The films of Jean-Luc Godard, and particularly the films from Une Femme Mariée to the present, are pushing at the boundaries which have stood—more perhaps through habit than intrinsic necessity—between one art form and another. Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, for example, defies all categorization, and can only be described, in Godard’s own terms, as “a sociological essay in the form of a novel, written, however, not with words, but with notes of music.”6La Chinoise, at the same time that it probes the nature of revolution, probes as well the nature of theater—especially the “dialectical theater” envisoned by the later Brecht. Made in USA (which Godard finished just a few days before Deux ou trois choses) takes a few jabs at the political intrigue film and thrusts its real assault at the tenuous boundary between film and the painter’s canvas.
Moreover, just as painters today are themselves challenging the notion of the canvas and are reaching out into the world of everyday objects as media for their paints, so too does Godard reach out both to paint and to film the walls, the billboards, the posters, the gasoline pumps, and the comic-books which surround us today; to create of them, in his films, a series of semi-abstract collages which stand—more perhaps than any other contemporary art form—as the icons of our age. In Made in USA the style is a combination of the comic-strip iconography of pop art and the violent splashes of color of the “action painters.” The compositions are out of Pollock, Poliakoff, Hofmann, Francis, Gorky—and there is even a flayed skull leering out at us obscenely, like one of DeKooning’s terrifying “Women.” But Godard has, in his own way, gone beyond the action painters to discover still another medium with which to paint—blood. Made in USA, as Anna Karina comments on the film’s sound track, is the marriage of Walt Disney and Humphrey Bogart, in short, “a Walt Disney with blood.” And blood there is, flowing, spurting, splattering over the whole works; but it is a photogenic blood that looks— and is used—suspiciously like paint. A man is murdered in bed and the blood-spattered sheet is cropped and photographed to resemble a composition by Jackson Pollock.
Along with Antonioni’s Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur, and Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, Made in USA belongs to the burgeoning genre of what might be termed “painter's cinema” due to the way in which so much of the film narrative is “told” in color, composition, and light. Godard, who recognized in Deserto Rosso the sort of film he himself had long wanted to make, has spoken of the impression he had, while watching that film, that the colors were not in front of the camera but in the camera, that the camera did not merely photograph Deserto Rosso but created it—a stylistic effect which Godard himself sought to achieve in Made in USA. “What I wanted,” Godard revealed, in talking about both Made in USA and his short film Anticipation, “was to get inside the image . . . just the way certain paintings give one the feeling of being within them, inside them, or give the impression that they can never be understood as long as the viewer remains outside.”7 But Godard is well aware that the ordinary film-viewer’s habit of concentrating on the anecdotal structure of the “plot” often presents a formidable obstacle to his getting inside the film and understanding the more subtle language of color, composition, and light. To help the viewer overcome this obstacle is always a difficult task, and the opening words of Made in USA —”le bonheur, par exemple”— may be Godard’s way of attempting to alert the viewer at the very outset, by referring to Varda’s experiments with colors in Le Bonheur, that the film he is watching belongs to a genre of films that do not tell a story so much as they show it. Godard has even declared that the film which Made in USA resembles most is Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy) —a film in which all of the dialogue is sung instead of spoken. In Made in USA Godard explains, “the people don't sing, but the film itself sings.”
Nevertheless, Made in USA reveals a hard-edged contemporary sensibility which has far more affinity with Antonioni’s cool abstractions than with the Romantic lushness of Le Bonheur, Elvira Madigan, or Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Godard’s sensibility, it should be pointed out, however, does not lack its own particular brand of Romanticism—a more tempered lushness— which reveals itself, for example, in Le Mépris and Pierrot le fou, in Godard’s lucidly despairing but nonetheless poignant nostalgia for Mediterranean harmony; and which reveals itself in all his films in his attitude toward love, in the poignancy of his characters’ perpetual search for love, in his own special way of letting the camera dwell caressingly on the gestures, the expressions, the moues of his actresses.
