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Made In USA

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I first got interested in this movie because the score was done by the band Sonic Youth, of which I consider myself being a great fan. So originally I intended to focus on the music and some of the countless other projects of the members of the band, mainly on their collaborations with artists who can be said to have some significance for this course, in that they all are somehow connected with "roads and American culture" (among them people like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Leah Singer, Lydia Lunch, Lee Hazlewood, Iggy Pop, Robert Hunter, Joe Strummer, John Cale, to name but a very very few...).

The movie itself has been labeled "crappy" by a number of people (including Sonic Youth), and after watching it for the first time, I completely agreed with that statement, and felt confirmed in the intention to focus on the score instead of the film. But eventually I began to find out more about the making and the background of the movie, so that after watching it a few more times, I found it more and more interesting, and finally decided (for reasons that will become clear later) to focus on the movie after all, and leave the music aside, for the time being...


...background information...

At first sight, Made In USA seems to be a typical road movie, filmed entirely on locations throughout the United States, featuring a few wild young men and women on a cross-country-trip, each of them either in search of something or trying to escape from something. The movie was released in 1988, and directed by Ken Friedman. He also directed Heart Like A Wheel, the film that brought him to LA, where he still works today. Made In USA is starring Christopher Penn (brother of Sean Penn), Lori Singer and Adrian Pasdar. The entire original score was done by the band Sonic Youth, but in the final version, not much is left of it (in fact, only parts of two songs of the original soundtrack and the track "Secret Girl" from the band's album "Evol"). The movie played in Europe, and may have been released in the United States regionally, but, because it was not particularly successful, it went straight to video for the most part.


...the content...

The movie is mainly abouth the escape of two young men, about 22-25 years old, from their desperate and depressing lives to the stereotype freedom of a Californian beach. They both work as mechanics in the small garage in Centralia, Pennsylvania. One of them loses his job, and the other one decides to join his best friend and gives up his job, too. They have a lot of problems at home anyway, so they decide to get a car and leave the small town. It is programmatic for the whole movie that they don't think about their decision for too long, but just get themselves a car (steal one) and get going. Their trip will take them to Harrisburg, St. Louis, Times Beach/Missouri, Denver, Shiprock/New Mexico and finally to San Onofre/California.

In the beginning they don't seem to be sure about the goal of their journey (although already at this point, it's obvious that they will finally end up in California), but this problem is solved very soon: At a supermarket, one of them sees a "surf-chick"-centerfold in a magazine. Her name is "Kelly", and in the additional information, along with her "turn-ons", he reads that she likes hanging out on a certain beach in southern California. What else can they do but go there, since the guy wants to "have" her. Next they pick up a girl in Times Beach/Missouri. All the while they keep on stealing cars (they never seem to drive the same car in two successive scenes), robbing gas stations and in general behaving very very bad and tough. Later, already in New Mexico, they pick up a Navajo girl, who wants to hitchhike to a reservation where her brother lives.

To cut a long story short, they go on, rob a bank, split with the white girl, arrive at the reservation, get their scalps cut off and in the following scene arrive at the beach in California, and eventually, everything is fine. Happy End.

The whole plot does not appear to be particularly meaningful or even interesting, it all seems rather boring and senseless and insignificant. Many of the single scenes don't seem to fit in the plot, and some of them seem almost totaly nonsensical. Also, very important turns of the action seem illogical, somehow seem to be taken out of a greater context. (Examples would be the way the two young men pick up the white girl in Times Beach, the scalping scene, and the final scene at the ebach.) It is as if parts of the movie are missing, so that the viewer often does not really know why the protagonist said or did this or that. It is easy to get the impression that there just is nothing behind it all, and that it is just not a very clever film.

It could be said though that the director did a good job in making a technically near-to-perfect road movie. All the typical imagery is used and the film has everything a road movie is supposed to have - the sounds, the looks, the guys and the gals.

However, the viewer must feel that often a deeper meaning or significance seems to lurk beneath the surface. It is just not quite possible to grasp it...


...the 'original' movie...(?)

