Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The New Wave - A Genealogical Approach

The New Wave - A Genealogical Approach  
Something unique happened with the New Wave which one only fully realises with hindsight. The Cahiers du cinéma people weren't satisfied with being a group held together by a journal, nor with having talent, nor with being around at the right moment i.e. at a time when a load of worm-eaten elements in French cinema believed themselves indestructible just because they were dominant. They actually began their careers on the offensive; they were both insolent and respectful, although for a long time one saw mainly insolence (particularly with Truffaut) and only subsequently respect (again especially Truffaut). They were sufficiently familiar with the cinema that had preceded them to be able to recognise friends and enemies from both the present and the past. They chose their family: challenged fathers, protected forefathers, hailed uncles. They saw the possibility of forging a particular set of relations in cinema history, and their good fortune was to have, in addition to these co-opted 'godfathers', enemies from 'quality' French cinema who were sufficiently arrogant and powerful to make any struggle worth the effort. 
It has become difficult to understand such a phenomenon, and impossible to imagine that such a situation could come about today. In the present context, we can see how much cinema has changed and shrunk: today it is misplaced to speak of a generation, a group, a school or even a pack. A young filmmaker now, from fear of being unnoticed, quickly becomes a fighting machine geared only to self-defence and self-celebration (Beneix or Carax for example). Also of course, they'd be hard pressed to identify easily either friends or enemies amongst already established filmmakers. A quarter of a century after the beginnings of the New Wave, the number of films and filmmakers world-wide has grown enormously. The New Wave were able to know personally some of the giants who were in at the start of the cinema. They were able proudly and modestly to set themselves by their side (as Godard did in Le Mépris, giving himself the part of Fritz Lang's assistant). Today after enormously long careers, the pioneers are dead and the filmmakers who are getting to the ends of their careers - from Fellini through Bresson to Bergman - aren't the types to enthusiastically welcome the first tentative steps of a new generation of filmmakers. This applies equally to the filmmakers from the New Wave who are visibly reluctant to become 'founding fathers'. In its future as a minority medium (mass media having triumphed everywhere) cinema leaves few possibilities for different generations to acknowledge each other as their paths cross, let alone set up continuities. 
It's for this reason that the years 1953-58, which precede the first films of the New Wave (Le Beau Serge, Les 400 coups, A bout de souffle) are perhaps more unusual than they have seemed. The 'young Turks' could choose from the films of the past what they fundamentally wanted to be like. It wasn't a question of copying, of acting like good pupils absorbing 'the Good Film Guide'; it was a question of not betraying a certain attitude found in Renoir but not in Duvivier, in Cocteau but not in Delannoy. It's because they reckoned on being faithful to this 'spirit' that the New Wave novices weren't afraid to be like school kids proliferating quotations and acknowledgements. Subsequently, the referencing became heavy and irritating, but in the beginning it was no more than the euphoria of the first (and last?) generation of cinephile filmmakers. 
We'll leave to one side the links between the filmmakers and 'foreign' cinemas, but the reasons for preferring definitively Rossellini to De Sica, Hawks to Wyler or Barnet to Pudovkin aren't different from those which allowed them to make choices from within French cinema. What was specific here was that three generations were working together and the third is always permitted to ignore the second (the 'fathers' generation') and make alliances with the first (the generations of the virtual 'grandfathers'). The New Wave didn't attach itself to a single figure, seeing in Renoir less a father than, as Rivette described him, a 'boss'. And if quite early on the Cahiers critics stopped taking part in the condescending dismissal of embarrassing figures like Guitry or Pagnol (they were accused of producing filmed theatre) it's nevertheless the case that Guitry and Pagnol remain distant references from another world. The same goes for Bresson, Cocteau, Tati, Ophuls, all independents. The only filmmaker respected by the New Wave as well as by its enemies was Jacques Becker. 
It's not difficult to see what the filmmakers championed by the future filmmakers of the New Wave have in common. They are loners; they make cinema for a purpose but they don't reduce it to that purpose. They don't set a lot of store by the established canons of 'pure cinema' and they don't overstress a social, political or educational function for cinema. That's why no-one ever forgives them anything and whatever celebrity they do achieve is put down to their decadence. 