In Made in USA it is Anna Karina once again whose every gesture, every blink of the eyes, every swish of the hair is offered up to our visual caress. She is on screen nearly every instant of the film, usually in close-up, usually standing in front of a brightly colored wall—as if in a series of painted still compositions which might be entitled “Anna Karina on Blue,” “Anna Karina on Red,” “on Yellow,” “on White,” etc. Her face is now a little fuller perhaps, and at times the make-up gives her a slightly washed-out look: the gestures and expressions are the same we have seen so often in the earlier films that in Made in USA we sometimes have the impression we are watching an old pro’s parody of the “real” Anna Karina we know and love. But when she fluffs out her hair in that feminine gesture so well-loved by Godard, we capitulate, and, like Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) in Le Petit Soldat, we lose the bet and have to admit that we have fallen in love with her . . . all over again and in spite of the lack of depth (this time) in her role and in the film as a whole.
However, the notion “lack of depth” seems to have been quite consciously integrated by Godard into both the subject and the form of Made in USA. Visually, the film has a markedly flat quality; and one has the claustrophobic feeling that nearly all of the film takes place in the closed space of what the French call a plan américain; with the camera framing just above the knees on a person standing directly in front of the wall. There is even one remarkable sequence in which Paula (Anna Karina), seeking possible clues to the disappearance and presumed murder of a man she loved, keeps a rendezvous with various underworld types in the prop and publicity storage-room of a movie theater. She walks to and fro amidst a maze of life-sized cardboard cowboys, commandos, and sex-queens—a two-dimensional pop world of violence and sexual fantasies which serves as a mirror both to the American movie industry’s exploitation of the aggressive tendencies and sexual frustrations of American society, and to the superficial and basically false social and political situation of a Western Europe which, in rebuilding itself in the postwar years, has come increasingly under the influence of American ways.
France’s Ben-Barka affair, to which Made in USA often alludes, was a gangland-style kidnapping and murder, which, if it hadn’t happened right before their eyes in the heart of the Latin Quarter in broad daylight, 1965, would have seemed to most Parisians something out of an Al Capone movie of the twenties, or, for that matter, still another manifestation of America’s present wave of violence and political assassinations. In any case, the title is neither gratuitous nor whimsical: Godard, like most Frenchmen (and this is the one issue on which Godard and De Gaulle would agree ), feels very strongly about the insidious effect of the Americanization of Europe; and, in Made in USA, Godard has attempted to depict in his own cryptic way Europe’s floundering efforts to extricate herself from the stultifying morass of American “cultural” exports—guns, gangs, gadgets, and Coca-Cola—as packaged by MGM.
But Godard is by no means a crude xenophobe sputtering with indignation and rage at the sight of everything American. On the contrary, Godard’s attitude toward America betrays that certain admixture of attraction and repulsion, of fascination and fear—the love/hate relationship that America seems to inspire so readily in its intercourse with the rest of the world. There are aspects of America which Godard clearly admires and seems even to love. Action painting (or, if you prefer, abstract expressionism), to which Godard pays homage in Made in USA, found its beginning and its most fecund development in America; and in addition to American film style of the thirties and forties, even American comic-strips are admired by Godard (as well as by Resnais and many other French film-makers) for their lively, concise syntax, their quick-cutting shorthand which puts across its message with a minimum of signs and a maximum of emotive energy.
Made in USA is, itself, very much in the comic-strip style, even using “balloons” (the single expletive “BING!” the instant Anna Karina is slugged on the head by an underworld tough popping out from an alley doorway) and dialogue carried on from one frame to another (back and forth, with a cut each time the conversation switches from one speaker to another—the two speakers never appearing together in the same frame ). There is, however, more than one comic-strip style; and given the telegraphic economy of the individual comic-strip sign, one can, simply according to the proliferation of individual signs, create of each frame either a “simple” or a “complex” unit of expression. This distinction (basically a stylistic one applicable to most art forms) can easily be perceived by a glance through the comic section of any newspaper: some comic-strips, like “Peanuts” or the Jules Pfeiffer cartoons, are extremely spare and convey their visual message with very few lines and little or no background; while others, like “Dick Tracy” or “Batman” or “Steve Canyon,” are extremely dense and convey their visual message with an overwhelming mass of detail, each individual part in its own cryptic way conveying a certain signification. The sense, for example, of a frame from “Dick Tracy” is as much the electromagnetic ray-gun lying on the table in the corner as it is the punch being thrown at the hero’s prominent jaw by his latest adversary.
