doesn’t want to tell a story but predict the future, and reflect on the present that will inevitably become the immediate past. The images he films are already in the past as soon as the material is in the can, while the society he is commenting on is already moving into the future. Instead of relying on the relative stability narrative gives to a film, an anchor mooring the present in a temporal storm, Godard allows his film instead to pull itself into the past and into the future, leaving the narrative present flimsy next to these other forces of time.

We can see this most clearly in the film’s conclusion. Shortly after killing the writer who helped save her life, Karina manages to hitch a lift with a documentarist friend. In a long take conversation viewed frontally, they discuss politics. The subtitle introducing this final few minutes is called Left: Degree Zero. At one moment they mention the Ben Barka affair that has been alluded to earlier in the film and which was a key political scandal in France in the sixties; a Moroccan politician who disappeared in suspicious circumstances in Paris in 1965: a left-wing figure whose death was perceived very politically. The documentarist describes this as old news, yet it is of course very pertinent to the moment the film was made. What is old is the music accompanying the sequence, a classical piece indicative of time past rather than time future. While the politics suggest subsequent events, with Paula the political radical who has blood of two men on her hands as if anticipating the student radicals of the late sixties and seventies, The Red Army Faction, The Black Panthers and The Red Brigades, the presence of the music and Karina alludes to the past. It is as though Godard was searching out dimensions of the image that he could not insist upon because he did not yet know the consequences of their use.

We now know that Karina would never appear in another feature by Godard, and we now know that radical, violent action would come out of youthful disaffection. If Cavell felt Godard never had a position, then is this a problem of time rather than one of stance? Godard never knew quite what he wanted to say because he never quite knew what would be the consequences of what he filmed. “That’s cinema”, Godard claims. “Life arranges itself. One is never quite sure what one is going to do tomorrow, but by the end of the week one can say, after the event, ‘I have lived.’” (Godard on Godard) This is film as a tentative work of temporality, a work that doesn’t know its meaning because it never quite knows when its meaning is complete. Even writing about a Godard film feels like an act of provisional enquiry. If Paul Coates could suggest that critics love Godard films because they turn all viewers into critics (The Story of the Lost Reflection), we could add that his films turn all critics into figures vulnerable in the face of the image, as if aware no critical stance can quite capture the elusive nature of Godard’s cinema.

 

©Tony McKibbin