The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Made in U.S.A.: A Short Critical Chrestomathy

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While it’s fun to puzzle over the idiosyncratic weld of cultural references in Made in U.S.A. (Donald E. Westlake’s source novel, Warner Bros. cartoons, Pop Art sloganeering), there are leftist causes (the Mehdi Ben Barka affair was a touchstone), allusions to cinema (Don Siegel, Richard Widmark, and Mizoguchi are character names) and subtle nods to more personal travails (Godard’s breakup with Anna Karina) to parse as well. Is the film a political potboiler? A Brechtian New Left shibboleth? An allegory for a failed marriage? Yes yes yes … and more. No wonder the film has elicited a variety of critical responses over the years, despite being circulated mainly via a poorly transferred, 16mm pirated print.

To give a sense of the many levels at which Made in U.S.A. has been analyzed, I’ve excerpted some of the more insightful evaluations by film scholars and notable critics in the past, as well as comments by Godard’s two English-language biographers, Colin MacCabe (Godard: A Portrait of the Artists at Seventy) and New Yorker scribe Richard Brody (Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard), who’ll introduce the Film Forum screening on Friday, January 16. At the end of this list, I’ve also added some remarks that Godard himself made during a 1966 interview, while he was shooting the film.


Made in U.S.A., like Alphaville and Pierrot [le fou], is a hymn to the image of Karina which had obsessed Godard for more than five years. This was not just a matter of love and infatuation, but a legitimate cinematic inquiry.—James Monaco

The film’s raison d’etre is the extraordinary number and duration of close-ups of Karina….The close-ups are the most expressive ones in color that Godard had made to date, and they are signifiers of the act of remembering. With them, the film appears to exist for the simplest of purposes, fulfilling the primal function of portraiture: to see again the face of a person who is no longer present.—Richard Brody

What the film actually demonstrates is the complete inability of the form to deal with the reality of a politics which eludes the easy solutions of the thriller genre. In some ways, the simple and sombre message of the film is the inability of the left to cope with the developments of consumer capitalism: “Left Year Zero” is a repeated slogan as the film builds to its anticlimax. Made in U.S.A. is perhaps more easily understood as a re-run of Le Petit Soldat and an almost conscious farewell to Karina.—Colin MacCabe

The apparatus in Made in U.S.A., 1966, a tape recorder, makes the voice present across time, where the voice in the machine is a ghost, the dead fiance of Paula (played by Karina), voiced by ex-husband Godard. The voice reads dead text, extracts from a redundant political polemic, and is finally effaced when Paula makes her own recordings, reciting live text from the year the film is made: Foucault’s The Order of Things and Beckett’s Enough.—Roland-Francois Lack

From Made in U.S.A. onward, the political imperative accelerates [Godard’s] incoherence, replaces action with slogan and human meetings with the barren exchange of dialectic….His protests, therefore, are pathological and humorless.—David Thomson

Early in Made in U.S.A., Paula Nelson comments: “Blood and mystery already. I have the feeling of moving about in a Walt Disney film starring Humphrey Bogart. Therefore it must be a political film.” But this remark measures the extent to which Made in U.S.A. both is and is not a political film. That Godard’s characters look out of the “action” to locate themselves as actors in a film genre is only partly a peice of nostalgic first-person wit on the part of Godard the filmmaker; mainly it’s an ironic disavowal of commitment to any one genre or way of regarding an action.—Susan Sontag

In Made in U.S.A., there is a joke amongst the actors that each is to act below his normal talents. Thus the image is truly contrary: in a scene of total artifice, surfaces covered with an enamel version of nighttime Times Square color, the actors are pinned down in curious angularities and stiffnesses. Unusually small-sized even for French actors, all looking as though they were dressed by Ohrbach’s (Junior Dept.), the general impression is of the Ken and Barbie dolls, a cardboard lower-echelon Madison Avenue group maneuvered into cramped setting and held there.—Manny Farber

The French new wave cannot be defined unless we try to see how it has retraced the path of Italian neorealism for its own purposes—even if it meant going in other directions as well….And these images, touching or terrible, take on an ever greater autonomy after Made in U.S.A.; which may be summed up as follows: “A witness providing us with a series of reports with neither conclusion nor logical connection … without really effective reactions.”—Gilles Deleuze

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. If I had to define myself I would say that I was a painter in letters, as one says “man of letters.” The result is that although I have respected story continuity for the first time in Made in U.S.A., I couldn’t prevent myself from filling in the sociological content. And this content is that everything now is American-influenced. Hence the title.—Jean-Luc Godard

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:10 pm

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