Godard has, of course, utilized both simple and complex styles, but he has leaned increasingly, in his latest films, toward the latter; and, in particular, has experimented with the dynamic tensions which can be set up by a density of signs with conflicting and even contradictory significations. Thus, in Deux ou trois choses, both the viewer and the chief protagonist (Juliette— Marina Vlady) are inundated with signs clamoring for their attention, bidding them to do this, to do that, not to do this, not to do that, until the struggle to separate sense from non-sense reduces both Juliette and the viewer to a “zero-point” from which, hopefully, they will be able to start afresh. In Made in USA, too, the style is often complex in such a way that individual signs work against rather than with each other.
Before discussing the various types of sign-conflicts which occur in Made in USA, however, we should look closely for a moment at the very exemplary demonstration of sign-conflicts which Godard included within the dramatic structure of La Chinoise. This simple lesson shows the way two signs can come at us at once with contradictory significations, baffling us momentarily (or longer) until we refine our sensitivity to the more discrete units of meaning within a single sign and are thus able to decode the sense of a given sign or sign-cluster. In fact it demonstrates precisely the sort of critical operation we have been called upon to perform in Made in USA and Deux ou trois choses. I am referring to Véronique’s demonstration to Guillaume of what it means to “struggle on two fronts at the same time.” She tells Guillaume, by means of the spoken word, that she no longer loves him, while at the same time, by means of a Romantic piano sonata which she plays on the phonograph, she tells him just the opposite. Guillaume, like the audience, does not know at first what to make of this procedure and stares at Véronique bewildered, then becomes frustrated at the confusion in his decoding process and shouts angrily, “What’s going on?” until finally he catches on, relaxes, smiles, and admits that she had him scared for a moment.
Normally, of course, there are not just two but many signs presented simultaneously in a particular shot or even in a particular frame; and it is worth noting that Guillaume, confused by the two conflicting auditory signs, immediately searches for a third sign—a visual one—by staring intently at Véronique’s face. She, however, maintains as neutral a sign as possible by remaining impassive—and Godard himself safeguards that neutrality by avoiding a front close-up, keeping the camera to the side and at middle distance.
When two signs conflict, of course, there is no need for one sign to cancel out completely another sign. Given any two signs presented (aurally or visually) at the same moment, sign A could cancel out sign B, or Β cancel out A; or A could predominate over but not cancel out B, or Β predominate over but not cancel out A; or A and Β could be contradictory and yet each of them half-true (for example, as in the case of a love/hate relationship); and, theoretically at least, they could be present in equal parts, that is, in a 50/50 ratio; or, finally, A and Β could be mutual reinforcements or redundant statements, either both 100 percent true or both 100 percent false.
Among the various signs, it happens that words (although they are present in great abundance in Godard’s films) are often systematically undercut or overruled by visual or other auditory signs such as music (as in “demonstration” by Véronique) or noise. The latter is utilized by Godard as a particularly effective source of tension, especially when what we might call random noise (that is, a sound usually not considered to occur for the explicit purpose of conveying sense : the sound of a car’s motor or the drone of a low-flying plane) occurs simultaneously with a sound (such as the spoken word) which is normally considered to occur for the explicit purpose of conveying sense. When these two sounds occur simultaneously, our normal reaction is to consider the random noise as pure “interference” and therefore to dismiss it as much as possible in order to concentrate better on the supposedly more meaningful words. In Deux ou trois choses, however, Godard systematically turns the tables on us by letting noise convey as much sense as the words we strain so hard to hear —and often noise, in that film, conveys more sense than the words. In Made in USA, however, there are only three basic situations in which noise per se predominates over or cancels out the spoken words. Each time it is pronounced, the name of the man whose disappearance and presumed murder Paula is investigating is completely drowned out by a ringing telephone, low-flying jet, or honking auto-horn, so that even at the end of the film he is known to us—unless we are excellent lipreaders—simply as Richard. The noise, by systematically smothering the name, pretty clearly signifies to us the relative unimportance of the name; and the history of the past few years has provided all too many names we could fill in: Kennedy, King, Ben-Barka, Oswald, Evers, and even (perhaps most appropriate) the name X (as in Malcolm).
