It is a supreme irony that cinema’s bad boy Jean-Luc Godard should in his old age be viewed as a curmudgeonly stylist. Made in USA is a good example of the reasons why. A playful exercise with political pretensions, it is most memorable for its roguish wit and Godard’s incomparable ability to re-think how movies can be made. Despite imagery still startlingly fresh, however, USA also unfortunately reminds us what a tedious, pretentious pedant Godard can be when he has a point to make.
Forty years past the peak of his influence, you still can’t get around Godard. I remember the disdain expressed for him by production students at that most parochial of major film schools, USC, in the 1990s. Their attitude could be summed up as “Godard couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag.” Without endorsing that opinion, his competence remains the central question of his work. For even if Godard is incompetent in traditional terms, there are plenty of hacks who are worse. So why should traditionalists still feel compelled to criticize him?
Take as just one example the notorious close-ups on a tape recorder in Made in USA. In traditional film making terms, those shots are ludicrous. Why concentrate so long on the tape recorder, particularly as the recordings have no plot significance? Why magnify the grating audio quality to the point of making it almost unbearable? Why put the plot on hold in order to look at a banal object?
Godard’s defenders would insist that the irritation is to make us aware of how film audio is usually manipulated so that we do not notice it. We are forced to look at the recorder for so long to see it for the first time. The effect is to make us aware of the means of production employed by any film. The tape recorder does not serve the story; it makes us aware of the constructed experience.
So Godard uses the detective fiction in USA as a starting point, not an end in itself. But—and this is critical in understanding the hostility—he remains within a narrative framework. He thus avoids being dismissed as an “experimental filmmaker,” but then refuses to adhere to the rules of standard narrative. You can follow his films without a background in theory, although such knowledge helps. (It can also expose how much of his “philosophy” is little better than name dropping.) His work is not difficult. For the traditionalist it is something much worse: it is different.
Which is why it continues to entertain purely as style. Godard probably hates the fact that his work can now be patronized as “so ’60s” by a generation that cannot see any difference between his efforts to expand cinematic expression and the latest “franchise” movie. Thus the bitterness of the paradox. Whatever you may think of them, to treat Godard’s films as just one more accessory is a sick joke on him, on film and on us.