Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chained to the Fence of Cinephilia: A Brief and Quite Irreverent Look at Godard, Truffaut and The French New Wave

The things you are about to read are all part of what amounts to a not-so-humble contribution to the second edition of the LAMB's Foreign Chops Series, this time taking a look at all things French Nouvelle Vague.   In place of any sort of spoiler alert, please allow me to quote a certain Mr. Clemens from long ago. “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."  'nuff said.

It was Paris 1951, and three cats with appropriately French names like André, Jacques, Joseph-Marie had just published the very first issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, a film magazine that would quickly become the standard bearer for all things cinematically written.  Thus was born the Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave if you will.  Well, okay, in all actuality, the New Wave would not hit for another eight years or so, but trust me, this was the beginning of the beginning.  The germ that would spread all over the so-called cinematic world.  Let us explore.

It was in 1954 that a then-critc and later director by the name of Truffaut would write an article called "La qualité française," which would introduce an oh so divisive manifesto for "la politique des Auteurs,"which in turn would be labeled as "The Auteur Theory" by a pompous windbag, albeit a film loving one, named Mr. Sarris.   Now what this manifesto said (in the most basic of terms) was that the director of a movie was the main (though some would say sole, which of course is going a bit too far) artistic force behind this work of art.    He or she (though let's face it, as lopsided as it may very well be, there were then and still are now, a whole lot more he's than she's in the moviemaking world) is the author, or auteur of the piece.  There is a defining signature running through all of a director's work.  When one watches a Hitchcock film or a Nicholas Ray film or something by Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks or Max Ophüls, one sees a creative through line that tells one that this is a film by blah blah blah.  

Now this theory, which the aforementioned pompous windbag (and I mean such a monicker in a strangely complimentary manner since I consider myself something akin to such a thing) used as a theoretical basis to create the seminal pocket book on all things American Cinema (those in the know have a dog-eared copy of it somewhere in their home I am sure - all others probably are not reading this anyway).  And now, with the notable naysayers such as the acerbic yet delightful grand dame of film criticism, the woman who turned many of us into adoring Paulettes (again, you know of whom I speak, or at least should - see, I told you I could be pompous) and a few others rambling and shambling around what we call the intrawebs, this theory is just mere fact.  When we see a Scorsese picture or one by Tarantino, we know what we are going to be in for, even as the, the auteurs weave their signature moves around to be ever unique, even in such familiarity.   Well, it gets complicated, but trust me, I really do know what I am talking about.

Anyway, as I digress, let us go back to those halcyon days of 1950's Paris, when a group of young critical upstarts - you know the names, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette and of course Godard - were furiously writing about all the films and all the directors they were so in love with.  These young turks would help bring obscure Hollywood directors back from the so-called dead.  Without the constant media and world wide web full of streaming and DVD and Bluray and such we take for granted today, these olden days were a time when the only real way to see a film was when it played in theaters (even TV was still just getting its land legs and beginning to crawl out of the primordial ooze).  Films and directors could easily be forgotten, so when these influential young critics wrote with such ardour about the so-called B-movies of someone like Anthony Mann or William Wellman, people sat up and did that noticing thing.  They would help refurbish the careers of the likes of Keaton and Hawks and Renoir.  And of course this all led to these critical cinephiles becoming directors themselves.

First Claude would make a film about a lost soul.  Then François would make a film about a lost soul.  Then Jean-Luc would make a film about a, well... about a lost soul.   Seriously though, a movement would be created that would - and this is not just mere hyperbole - change the very face of cinema as we know it.  With the Nouvelle Vague, we would not have Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanovich, Lynch, Cimino, De Palma, Linklater, Kevin Smith, Todd Solondz, Wes or Paul Thomas Anderson, the Brothers' Coen nor Tarantino.  For reals people, for reals.  Without the Breathless's and 400 Blows of the French New Wave, cinema would look a hell of a lot different these days.  And I mean that as that would be a bad thing if that were to occur.   Many of these films are unknown to the multiplex horde that stand in for a real film loving audience these days (yeah, you know who the fuck I mean dammit!!) but nonetheless, they have changed the very face of cinema.  Hell, I even named my site after a famous quote by the one they called their leader (of sorts).

So when you watch cinema here in this new millennium - and I do not mean the Tyler Perry/Michael Bay/Adam Sandler version of cinema (though that middle guy was probably influenced by the new wave as well, even if he learned absolutely nothing) - remember that five guys named François, Eric, Claude, Jacques and Jean-Luc (as well as some fringy, Left Bank compatriots - even a woman for God's sake!) made it all possible.  And I am not just talking the obvious homages to the past - such as Bertolucci's The Dreamers from whence I have taken the allusion mentioned in my post title, or the works of the heir apparent, the young M. Honore - but to cinema as a whole.  The past has come back and the present has reaped the rewards.  I would like to close by spouting off just a bit more by the so-called team captain of the New Wave - a certain M. Godard.  

I recently read somewhere online (by my own critical compatriot, though I forget exactly which one - so if you recognize your Twitterverse pontificating, please let me know so I can rightfully acknowledge you) that if we took away Truffaut, we would lose some very good films, but if we took away Godard, we would take away modern cinema.  It went something like that (if you do read this, perhaps you can get the phrasing back to where it belongs too) but you get the gist.   The French New Wave changed everything - and perhaps Godard more than any of them - and we should be grateful and all that jazz, and perhaps even watch some of these films now and then.   I know when I saw Breathless on the big screen - TWICE (one can read about that here) - it was something akin to a religious experience.  Now you go and do that too.  Fin.....for now.


MP said...

Very nice piece Kevyn. As an enthusiast of the French New Wave myself, I just can't get enough of it. Their influence is so vast and important.
By the way, I'm returning for the third year in a row with my poll of the most influential director's and added a new twist. You can find it here:

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