A second instance of noise interfering with words is a nicely ironic example wherein the noise is, itself, made up exclusively of words, but words spoken simultaneously by two different people (Paula and Widmark—Laszlo Szabo) who, standing side by side and facing the camera, deliver simultaneously two rapid-fire monologues which melt quite helplessly together to form an incomprehensible jumble. Finally, the third, most important, and certainly most irritating conflict between noise and words occurs on the two occasions when Paula listens to a tape-recorded speech which Richard (our Mr. X) had prepared for a meeting of the PCF (the French Communist Party). The tape is played, however, at such a high volume and on such a small tape-recorder that the sound is horribly distorted, producing a deafening, haranguing rasp (it is Godard’s own voice, by the way, which is distorted ), permitting us to comprehend little of what is said. What few fragments we do manage to comprehend (such as the statement that the Communists in France must offer a concrete alternative to the “nuclear adventure and patriotic publicity of the Gaullist police-state”) indicate to us that the speech, although rambling, might (in Godard’s own allusive and elusive way) be quite interesting and even instructive; but, as it stands, it is instructive only as another example of the way the rhetoric of the Left (as well as that of the Right) so often deteriorates into an incomprehensible harangue. And this is not the first time that Godard has dramatized the inability of the French Left to communicate its political programs articulately.
But if words can be so easily overruled by other auditory signs such as music and noise, what happens to words when they come in conflict with visual signs? It is precisely this problem which provides what is undoubtedly the most extraordinary sequence in Made in USA—the incredible “conversation” at the bar in a small café. (This sequence, by the way, is all the more extraordinary by virtue of its being filmed over a duration of what seems like ten minutes without a single cut—capturing, through subtle camera movements and the slow, preoccupied pacing of Paula, as well as through the rhythm of the words, a ballet-like ebb and flow that is absolutely hypnotic.) The conversation takes place between Paula, the barman, and a young laborer who has come in for a few quick glasses of vin ordinaire. It begins with a seemingly nonsensical mélange of words and numbers. When Paula states that she is twenty-one, the laborer remarks that he is only two years older than she is (so far so good), to which Paula replies, however, that she is surprised to learn that he is nineteen (?) ! The barman butts in to object that 22 and 35 (?) do not make 19, to which Paula agrees, except, she adds, that, during war, 70 plus 14 made 40. Mathematically, of course, this is all non-sense; but the last equation, at least, makes sense if one catches the reference to war and to the “snowball” effect of war upon war upon war in the last hundred years. (1870 was the year of the Franco-Prussian War, the first of France’s humiliating defeats at the hands of the Germans; 1914 was the year in which Germany invaded France in World War I; and 1940 saw Germany once again occupying French soil.) Moreover, these wars—at least the last two—have brought increasing intervention of the United States in Europe’s affairs, and the wars are thus key chapters in the Americanization of European life, which comprises the subject of the film.
Following this playful but straightfaced game of numbers, the conversation switches to an equally straightfaced but far less playful game of words, which, it is demonstrated, can be put together in perfectly correct syntactical relation and yet make sheer non-sense—and even a most poetic but most disquieting form of contre-sens. “The barman is in the pocket of the pencil’s jacket.” “The counter is kicking mademoiselle.” “The doors are throwing themselves through the windows.” “The windows are looking out of my eyes.”
These statements are delivered matter-of-factly by the young laborer between sips of his wine. But while he uses words to turn the world upside-down and inside-out, Raoul Coutard’s magnificent color photography shows us a world so visibly—and, for the actors who move about in it, so palpably—right-side-up and rightside-out, so irrefutably solid in its thingness, that ultimately we realize (as did Juliette in Deux ou trois choses) that instead of helping us to disengage the real from the imaginary, language submerges us with significations which threaten to drown that which is real, and only lead us to doubt whether language itself is of any help in our intercourse with the world.
There is, as everyone knows, an old saying that “one picture is worth a thousand words”; and Godard, in La Chinoise, coined a cinematographer’s version of that old adage and had it painted on the wall of the activists’ apartment. “One must confront vague ideas with clear images” reads the maxim of moralist Godard, who, in his exploration of the world of signs and in spite of his own love for words, finds the visual sign—the clear photographic image—a far more faithful indicator of the reality of a given situation than the fickle and all too malleable word.