"Further investigations" suddenly presented the movie in a totally different light. It seems that Made In USA was originally supposed to be a film with a serious political and ecological message. But the first version came out too "underground" and provocative, so the producers re-edited it and tried to turn it into a "teen-flick". Thus, nothing but vague hints of the movie's social conscience were left in it, and the final outcome turned out to be sort of nothing at all: It was not really a movie attracting young viewers, and it certainly was not the eye-opening eco-thriller/road movie-hermaphrodite it was originally meant to be.

Looking at the locations where Made In USA was shot will help to make clear why certain people might have had problems with the film and why it had to be changed from a highly controversial movie into something rather meaningless:


>> Centralia, Pennsylvania: The population of this small town dropped from 1.200 in the mid-80s to  about 45 in the beginning of the 90s. Toxic underground coal fires are burning in the whole region, resulting from from strip-mining in the 60s and 70s. Some of the results: Toxic fumes polluting the air, tectonic irregularities (earthquakes), regional change of climate, etc. The government and the companies involved can not do anything to stop the fires, and financial support of the local victims has only recently started. Picture courtesy of Ralph Hassel (whose website is listed below). He identifies the people pictured, "from left to right, my brother-in-law, my niece, my sister, my niece, my niece and my wife. The person who is behind the camera, well, that's me."
venting.jpg (8810 Byte) >> Times Beach, Missouri: The area was permantly evacuated in 1982 after the local citizens found out that their streets had been oiled with industrial sludge containing poisonous dioxin. The citizens seem to have had to leave behind most of their personal belongings.


>> Shiprock, New Mexico: After the 1979 uranium milling plant accident in Three Miles Island, 100  million tons of radioactive water were released into the Rio Puerco, the main river running though that region. Nevertheless, the Navajos living in the nearby reservations were more or less forced to stay there for lack of other land. They were forbidden to sell the (now contaminated) cattle they raised in the region, their only source of income. Only 35 years later the US-government started taking responsibility for the inhumane living conditions in that area. Until today, large parts of the uranium mines, located right next to the reservations, are only covered with clay.


sanonofre.bmp (75022 Byte) >> San Onofre, California: A nuclear power plant on the coast of the pacific ocean. No accidents have been reported so far...


Keeping those facts in mind, Made In USA suddenly makes sense, and it is not difficult to guess where certain scenes might have been cut out.

It is no longer a film about some kids going west, but a film about what the American government and economy do to the country and the people living in it.

Only now, the metaphorical meaning of the title becomes clear: "Made In USA" refers to the small label on everything that has been manufactured in the United States, a symbol for economical success, which seems to have become more important than the country itself.

What the protagonists do in the film can no longer be understood as the fooling around of young people wanting to have fun. They all are on some sort of anarchistic revenge rampage against the society that has ruined their homes and the lives of their people. Each one of them has a good reason to hate the government. This becomes painfully clear when one of the characters says, "The government can hurt you once with toxic stuff. But you can hurt them over and over again..." At another point, after robbing the "Basin Industrial Bank" (note the word 'Industrial' in the name), she says, "...they took the money out of the land and put it in there, now we're gonna take it out there and put it right back into this land...".

The imagery, too, can suddenly strikes as powerful and highly metaphorical, and does not appear strange any longer: No matter where they go with their stolen cars, they are always passing nuclear waste dump-sites, nuclear power-plants, contaminated "no-go"-areas, oil fields, deserted factories, and so on. Everywhere they go they encounter depressed people with no perspectives, living in rundown and dirty small towns, working in factories, ruining their health.

Every single scene could now be re-viewed and seen differently in the light of this background information, but the point has been made clear. Made In USA is a film that has been robbed of its original identity and significance. By whom remains a mystery, why is obvious.


...links to further information on the real-life sites...


Centralia, Pennsylvania:

Modern Ruins: Centralia, PA
(good pictures & useful information; check out the links section!)
Centralia Rules!!
(private homepage)
A Brief History of The Centralia Mine Fire
(historical overview)
Centralia Mine Fire. (by Roadside America)
(a "tourist guide")
Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation

Centralia Coal Sales Company

Ralph Hassel's Website


Times Beach, Missouri:
(articles & homepages)


San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS)


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