Made in U.S.A.: Criterion Collection
July 20, 2009
Made in U.S.A. (1966) was made during Jean-Luc Godard’s most celebrated and highly-regarded period of filmmaking – 1960-67 – that spanned Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967). As Godard progressed through this time period, his films became more self-reflexive and self-conscious, as well as having a playful attitude about them. Loosely adapted from American crime fiction author Donald E. Westlake’s The Jugger and dedicated to legendary American filmmakers Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, Made in U.S.A. is, as the DVD’s liner notes point out, a “piece of pop art” like a “Looney Tune rendition of The Big Sleep gone New Wave.”
Paula Nelson (Karina) is a private investigator who wears the traditional garb of her profession (a trenchcoat) and carries a gun but is otherwise an atypical gumshoe. At one point, she thinks to herself, “I feel like I’m caught up in a Walt Disney movie, but with Humphrey Bogart, so it’s a political movie.” This thought best sums up Made in the U.S.A. in that it features cartoonish violence while also commenting on the politics of the day, namely the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, a prominent leftist from Morocco in political exile in France. The story, such as it is, sees Paula searching for a lover who may have been assassinated, but takes all kinds of twists and turns so as to make The Big Sleep (1946) seem positively straightforward in comparison.
Godard’s film not only plays around with its visuals but also with its dialogue, like when Paula has a conversation with a bartender and one of his patrons. The customer says, “I’ll try to make sentences but I don’t like to,” and when asked why, replies, “Because sentences are useless or empty words.” Furthermore, he argues, “Sentences can’t be meaningless and have fuller meaning,” and proceeds to rattle off all sorts of nonsensical statements, like “the floor is stubbed out on the cigarette.” The man’s point is that sentences can be grammatically correct but defy coherent logic in terms of content. It’s a fascinating scene that transforms what is supposed to be a crime thriller into an intellectual exercise for a few minutes.
Like many of Godard’s films, Made in U.S.A. explicitly references cinema and draws our attention to the fact that we are watching a movie. This is a very smart film but not a very emotionally involving one, which is fine because it isn’t pretending to be the latter. Made in U.S.A. is a fascinating film to be sure but not one I’d watch again and again.
“On the Cusp: Colin McCabe and Richard Brody” features these two Godard biographers talking about how the filmmaker’s personal and political views informed Made in U.S.A. They also point out that it also signaled the end of any interest Godard had in narrative cinema. Brody and McCabe say that it was Godard’s last attempt to make a genre film.
Also included is a 2002 interview with actress Anna Karina who talks about her life and work with Godard. She was only 17-years-old when she met him and describes the man as a very calculated filmmaker. Karina recounts some stories that provide fascinating insight into his working methods.
Actor Laszlo Szabo, who appeared in several Godard films, talks about making Made in U.S.A. He touches upon Godard’s relationship with Karina and how, in some ways, the film is a love letter to America.
“Made in U.S.A.: A Concordance” is a video essay that sources many of the quotations and references in the film. For example, it points out the pulp fiction references. Many character names came from the cinema.
Finally, there are original and re-release trailers.