But the question arises as to why in his films, Godard occupies himself with exercises in signs, with comic-strip syntax, with pop art, with the sharp, bright graphic style of Elle and Marie-Claire. Some have attributed it to caprice, others to perversity, while still others have somewhat enviously accused Godard of cashing in on the cult of modernity. The answer, I would maintain, is that Godard does, in fact, interest himself in the cult of modernity, not in order to cash in on it, but rather because it is where today’s action is, because it is where today’s “mutations” (to use one of Godard’s favorite words) are taking place, and because Godard, as a committed artist, seeks both to understand the social-politicalbiological-emotional situation as it exists today in Western Europe, and, at the same time, to act upon it, to influence it, to change it by goading, pricking, and cajoling people into a greater awareness of—and, concomitantly, a greater use of—their responsibility.
The nonsensical conversation at the bar in Made in USA provokes Paula to assert (echoing Nana’s famous acknowledgment of her individual responsibility in Vivre sa Vie) that even though existence may be relative, “one can place in the very center of that relative existence a point of absolute reference: morale” (which, in the French sense of the term, comes closer to the English word “ethics” than to the narrower “morality”). One is, she affirms, responsible for what one does. Moreover, the very fact that there is nothing outside of existence to justify it shifts the entire problem of existence (as the French existentialists have pointed out) from the realm of metaphysics into the realm of ethics. That “point of absolute reference at the center of one’s relative existence” is nothing other than the nothingness which each person is, and which forces him to choose, to create himself anew at each new moment. One is not only responsible for what one does, one is what one does. Or, as Godard himself once phrased it, “the very definition of the human condition should be in the mise-en-scène itself.”
Godard’s style of mise-en-scène in his films is, above all, a Brechtian attempt (both in theatrical means and philosophical end) to coax the viewer-listener into a closer examination of his own individual, existential mise-en-scène. On the subject of theatrical means, however, it should be pointed out that Godard uses not only certain theatrical techniques associated with Brechtian Epic Theater, but also certain techniques associated with Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. For example, the bombardment of the viewer-listener’s senses throughout Deux ou trois choses, the unbearable rasp of the tape-recorder in Made in USA, and the latter film’s numerous “jets of blood” all reveal a strong affinity with—and may quite consciously be derived from—Artaud. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that what Godard seeks in the theatrical experience (and that includes film) is not, as Artaud would have it, the trancelike participation of a religious communicant in some eternal oneness, but rather the lucid participation of a critical and self-critical individual in the day-to-day dialectic of existence, à la Brecht. In short, what Godard seeks, like Brecht and like the existentialists, is lucidity, responsibility, and engagement.
But Godard is very much aware of how easy it is for an individual living in modern urban society to abdicate both his lucidity and his responsibility by passively submitting to and unconsciously assimilating the mass media’s perpetual bombardment of signs and significations, which, as much by bewildering and benumbing the individual as by direct exhortation, succeeds all too often in planting notions and arousing needs in which conscious volition plays little or no role. “To live in society today,” Godard once stated, “is like living in one enormous comic-strip”; and in films such as Bande à part and Pierrot le fou Godard has clearly demonstrated the way even those who attempt to live outside of society bring their comic-book notions with them.
It is, in fact, precisely because the human being is so malleable, so adaptable, because he can assume and appropriate patterns of behavior so readily, often without even knowing he is doing so, that Godard is so much concerned with the problems of lucidity and responsibility. The individual confronted by what McLuhan calls the “electronic implosion” of signs pouring at him from every corner of his environment, finds himself in a vulnerable position if he does not quickly develop an ability to handle signs in a sophisticated way, to read them correctly, to decode them and process the information in a rapid and precise manner. Without this ability the individual is a prey to what Herbert Marcuse describes under the rubric “The New Forces of Control’ in One-Dimensional Man—a book, by the way, which may very well have been a source of inspiration to Godard in his depiction of the flat, depthless world of Made in USA. As a matter of fact, Godard’s films are full of characters who have succumbed to what Godard (in Deux ou trois choses) calls “The Gestapo of the Structures” and who have become, in a very literal sense, onedimensional men. (I am thinking particularly of Charlotte in Une Femme Mariée, Madeleine and “Mlle. 19 Ans” in Masculin-Féminin, Ulysse and Michel-ange in Les Carabiniers, and, of course, the citizens of Alphaville.) Then, too, there are in Godard’s films the individuals (like Michel Poiccard in Breathless, Odile and Franz in Bande à part, and Ferdinand in Pierrot le fou) who dream of a Romantic escape from contemporary problems and who are always setting out, if only in their imaginations, for exotic places. But Romantic escape in Godard’s films always ends in death—if not physical, then spiritual death. It is not considered by Godard to be an authentic solution.
