Friday, December 21, 2012

#481: Made in U.S.A.

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Some thoughts on Godard upon my viewing of Made in U.S.A., the last of his films in the Collection that I had yet to see:

-- Has anyone ever cared about the story in a Godard film? I mean, sure, you can get wrapped up in the human dynamics of Contempt or the love story in Breathless. But the movies seem so far separated from reality that I have a hard time believing anyone could take enough time inside of the world of the film to forget you are watching a movie and get wrapped up in what is happening. I don't know that I've ever really cared much for his characters, either. This might make his movies hollow - and they certainly would be in the hands of any other director. But Godard has a way of turning this weakness into a strength, and even a genre film like Made in U.S.A. feels constantly fresh rather than confusing and dull.

--Is it impossible to appreciate Godard's films outside of their cultural context? This is especially aimed at his work from the 60s and 70s, particularly his work where things like Vietnam and the student protests in France began to seep into his work. But Godard's early career wasn't just about politics, and his modernist twists on film were as much comments, perhaps love letters, to earlier work. WIthout knowing that work - which would have been much harder for people seeing the films in their initial release - the movies would certainly seem even more strange than they already are. Does this make Godard and weaker or a stronger director? The answer seems to depend on how deeply you value standalone work and how open you are to criticism and cultural reappropriation in your movies. There is no definite answer as to its value, but I do think appreciating his films without any context would not only be difficult, but missing the point.

-- At one point in Made in U.S.A., Godard's semi-ode to the jumbled American noir he loved so much, his muse Anna Karina tells someone, "You can fool the movie audience, but you can't fool me." How tired this line would be today, yet how invigorating it is to see it in 1966! Jokes like this are everywhere in Godard's work throughout the 60s, and it's hard to tell how seriously he took a joke like this (and by extension how seriously he took his films). Much of this comes down to intention, something difficult to pin down with the elusive Godard. I don't think anyone would argue that Godard wasn't an ambitious filmmaker, but his tour through genres and consistent self-commentary makes him look a lot more like an intellectual explorer than a self-serious filmmaker. A referential line like that serves as a cultural in-joke, which takes you out of the movie somewhat, just as its structure and sentiment echo countless lines from the genre pics with which the film claims to belong.

-- Sometimes it can be funny how highly regarded Godard is when his films are so impish and slight in tone. Compared to similarly towering figures like Tarkovsky or Kurosawa, the director seems like a teenager lashing out at mom and dad - albeit an extremely talented teenager. Of course, it could certainly be argued that despite his sly side Godard was more sophisticated and complex than either one of those two filmmakers. In fact, the way he chooses to present his movies often seems designed to challenge the way we watch movies - he's more Brakhage than Hawks, even when going brightly noir. It's what makes his movies so significant, both technically and philosophically.

-- I read a great piece recently about the Godard paradox - the idea that his movies are inherently of their time, infused with references to the past, but constantly looking towards the future. But interestingly enough, what it immediately reminded me of was commercials. It's a format that is constantly addressing the future (i.e. when you finally get the product), which roots it in the present. This comparison becomes even more relevant when considering Godard's use of typography and graphics. I'm not sure where this leads - it's just a thought I had about his work.

-- Having seen 15 or 20 of Godard's films at this point, it's hard to think of another filmmaker that has generated such different reactions depending on the film (I'm excepting hacks like Rob Reiner and Barry Sonnenfeld, who have stumbled into classics but mostly make garbage). Rather than lower my opinion of the director, it makes me like him even more. I doubt Godard, ever the provocateur, would have it any other way.

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