Renoir is the best example. Few filmmakers have been so singled out and yet suspected of the worst. After the war it was only Cahiers who persisted in finding 'new' Renoir as interesting as the old and there is something moving in seeing Rohmer write in Cahiers a review of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe called 'Renoir's youth'. 
The example of Renoir is interesting for another reason. There were other independents and if it's Renoir who's important and not L'Herbier, Clément, Carné, or any other master craftsman, it's for a very simple reason. In launching the 'politique des auteurs', the New Wave highlighted an area which it intended later to develop itself and clearly was ready to reap the benefits. But by 'auteur' it never meant the creator responsible for every last detail of his film; if it did it would have admired more Carné, Clouzot, and Clément. Rather by 'auteur' the New Wave meant someone who responds personally to the very real constraints and controls, and with a style of his own gets through a game not of his own making nor one which he fully controls. Renoir is such a man, with the admirable freedom of someone who always does 'what he can' as opposed to the selfish constraints of someone who only does 'what he wants'. 
This point is crucial to understanding how, once the euphoria of their first successes was over, the New Wave directors knew how to organise their work. In admiring Renoir rather than Carné, an unpredictable freelance rather than a star worker, they put themselves in the place of filmmakers who'd be interested in accommodating themselves to the system rather than serving it. There is finally a kind of modesty in this approach and even today Godard never stops regretting the fact that producers don't exist anymore with whom he can share the adventure of filmmaking. What the New Wave didn't foresee on the other hand is precisely that the gradual break-up of the system would make producers disappear (and conversely overvalue directors) and that it would fall to them frequently to be their own bosses (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer) in order to be able to continue working. 
Consequently it wasn't just an aesthetic that the New Wave was fighting via the Tradition of Quality. It was also the deceptive comfort of a conception of both the world and of cinema which there was no point in imitating because ultimately it would become a real handicap. One saw this very quickly when, after the first successes of the New Wave and then their first setbacks, the 'quality' directors were unable to understand what had happened, to adapt to what had changed, and for the most part lost their talent and gained only bitterness. Someone like Clément went through the same evolution as the American filmmakers of his generation who, all of them from Ray to Minnelli, proved incapable of surviving the collapse of the studio system in the 1960s. 
This inability to adapt on the part of practitioners bound to a corporatist notion of 'the fine craft of cinema; was related to an inability to think through a future for the cinema. 
Comfortably shielded during the war, French cinema thought it could save face by displaying a disillusioned and decorative face to the world. This cinema of Occupation imagined nothing better than occupying the studios and making a cinema of closed off interiorised psychological dramas. It was this closure, in every sense of the word, which condemned it. Its logical consequence was television, starting with the Buttes-Chaumont school whose successors, the Bluwals and the Lorenzis barred from the New Wave, exercised in television the same ideological and union power, based on the same conception of literary adaptation, masquerading as unbiased public service aimed at increasing public literacy. Basically there are two eternally opposed traditions in French cinema (and television): that of the freelance artisan who invents as he goes along, always on the lookout for escape routes from the studio to the street, and that of the' schools' which boxes itself in and comforts itself with the control it gets from studio and decor.  
Finally it's interesting to consider which filmmakers, in relation to the New Wave strictly speaking (the Cahiers team), played a role of precursor, fellow traveller or more or less distant relative. From Franju to Leenhardt, from Melville to Astruc, from Rouch to Rouquier, what they all have in common is a concern for ways out, for escape, finally for the adventure that's possible with the camera at your shoulder. 
In its taste for written dialogue (literature not 'the literary') and in its consistent signalling of the Lumière heritage (recording not drawing) the New Wave - with its complex and self-conscious genealogy - is an important moment in this continuous serial.
First published in Jean-Loup Passek (ed), D'un cinéma à l'autre: notes sur le cinema français des années cinquante, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Cinema/Singulier, 1988. Translated by Jim Cook for a course at King's College Films Studies Department.

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