On the other hand, Godard’s most positive characters (Nana in Vivre sa Vie; Lemmy Caution in Alphaville; Paul—until he “steps back too far” and falls to his death—in Masculin-Féminin; Paula in Made in USA; and the group of activists in La Chinoise ) all steadfastly refuse to run away from reality, refuse to abdicate their responsibility, and involve themselves in the day-to-day struggle for mastery of the vague, impersonal forces that in modern society weigh heavily upon them. The electronic age is here whether we like it or not, and it is here and now that the “mutations” are taking place. Godard’s exercises in signs in Made in USA, Deux ou trois choses, and La Chinoise constitute his way of helping, coaxing, almost forcing the viewer-listener to refine his processes of perception, to develop his ability to handle signs, and thereby to protect himself psychically from those who would willfully manipulate the unsophisticated. Only through mastery of the complex system of signs and significations, Godard seems to be warning us, can we hope to extricate ourselves from the hypnotic web they spin around us.
In Made in USA that spider’s web of manipulation, intrigue, coercion, and violence has had its day. Near the middle of the film we are told, by means of a quiet, brooding song by Marianne Faithfull, that we have reached “the evening of the day.” The song is like a lament. The same mistakes are being made all over again. “We sit and watch the children play, doing things we used to do, doing things they think are new.” And we just sit and watch . . . and cry bitter tears. The new Europe is repeating the mistakes of America, and America is repeating the mistakes of the old Europe. It is all a vicious circle. It is also getting late. For Western civilization as a whole, it may very well be “the evening of the day.” Small wonder that we are sad.
What Paula has been through, in Made in USA, is in her own words, “something to make one vomit”—political kidnappings, political assassinations, torture, treachery, the whole seamy and sadistic web of secret-police machinations in a state that disguises its fascism in publicity slogans of old-fashioned patriotism. It has been a narrow and constricting world—a world in which the word liberté has literally been plastered up against the wall and riddled with machine-gun bullets. But the very fact that it is getting late, that we are moving toward the end of something, seems in Godard’s view to be a source of hope. In the final sequence of Made in USA there comes a moment when the camera shows us a book jacket with the words “Gauche, Année Zèro” (year Zero of the Left), while we hear on the sound track the beginning of the beautiful Largo movement of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. “Unless you’re blind and deaf,” Godard asserted in an interview, “it’s impossible not to see that this shot, this mixture of image and sound, represents a movement of hope.”
Moreover, in that final sequence, the horizon begins to open up for the first time in the film and the soft, natural morning light is a dramatic contrast to the bright, sharp splashes of violent color we have seen all through the film. Paula leaves the corrupt world of “Atlantic City” and begins to extricate herself from the constricting morass of the past, which unravels itself like a giant ribbon as we watch the auto route spin out behind her through the rear window of the Europe #1 radio-car in which she is riding.
“Fascism will pass away,” she says to journalist Philippe Labro, the driver of the car: “It’s just a fad, like miniskirts. But the struggle for a real viable Left will be long and difficult.” The conversation continues, punctuated intermittently by the long, flowing lines of the Schumann. “The Right and the Left are both the same,” objects the journalist. “They’ll never change: the Right because it’s as stupid as it is vicious, the Left because it’s sentimental. Besides,” he adds, “the Right and the Left is an equation completely out of date; one can’t put the problem in those terms anymore.” “Well, how?” asks Paula, looking straight ahead at the future in front of her as the film comes, characteristically, to an end that is only a beginning.