May 2004

Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties
(Faber and Faber, Inc, 304 pages, $25)
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson

Parsing films according to eras makes it easier to study those films and to remember the artists who made them. Peter Cowie, author of more than 20 books on film, focuses on movies released mainly between 1958 and 1969 in Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties. The period deserves concentrated exploration and Cowie's approach takes in more than the usual suspects.

Though familiar breakthrough films such as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless [À bout de souffle] (1960), Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960) and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962) are thoughtfully covered, they are seen in light of the eruption of talent elsewhere. "The French Nouvelle Vague or 'New Wave,' " Cowie writes, "seized so much attention that it almost obscured the flowering of film in many other countries."

Cowie discusses the contributions of such directors as Poland's Krzysztof Zanussi, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Roman Polanski; Italy's Francesco Rosi, Federico Fellini, Lucino Visconti, Micelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci; Spain's Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem; Japan's Nagisa Oshima (Curiously, India's Satyajit Ray's films are not discussed); Czechoslovakia's Milos Forman; Sweden's Ingmar Berman and Vilgot Sjöman; Britain's Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. Along with France's Agnès Varda, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol — and, more famously, Godard, Renais and Truffaut — these were some of the directors who "unleashed a movement as revolutionary and enlightening as the Impressionist upheaval in the pictorial art of the 19th century."

Revolution! is as lively as its title, free of ham-handed analyses, academic jargon or smug theories — no small feat when examining movies of the world within the political, social and artistic context of the turbulent '60s. Fresh air circulates in the printouts of numerous interviews with filmmakers — mostly with directors (including Bertolucci, Forman, Reisz, Renais, Wajda, Varda and John Boorman) — but also with cinematographers and editors.

Revolution!'s decade is not that of the James Bond blockbusters or of big Hollywood studio productions. We're talking about risk-taking, experimenting filmmakers here and Cowie embraces such American directors as Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes and John Frankenheimer. He credits Frankenheimer as responding "more eagerly ... to the opportunities offered by new equipment and faster film stock" than his contemporaries who had also emerged from live television. "His masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), was made with the same freedom as a European director enjoyed in those years."

Perhaps Bertolucci best puts the period in a perspective which also fits Cowie's presentation of it: "You know, there were many mutations if you look back at cinema history: first it was silent, then it started to speak, then it started to think, in the '60s — about the nature of itself."

Review written by Lisa Mitchell


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