By Bob Clark
It’s depressing at times to think of how many films by my favorite directors I’ve been exposed to primarily on television. There are obvious cases like films by Lucas & Spielberg, or any other mainstream releases that came out well before I was born, but those are easy to shrug off. Likewise there are films like Blade Runner or Pulp Fiction which may have seen prominent theatrical releases or rereleases during my lifetime, but early enough in my childhood that being introduced to them on the big screen would’ve been out of the question. Even some of the more niche works I’m fond of like Heaven’s Gate or any given anime feature I’m able to accept seeing for the first time on television, due to the fact that there just weren’t any other options at the time to check them out– yes, Cimino’s magnum opus may be enjoying a big-screen revival nowadays, and it’s become more and more common for classic films of the Ghibli canon to find art-house exhibitions, but one can’t always be patient enough to wait for a classic, sometimes forgotten masterpiece to play in the proverbial theaters near you. This is one of the great advantages of the home-video generation of film consumption, the option of curate one’s own cinematic vocabulary through VHS and DVD, instead of relying upon the personal whims of local theater programmers. It’s an empowering way to digest a heavier volume of content, but what one loses in the context of the reductive home television experience as opposed to the expansive theatrical one can’t be underestimated, especially with one of the great widescreen gambits of that premier experimenter of the cinema, Jean-Luc Godard.
That’s why it’s worth noting that of all the Godard films I’ve seen, Made in USA stands out as the first that I was introduced to in a theatrical venue, my viewing unspoiled by home viewings. Largely this is because the film remained unavailable in the United States for decades due to copyright issues (the movie acting as a very unofficial entry in the same series as John Boorman’s Point Blank, Anna Karina more or less playing the equivalent of the Lee Marvin role), thus making the big-screen the only way to see this long unseen work. Over the years I’ve seen several more Godard films primarily from a theatrical experience– Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Every Man For Himself, King Lear, Film Socialisme, braving the inequities of “Navajo English” subtitles– and plenty more that I’d seen already at home but found new depths and nuances to once liberated from the television screen. But Made in USA stands out, both from my initial experience with it at the Film Forum in Manhattan and at its recent run as a part of the Jacob Burns Film Center’s series of films based on pulpy crime novels, this past February. It was that same series that I sat down to see The Maltese Falcon theatrically for the first time, and discovered just how much you can lose even with a seemingly low-scale classic whose surface values can be all too easy to take for granted after years of exposure on television. You lose sight of how Huston usually positions his camera downward in order to capture his subjects in wide, low angles and how such shooting synchs up with the audience’s point of view in traditional movie-theater arrangements, looking up at the screen.
Both of these aspects have primarily to do with the cinema’s use of space and perspective, something which has become somewhat less common in films over the decades from the frequent use of deep-focus, forced-perspective and expressionist use of foreground and background in classic cinema and the more graphical approach of modern films, which have tended to favor a more dominant usage of long-lenses that flatten imagery and isolate everything down to more of a pure, two-dimensional picture plane. At first I’d assumed that the primary reason for this shift (as far as my own personal observations can go) was due to the rise of widescreen filmmaking and the distance that audiences tended to take between themselves and the screen, in order to take all of the picture in and appreciate the new kind of tableaux compositions it presented, thus leading in part to the current era of stepped stadium-seating’s wide proliferation in multiplex cinemas. It would be easy to lump Made in USA into that school of cinema, representing one of Godard’s key experiments and innovations with the 2.35 aspect ratio much the same way he had previously with more celebrated features like Pierrot le Fou, Contempt or even his third feature, the musical-comedy A Woman is a Woman. But there’s something else that Godard plays with in those films, and others besides, and something that may best be encapsulated throughout Made in USA, with its frequent use of deliberately flat compositions, claustrophobic close-quarter shooting, close-up inserts of comic-book pages (a regular facet of his filmmaking at this time) and constant use of gaudy posters, billboards and other advertising throughout as set decoration– color.
Now color has been an important ingredient in Godard’s films at least since A Woman is a Woman, and growing with importance from Contempt and coming to a forefront with the increasingly politicized period that Made in USA represents. Working with frequent French New Wave collaborator Raul Coutard, the primary-heavy cinematography that Godard favors in these films makes them stand in stark contrast to the more readymade look of the black-and-white in most of the films of the movement, especially the documentary aesthetic found in many of his own. Yet it’s easy to see Godard’s visual style becoming more and more stark and graphical the more he refined his methods during the 60’s in his black-and-white features– the difference between the relaxed, airy lighting of Breathless and the high-contrast, shadowy future-noir of Alphaville illustrates the evolution of the director’s vision from merely capturing reality on the fly to actively toying with and manipulating that cinematic fiction, using special film stock for night shooting and even switching to negative footage at key moments. The more artificial his cinematic work becomes, the more he channels his thought into deconstructing the artifice of the cinematic image itself, and with Made in USA he reaches a point that illustrates not only the falsehoods of the various socio-political strangleholds he acts out between Karina’s intrepid radical leftist journalist and the colonial-imperialist thugs who seek to intimidate her, but moreover elucidates the ways in which the medium of film was changing into something less than real, as well.
