Just as film noir isn’t one single definable thing, noir itself contains many offshoots and categories. And every Noirvember, it’s important to not only examine good ol’ film noir, but its corresponding variants as well. One aspect of noir that complicates its designation as a genre or a style is the persistence of neo-noir, a cinematic form that arose in direct reaction to noir. In the US, canonical neo-noirs include films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. These were films made by filmmakers who knew cinema’s history, who have seen and studied noir’s origins and staples. These were filmmakers who worshiped film history and used classic cinema as a prototype for their own creation, embedding references to the old while departing from it in creating the new.
Because noir is such an unstable category, and because it was designated as whatever it is (a genre, a style, a something) retrospectively rather than actively (unlike early westerns, which deliberately molded themselves to fit the genre’s conventional expectations, noir was given its name and designation after the fact), noir’s very existence owes itself to the more genre-like self-conscious invention that is neo-noir; for as neo-noir operates in direct reaction (and in homage) to noir, it thus illuminates what the conventions and characteristics of noir are.
Godard and Neo-Noir
And just as neo-noir is indebted to noir, American neo-noir is indebted to Jean-Luc Godard. Godard practically invented the neo-noir “genre” from the get-go, as his Breathless was as much a love letter to classic Hollywood man-on-the-run/femme-fatale cinema as it was a violent challenge to it. Godard continued to mine neo-noir throughout his early-mid 60s career, molding the genre to his own signature preoccupations and bold cinematic experiments. He married noir with political activism in Le Petit Soldat (1961), blended noir with irreverent humor and an anarchist tone in Pierrot le fou (1965), and melded noir with science-fiction (thus challenging the “genre” presumptions of noir) with Alphaville (1966), a film that inspired the noir take on 1980s science-fiction in the United States (Blade Runner, Videodrome, Brazil).
Godard’s relationship with noir and arguable singlehanded invention of neo-noir is one of several reasons why Made in U.S.A. (1966) marks a significant shift in his career. Made in U.S.A. is Godard’s reactionary anti-noir.
Made in F.R.A.N.C.E.
Godard, in one of his many similarities to Prince and Lady Gaga, has created work that has moved through a vast array of identity changes. He was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the New Wave, a movement that died off surprisingly quickly considering its important place in film history. But for a filmmaker who is in his fifth decade of making films, the small span of time within his career that can be comfortably defined as “New Wave” is equally as surprising. Godard’s New Wave phase can be traced from 1960-1967, or roughly Breathless to Week-End, before entering his so-called “Revolutionary Period.”
But as with any historical delineation, the distinction in an era of transition is never so clear, for seeds of Godard’s move out of the New Wave can be seen in anything after Pierrot le fou. Godard had always defined himself politically in opposition to the United States, yet he still admired greatly their film culture – consuming, analyzing, and bestowing great importance on Classic Hollywood in his careers as a film critic and as a filmmaker just as readily as he was influenced by European literature and philosophy. But as the Vietnam War escalated, Godard’s admiration for the USA’s cultural output became irreconcilable. He struggled to justify his love for American cinema while condemning their political ideology (the “playing Vietnam” scene from Pierrot le fou, an absurdly unconventional film surrounded by the basic skeleton of a conventional couple-on-the-run noir a la Gun Crazy (1950), is a prime example of this tension).
Godard quickly came to no longer admire the artistry of American cinema, and deemed it a form of cultural imperialism comparable to the nation’s political interventions abroad. He still loved the cinema, but not the cinema that he saw Hollywood as forcing the Western world to accept. He viewed Hollywood’s conventions as chains that bound the art form from reaching a true potential. Thus, Godard sought his own version of “pure cinema” characterized (in opposition to his mentor Andre Bazin) by impurity: that is, a cinema of disruption and incoherence seeking to subvert conventions of perceived narrative and cinematic “normalcy” through means far more radical than his previous genre subversion. His films from the mid-to-late 60s and beyond attempted to destroy the perception that the Hollywood film is the given “natural” mode of filmmaking, or that cinema has any inherent conventional mode of expression at all. After all, convention, like ideology, is only that which is agreed upon, not that which is inherent.
Thus, Godard invented the anti-noir years before New Wave-inspired-New Hollywood even began making neo-noirs, creating a film with several small signifiers of noir (a female private investigator), but evades every twist and turn to be defined as such, only hinting at convention rather than engaging with it before turning abruptly in the other direction. The plot of Made in U.S.A. is purposefully incomprehensible, and the “noir” anti-heroine dons aggressively bright colors in every scene in direct subversion of the signature noir color palette. The politics are open and frank, frequently delivered here through Godard’s recognizable direct-to-camera address, yet even meaning in this case is muddled in a scene where Anna Karina and Lászlo Szábó address the camera simultaneously, their dialogue overlapping and thus rendered incomprehensible. As Karina kills the many men in the way (or simply present) of her undefined goal, she signals the murdering of Godard’s love for American film genres and styles. Even noir, the most subversive of American-born cinematic institutions, is not safe from Godard’s gun.
Godard would go on to make two more films before officially “exiting” the New Wave (or, at least, this is how history conveniently puts it), but Made in U.S.A. can be viewed as the opening of the exit door. Its title thus becomes meaningfully layered. It’s not exactly ironic, as all of Godard’s films by this point were made because of the U.S.A., but it also signals a prematurely defeatist notion in the revolutionary project that the director had by this point yet to even begin, as even his rejection of the U.S.A. is predicated on its influential existence to such a degree that even his most radical films are stamped with the enveloping power of its imperialist reach. In a sense, Godard is admitting that all films in one way or another unavoidably “made in U.S.A.”