BY SCOTT FOUNDAS
Would Bonnie and Clyde’s joy ride have crackled with such psychosexual tension, or done so much to challenge our attitudes toward movie violence, had it not been for the French New Wave? Would the solitary hitman of John Boorman’s Point Blank have seemed quite as much of a phantom, moving through a Möbius-strip death dream? Would we ever have seen the inside of John Malkovich’s cranium? The answer is yes, no, and maybe. As with most major artistic movements, the impact of La Nouvelle Vague on the way we make, watch and think about movies is at once impossible to overstate and difficult to pigeonhole. But make no mistake: a half-century later, its influence remains very much with us, albeit in some respects more than others.
“The best way to criticize a film is to make a film,” said Jean-Luc Godard famously—and it was exactly 50 years ago that he and his fellow enfants terribles from the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma put those words into practice, setting down their critic hats, picking up their movie cameras, and sparking a revolution. Of course, revolutions tend not to happen overnight, or in a vacuum. Already by 1959, the seeds had been sown for something like a New Wave, in the neorealist films coming from Italy; in the writings of Cahiers co-founder André Bazin and his disciple François Truffaut, who theorized that cinema could be an art form as personal as painting or literature, with the director as the primary “author;” and, last but hardly least, in the American movies, unseen during World War II, that were belatedly flooding into Parisian “cine-clubs” and the hallowed halls of Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française.
Not that the Cahiers crowd was any more enamored of Hollywood’s tony prestige productions than they were of their own country’s dated “tradition of quality” movies (which had been memorably lambasted by Truffaut in his Cahiers essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”). Rather, they got drunk on Westerns, war pictures and the low-budget thrillers the French christened “films noirs.” They worshipped at the altar of filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray who, back in Tinseltown, weren’t considered serious artists by a mile. Godard even went on to give Fuller a memorable cameo in 1965’s Pierrot le Fou, while Hawks slyly references Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in 1966’s El Dorado. The exchange of ideas between the two cinemas, however, was hardly limited to mere mutual appreciation.
As the New Wave films began to wash up on America’s shores (and screens), with the Civil Rights movement in full swing and Vietnam simmering to a boil, they caught fire with young filmmakers who, like their French counterparts, were chafing at an ossified studio system that seemed clueless to the radical changes taking hold in the culture. You know most of their names: Altman, Ashby, Cassavetes, Coppola, Penn, Rafelson, Scorsese. And there were others, lesser known, like the New York-based Morris Engel, who had already, in 1958, directed three self-financed “indie” features, and whose 1953 Little Fugitive would come to be cited by Truffaut as a crucial influence. So an American New Wave, or “New Hollywood,” gradually came into being, bringing with it the shattering of every imaginable screen taboo, a parade of fresh new faces that didn’t look like the airbrushed movie stars of yesteryear, and a barrage of stylistic innovations—handheld cameras, jump cuts, nonlinear narratives, unapologetic self-awareness—that have become the common parlance of contemporary music videos and primetime television.
Here’s the curious part: Today, the French New Wave is alive and well—literally, in the case of its principle architects, all of whom (save for Truffaut, who died young in 1984) are still actively at work, well into their senior years. Now 89, Eric Rohmer said he was retiring after 2007’s The Romance of Astrée and Céladon, and after nearly 50 films, who would begrudge him? At 79, meanwhile, Claude Chabrol has directed more than 60 films and shows no signs of slowing down, having recently premiered his latest, Bellamy, at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. And, six months Chabrol’s junior, Godard is said to be completing work on a new project, Socialisme, while preparing an adaptation of American author Daniel Mendelsohn’s bestselling Holocaust memoir, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which Godard claims will be his first film shot from a conventional screenplay.
At the same time, The Lost could also serve as a title for a book or movie about the New Hollywood, which is spoken of today in those dolorous tones reserved for the irrecoverable past, and not without reason. Of the American directors who began in that era, only Clint Eastwood (not typically thought of as a New Hollywood guy) and the late Robert Altman maintained anything like a New Wave pace, while some fell victim to drugs or drink, and still others started hiring themselves out for the very sort of conventional studio fare their younger selves would have dismissed out of hand. Particularly puzzling is the virtual inactivity of Arthur Penn. Penn may have only been hired for Bonnie and Clyde after Godard and Truffaut passed on it, but he certainly didn’t disappoint. Just prior, he had made an even more bizarre, and quite brilliant movie called Mickey One (1965), a jazzy riff on Kafka’s The Trial in which Warren Beatty’s eponymous nightclub comic finds himself on the run from a shadowy underworld organization or, just maybe, the shadow cast by his own celebrity. Mickey One was little seen at the time and, unavailable on DVD, remains virtually unknown today, but it’s a true original and early evidence of what would become the New Hollywood’s dominant concerns: disillusionment with success; deep suspicion of authority; and the quest for unattainable freedom. Take it together with Penn’s subsequent fatalistic detective yarn, Night Moves (1975), and two more representative bookends of that halcyon era are hard to imagine.
So what happened? There are various official histories, all true to an extent: the studios were taken over by corporations that cared more about commerce than art; the audience’s taste shifted, away from reality and toward blockbuster escapism; the budgets got too big, emblemized by the waterloo of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate—a movie that, with luck, history may yet regard as a masterpiece. Of course, it’s easy (and not incorrect) to blame the system and the audience, but things may be more complicated than just that.
Certainly, it’s difficult—more difficult than ever, arguably—to make untraditional films at the studios or even in the increasingly homogeneous indie sphere, with some of the most talented and ambitious directors of this generation (Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, James Gray) working at a pace more Kubrickian than Godardian. And yet, consider the curious case of Steven Soderbergh, a true disciple of both the New Wave and New Hollywood, who has managed to complete a remarkable two dozen features in the past two decades, sometimes while serving as his own cameraman and editor, and who seems as comfortable in the big-budget ocean (or Ocean’s) as in the micro-budget wading pool. What, I asked him in an interview last year, is his dirty little secret? Soderbergh began, appropriately enough, by paraphrasing a Frenchman, Robert Bresson, who observed in his seminal Notes on the Cinematographer: “‘Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can work with the most cannot, inevitably, work with the minimum.’ When you have those conversations with other directors and they say, ‘Well I just can’t find anything,’ I don’t understand that,” Soderbergh continued. “There are stories everywhere. There are so many ways to go. I have trouble finding the time to do all the stuff that I want to do. Maybe they’re just putting themselves in front of the thing. Maybe they’ve got this attitude about what is worthy of their time, and maybe I just don’t have that. I can exist in any version of this business.” Words to live by.
Scott Foundas is the associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a contributing editor to Film Comment. From 2003‑2009, he was a film critic for the LA Weekly.