Saturday, April 11, 2009

50 Years of Nouvelle Vague

Joseph B. at itsamadmadblog has fired up the blogathonatron (ho lord), in honor of the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave. He's following the lead of the BFI, which is running 2 months of Nouvelle Vague films in honor of the same anniversary - specifically, I'd say, the anniversary of the release of The 400 Blows. That makes a pretty good place to start, even if it is a bit arbitrary - Resnais and Chabrol had released important films before then, but The 400 Blows probably marks the break: it played at Cannes, it was the touchpoint for the movement -and probably the first absolute masterpiece of the movement. And that's a good reason to celebrate now....

And we should be celebrating. It might be tempting to underrate the importance of famous moments and movements in film history - to look back at the new wave and shrug it off, note that it's nothing new, or a logical development of what was already there, or, I don't know, all the ways people dismiss revolutionary things. God knows I do it all the time. And there is no doubt that the idea of the "new wave" was quickly abused, using it to be anything - a marketing slogan; a way to dismiss anything innovative, or claim innovation for the same old thing (throw some jump cuts into your genre film and voila! new wave!); a way to reduce other kinds of movements and trends to something already understood (the way the Japanese new wave - which is every bit as innovative and jarring and crucial as the French one is sometimes treated as a kind of replay of the nouvelle vague); an excuse for exploitation films; a way to skate past the individuality of the films and filmmakers working in a "new wave" style - etc. etc. etc. All that is real. And - yes - there probably isn't a good, consistent, way to define new wave - French or otherwise - you can look at it stylistically, historically, as a specific movement (the Cahiers du Cinema, writers, say), as a specific group of filmmakers - you can try to generalize whatever definition you apply to similar revolutions in other film cultures (Japanese new wave, American versions, Young German cinema and New German Cinema, Czech new wave, Cinema Novo, what else? - all of which is still going strong: Hong Kong and Taiwan had new waves in the 80s; Iran in the 80s and 90s; Romanian films of the 2000s are called new wave, etc.) - all right. All that confusion can make the term, the idea, seem dubious - yes it can, but it is just confusion - none of it changes the impact of the Nouvelle Vague. All of that (good bad and indifferent) stands just as well as a testament to the power of the New Wave - because its ghost is in most of those disparate movements and traditions.

Things changed in the 60s for films. A lot of it had nothing to do with the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard - social, cultural, poitical, economic changes, industrial changes in filmmaking, technological changes - all did what they did. But the new wave directors were usually close to those changes - they may have jumped on the political and social changes after the fact, but they certainly jumped; and they were early to the technological changes (smaller cameras, better sound gear, support for and from television, etc.), the economic and industrial changes (they were independent filmmakers, and worked with the emerging independent and international producers), and so on. But mostly, the nouvelle vague was an artistic revolution. They brought new intellectual life to film - they were critics, cinephiles, many of them intellectuals, and they brought their cultural knowledge, their critical interests, their cinephilia into filmmaking.

And I know - none of that was completely new. The art film was going strong in the 50s, with Bergman, neo-realism and its offshoots in Italy, the beginning of awareness of Japanese films, the appearance of Indian filmmakers like Ray and Ghatak. Many of the big studio systems, Hollywood and Japan, notably, were turning out popular films with very high ambitions and accomplishments. Even the specific twists the new wave brought, their way of blending neo-realism, art cinema, Hollywood films, B-movies, had precedents, especially in Japan: check out some of the mid-50s Ichikawa or Masumura films, or even Kurosawa in that period - Japanese new wave came out of that as much as from French influence. And yet, and yet....

The nouvelle vague clarified things: the appearance of Godard and Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, eventually Rohmer, Moullet - and their fellow travelers, Resnais and Marker and Demy and Varda and the rest - gave the changes a sense of unity, gave other filmmakers a point of reference. It created a focal point for a different kind of art film - one with a bit more freedom than the tradition of Bergman and Antonioni and Fellini. It's an art cinema that could absorb other traditions with fewer limits than its predecessors - popular and genre films, experimental films, documentaries, newsreels - and start inventing its own - the essay film, notably... It sharpened the edges on film style - jump cuts and extravagant angles and rough acting styles and elliptical story telling and new approaches to narrative in many ways - all were boosted by the new wave (if not invented...) And it inspired people around the world - Japanese films may have been doing similar things in the 50s, but several directors quickly incorporated nouvelle vague influences into their work - Oshima, Yoshida, Shinoda, and so on... You see French influences in Italian directors of the 60s, especially Pasolini; Americans picked up on it (as well as our own parallels, like Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke). And so on (Brazil? Germany? eastern Europe?) The nouvelle vague became the model for any film movement with that sense of renewal, and increased adventurousness - even if it's lazy shorthand to call every interesting national movement a Blank New Wave - there are usually real ties. Even if it's just more jump cuts.

Coming soon - an appreciation for what I think is the new wave film, by the new wave director:

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