Jean-Luc Godard once claimed that he would have liked to take two of his films, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and Made in U.S.A. (1966), and interweave them by alternating reels, from one film to the other, during presentation.
Both films are playing at the Carolina Theatre beginning Friday, and you can't help but wonder what the result of such an experiment would have looked and felt like. While they are both clearly products of the same singular mind, they are very different films.
Two or Three Things is a meditative, dense examination of prostitution, the imagery of capitalism and language (it is "the house that man lives in," according to our heroine) that follows the daily rituals of a prostitute and single mother. Made in U.S.A. is a lighter, brighter, goofier faux-noir starring Godard's 1960s-era muse (and his wife) Anna Karina. The idea that it is indeed based, as it claims, on a Donald Westlake novel seems like one of its many gags: It's hard to believe there was anything resembling a screenplay, much less a narrative text that served as the foundation of the film.
According to biographer Colin MacCabe, Godard's incessant punning as a youth was a source of constant irritation to his father. Indeed, wordplay assumes a prominent role in all of Godard's films, and Made in U.S.A. and Two or Three Things I Know About Her are both brimming with humorous, high-minded babble. Made in U.S.A. begins with a line of text: "To Nick [Ray] and Samuel [Fuller], who raised me to respect image and sound." It is perhaps surprising that an artist so fascinated by words doesn't include language in this dedication.
Or is it? Godard's way with dialogue is as much a dismantling of semantics as an examination of them. A café scene is filled with almost nothing but characters saying things like "the floor is stubbed out on the cigarette." Made in U.S.A. is a stream of dialogue like this, so decoding it—if there is anything there to decode—is impossible.
Still, Godard's language makes a wonderful kind of sense, as when Karina muses, "Now I feel like I'm caught up in a Walt Disney movie, but with Humphrey Bogart, so it's a political movie." Of course, a Disney movie is every bit as political as a movie starring Bogie, if not more so. But that doesn't take away from the energy provided by the juxtaposition of genres or the suggestion that we are watching a Disney film (Godard's trademark use of bright, primary colors suggests animation) starring Bogart (Karina's trench coat and the slim plot upon film noir conceits).
Two or Three Things is the sturdier of the two films: it has a mellower tone and clearer ideas. Its themes about prostitution and the imagery of capitalism are acted out in vignettes with strong visual metaphors—there's a perverse pleasure in how indistinguishable advertisement becomes from décor—while Made in U.S.A.'s pretense of a plot can get confusing.
In Two or Three Things you are seeing Godard at his most lucid; he has made exactly the film he wanted to make. In Made in U.S.A., he is unrestricted, feral with puns, a precocious child at play. You might feel some of the elder Godard's frustration with Jean-Luc for his often daffy sense of humor, but that just means—that by seeing these two rather different but unmissable films—you are getting an intimate experience with one of the great minds of movie history. Which—if these two films are any indication—is a frustrating, exciting, stimulating, and absolutely singular experience.