400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Should you see Jean-Luc Godard's color, widescreen Made in U.S.A. (1 screen), which has recently been brought back from oblivion, restored and re-released by the great Rialto Pictures? Every film buff worth his salt knows that Godard re-wrote the rules of cinema and that he may be the most culturally and historically important filmmaker after D.W. Griffith, but what is he worth today? To be honest, he's worth everything. His films still provoke, and though some of the details of his arguments are stuck in the 1960s, the main thrust is still highly relevant. And no one has come along since that has accomplished anything close.
If cinema is a language, and Godard has re-invented it, then viewers must be ready to adapt to this new way of "speaking." Don't forget what you know, but newcomers should start where Godard started: Breathless, or À bout de souffle (1960). Give it a couple of tries. I hated it the first time I saw it, but then I succumbed the second time (and many other times since). Get to know the jump-cuts, the bizarre, disconnected use of sound, the rapid-fire barrage of ideas and cultural references. Learn that it's OK not to catch everything the first time around. Just let it wash over you. Learn that it's OK to laugh, that some of this stuff is just plain funny. Then go out and see Made in U.S.A.
It's 1968 (two years in the future), and Godard's muse, Anna Karina, plays a reporter named Paula who is investigating the death of someone called Richard, with whom she was once in love. She doesn't act like a reporter and never appears to be taking notes. In fact, she seems more like an underworld player, savvy and wary and distrustful of others. A man comes into her hotel room and he's murdered, and Paula may or may not be a suspect. She alternately trades dialogue with Richard Widmark (László Szabó), Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and David Goodis (Yves Afonso) -- all characters named after some of Godard's favorite writers and directors. (We also meet two guys called Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara.) Godard uses the skeleton of a mystery -- originally written as "The Jugger" by Donald E. Westlake (under his "Richard Stark" pseudonym) -- and goes through the motions of revealing new bits of information, but little of it makes sense or adds up to much. Occasionally we hear recordings of an anti-Communist (or is it anti-fascist?) rant. Marianne Faithfull appears as herself and sings "As Tears Go By."
I suppose it's easy enough to dismiss Made in U.S.A. as a failed, confused crime film, but it's true Godard, praising the things he likes and railing against the never-changing stupidity and softness of the mainstream, the government and all other forms of establishment. He comes up with something akin to a filmed critical essay, with some neatly rhyming ideas, and some just sticking out at all angles like jagged knives. It's intellectual, as opposed to emotional, cinema, despite the fact that he dedicates the film to two of cinema's most emotional directors, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Nothing is held back, but everything is calculated. Godard fires dozens of ideas at the audience, and switches weapons in mid-stream, but if you only pick up a few ideas along the way, then Made in U.S.A. has succeeded.