Again, the key instrument of this is color, but the ways in which Godard’s coverage marks a change from the classical structure of something like The Maltese Falcon are also fundamental to the question, especially considering how heavily Huston’s film figures in the canon of American cinema that the director venerates so much in his early works, and how that earlier veneration finds itself more and more under self-critical scrutiny in this period. Huston spends most of that film, and much of his other celebrated films from the 40’s and 50’s, looking up and turning his figures into giants that his audience can be dwarfed up, looking up at them on the screen as the camera looks up from an almost worm’s eye view. Godard’s camera, by contrast, is more varied in its approach throughout his early career, freely moving from low to high angles especially in close-quarter filming circumstances, Coutard’s hand-held work roving without a leash and injecting as much spontaneity into the variety of camerawork and angle as there was in the revolutionary use of jump-cuts in the editing room. Over time, however, Godard settles into a more more stable and even stationary aesthetic, favoring dollies and tracking shots from hand-held and emphasizng mis-en-scene more through deliberate color and composition than off-the-cuff filming. The more effective his films come to reproducing a kind of cinematic stream-of-consciousness, the more contrived and conscious his methods become.
In large part this can be attributed to a higher degree of experience and professionalism (and funding) over time, but there are moreover key stylistic gestures that evolve over the course of his early career that stand out as something not tied down to any new sense of technical roots. More and more, Godard’s coverage largely tends to favor completely level, dead-on shots that look straight at a subject with as little embellishment of flourishes in angle as possible. Sometimes, as in My Life to Live, you can see this aesthetic charting in resolutely self-conscious ways, the camera’s focus fixed on unexpected figures like the back of a head or a pin-ball machine, drawing out the audience’s desire to see for as long as possible. Sometimes he can take his simple, level shots and go as wide as possible, as in Contempt‘s centerpiece sequence of the couple’s slow dissolution in the midst of their chic, but bare Italian apartment, standing back far enough so that the feuding figures of Piccoli and Bardot stand out as much as the stylized nude statuaries adorning the flat. Throughout Made in USA he tends to go close with his dead-on shots, however, enough that he can break down the components of any given close-up into graphical elements on the picture plane. Even in his occasional angled shots, like the low perspective-heavy looks at neon signs throughout, tend to break up the elements on the screen in ways that take away their immediate meaning as words and turn them into pure image.
There’s an element of the political in what Godard is doing at moments like these, literally deconstructing icons of pop imagery and advertising on the screen, taking away their power as words to be read and therefore sell as commercial entities by rendering them at times completely abstract. But there’s something deeper that strikes at the heart of the medium as well, in the way that Godard’s filmmaking here and in other features illustrates the inherent two-dimensionality of color cinema. Orson Welles once said that black and white was friendlier to actors, and it’s tempting to think that range of thought could be carried through to the way that monochrome simplified the presentation of the physical world entirely. Just as the subtraction of color makes every minute expression on a performer’s face that much more readable, and every shadow that falls over their form that much more sculptorly, the monochrome world of black and white allows the audience to read more information about the depth and size of physical environments with as little visual information as possible. Strictly speaking, the brain has to do less busywork to understand a black and white image, and the filmmaker has to do less busywork to fully realize the tactile nature of a film’s world through light and shadow without bothering to figure out what color things should be.
Of course it’s just as possible to create an immersive cinematic experience in color, or else we might’ve seen the process drop out as just the same type of seasonal fad that 3D is. But it requires a much more conscious usage of shadow and perspective than black and white did, where a good deal of the hard work could have worked its magic unconsciously on the part of filmmakers. Furthermore, it sometimes requires a tempering of the color range being used in order to keep the palate from being too distracting and destructive to the presentation of physical space– one only needs to look at the difference between the sepia-toned Kansas opening of Wizard of Oz and the revalatory, but garish and loudly artificial rainbow-hued portions in the land of Oz itself to see how color, unrestrained, can naturally lend itself to unreality. Now, all this means is that in a modern production color has to be treated just as seriously and consciously as any other facet of production, and that a limited or muted palate can allow filmmakers to create as immaculate a presentation of shadow and perspective as monochrome, and allow the broader span of colors to work just as comprehensively imagery that evokes three-dimensions. But what Godard seeks to do with the flat color lighting and compositions of Made in USA illustrates the further potential inherent in color filmmaking for a treatment of the picture plane that emphasizes cinema’s two-dimensional attributes, and for maximum aesthetic and intellectual effect.
With his color filmmaking in the 60’s, Godard represents a school of cinema that focuses less on the concrete and physical and more in the realm of ideas, something that finds itself expressed right down to the way that camera placement defies audience-identification. Seen from the ground seats in a traditional theater, the film towers over the viewer instead of inviting them in– the proscenium arch was always somewhat apparent in Huston’s Falcon for how the perspective of the audience and camera matched, the screen seeming less a flat surface than a window into Sam Spade’s world. For Godard of this period and his acolytes, the screen is a flat surface– a canvas for any number of abstractions to be played out. Even when the camera matches the audience’s perspective, the visual elements are either too broken up or to loudly adhering to unreal primary color schemes (or both) for the viewer to synchronize with the image quite as well– there is always an arm’s length distance between the subject and the viewer, especially as the director seeks to literally deconstruct a subject on the screen, rendering them in broken pieces of almost cubist arrangement in an act of intellectual violence. Perhaps it’s no accident that in this period there’s less and less of a focus on human beings, the personal world of pain and decadence getting in the way of higher political ideals (especially in the midst of Godard’s break-up with Karina), and more attention paid to the disembodied aspects of the modern world– advertizing, neon signs, construction work, coffee cups. As with all the best films, the most interesting person isn’t necessarily the one standing in front of the camera, but rather the one behind it.