For American cinephiles of a certain age (under 50 or so, babies during the ’60s if alive at all), the last year and a half has been a neo-Godardian lavishment — month after month, there came a new sterling DVDization, or a new rarity screening (like Light Industry‘s showing of “Far from Vietnam” in Manhattan), or a new biography or brace of incidental footage (The Believer‘s “JLG in USA”), or even, as in this past January, a full-fledged American release: 1966’s “Made in U.S.A.,” only shown at festivals in its day before getting stalled and closeted by the producer’s legal woes and messy rights trouble with the Donald Westlake novel it barely references. It’s one of the 15 essential rockets Godard launched that made the decade his and his alone, and if you don’t find it a privilege to be able to discover it in 2009, you don’t care about movies.
“Made in U.S.A.” fits perfectly into Godard’s evolutionary passage from metafilm messiah to Marxist didact, from the buoyant gamesmanship of “Alphaville,” “Pierrot le Fou” and “Masculin Féminin” to the narrative-fuckup radicalism of “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” (also a new Criterion DVD), “La Chinoise” and “Week-End.” Riffing impishly on noir clichés, composing life as if it were a comic strip, fracturing his ersatz story into slivery mirror shards, lollygagging through dramatic confrontations, cutting in splats of audio and advertising and visual punctuation, tossing off movie-movie allusions, indulging in irrational jokes, lacerating Americanization and the crassness of modern culture — it’s all there, all stewed together into a feverish, mysterious brew that’s less a traditional masterpiece than an open-source exploration of the cinema-life interface. Godardians will recognize the reflexes and disjunctures, and will likely get most of the moviehead references (the names tossed off include Goodis, Widmark, Siegel, Mizoguchi and “Ruby Gentry”).
But what’s revelatory about the film begins and ends with the central figure of Anna Karina, and I’m not talking about her acting or even her celluloid image. The romance between Karina and Godard is one of the most impassioned on-screen cataracts of feeling that 20th century cinema produced, and “Made in U.S.A.” is its requiem. The couple were already divorced in 1966, and aside from a larky omnibus short — 1967’s “The Oldest Profession” — this would be their final film together. It shows: every inch of the movie is saturated with sorrow, bitterness and ambivalence.
Perhaps because Godard’s approach has always seemed to me to be less analytical than poetic, the relationship “Made in U.S.A.” has with its maker’s heart suggest the double-coded meanings in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a roaring, secretive wail of modern existentialist despair that’s also, not incidentally, just as much about Eliot’s failed and crumbling union with his unbalanced wife Vivienne. Godard’s film has the same seething layers in it: on the surface, it’s all voguing nonsense, noir fun and bristling politics (the story is actually a contemplation of the disappearance/assassination of radical Medhi Ben Barka, which is just one contextual matter the Criterion’s supplements explicate beautifully). But underneath, we’re watching the art form’s most spellbinding love story crash and burn. Every close-up of Karina (who is lit flatly and often shot too close, as if to reveal her flaws) aches with woe, and almost all of the dialogue has second meanings. “Loneliness isn’t the cause of death,” Karina’s impromptu girl-detective says, interrogating a doctor while searching for her lost lover. “How can you not see the link between loneliness and illness?” he replies. “Why tell me stories?” she answers in what could be Godard’s growing aesthetic philosophy boiled down to a kernel. “I just want the truth.”
The crowning moment where the real meaning of “Made in U.S.A.” blossoms is in the first half, when Karina hangs out in a brasserie with her shady noirish pursuers. As they all evade each others’ eyes, Marianne Faithfull, as herself, sits in a booth and lets loose with a plaintive a cappella version of the Stones’ “As Tears Go By.” It’s the saddest scene in Godard’s oeuvre, and as precious as a real memory. Given the context of this film, Godard’s descent (if that’s not an unfair word to use) into icy political screed and anonymity with the Dziga Vertov Group wasn’t merely an ideological transformation but an escape from heartbreak.