Saturday 5 August 2017

On the French New Wave: Max Berghouse responds to questions

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut)

Editor's note: In his appreciation  of the art of Jeanne Moreau, cinephile Max Berghouse described her as "superbly accomplished… in particular Touchez pas au Grisbi and L’ascenseur à  l’échafaud/Elevator to the Gallows. I was attracted to these films because of their subject matter and the directors primarily but on watching such films, the performance of the actress herself was immediately noticeable and profound."
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
He went on to make some derogatory remarks about the French New Wave thus "surprisingly, given my adolescent desire to follow fashion, even then I regarded as a brain dead period of French cinema. I came back to this time in later years. My views have not changed about the rancid quality of most of the films, despite the continuous exemplary acting of the late Ms Moreau, an absolutely ageless and impeccable beauty – and talent."

Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier)
These views drew two responses, firstly from the esteemed critic and scholar Joseph McBride who commented about the post which gathered up the views of half a dozen cinephiles from around the world, “Nice except I can't understand some guy calling the New Wave "rancid."

I also got a private email from a reader saying the following: Film history and film criticism are a bit like being a liberal bubble where everyone basically agrees with everyone else about what’s to be celebrated and what’s to be denigrated. How often have you heard or read anyone say the New Wave was rancid? Let’s find out why. Could be a spirited debate. Having said it in print, he’s really obligated to defend.”

The Red Inn (Claude Autant-Lara)
So, Max Berghouse happily responds: Well, fancy being asked to defend my position on an issue that I would have thought was dead and buried. I don't mean thereby that the issue of the worth of the "New Wave" has been resolved unanimously one way or the other. But it is an issue of the past and now in terms of current value systems, a long time in the past. The New Wave was a creature of about 1955 – 1965, both as to its products and its primary theoretical underpinnings. So it is, like me, for better or worse, significantly middle-aged and there are other, much newer issues to involve the cinephile.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carne)
In this post I can see little value in reiterating the theory and positive views on the New Wave. I recently described it as "rancid" and I meant it in its literal sense but probably as used in relation to food where rancid relates to something unpleasant as being old or stale. It was the sense of "old and stale" that I was trying to capture, not in particular the other meaning of rancid as "repugnant". My judgement is not that severe and was inappropriate in what was in effect part of an "obituary" to the extraordinary Jeanne Moreau.

La Belle Equipe (Julien Duvivier)
At the very end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, when I was still a very young kid I became very interested in some post-war but nonetheless classical French directors. My particular favourite was Claude Autant-Lara and my admiration for him has not diminished. I still think the films he made after his forthright criticism of the New Wave (all of which were commercially unsuccessful) are engaging and reflect the classic French cinema desire for a strong narrative. Now in principle that driver – strong narrative, really is the sine qua non by which all modern cinema is judged aesthetically. I well accept that there are some exceptions; they are few and far between. It is on that basis that I thought "rancid" was a fair summary: old or stale. And there are really a very large number of other "classical directors" who earned the ire of the New Wavists in circumstances where they (the New Wave theorists) had almost no real knowledge of the work of these directors. They did not have access to the films themselves – but of course that applied throughout the world at that time, film stock being both bulky and expensive. Curatorship of cinema remained quite primitive even in a country as film loving as France. So the criticisms of these directors is very substantially without evidence.

This applies in particular to the "auteur" principle of evaluation of films (so well known that it is generally the consideration which pretty much everyone recognises as being a constituent of the New Wave theory). If the theorists had seen a greater, a much greater, number of classic French films, they would have realised that many of the otherwise dismissed directors, readily fulfilled the requirements of auteurship. Just to mention two out of many:Carné and, my favourite, Duvivier    

Drole de Drame (Marcel Carne)
English/Anglo-Saxon theory is fundamentally "empirical". What is important is found by experience and productivity. Experimentation and work beat theory every time. To take an example of someone who amply fulfils this, David Lean whose work becomes steadily grander and bigger in every sense as he is able to attract bigger and bigger budgets. Continental Europe and in particular France is the home of "rationalism" which puts primacy on theory. So to be rather pejorative, theorists like those of the New Wave are much more concerned to judge a film in terms of its conformity or otherwise to the theory and disregard whether  its otherwise good or bad.

In my view many of the New Wave directors were simply jealous of the previous generation or generations of working directors. These latter were a known quantity, with significant track records who could bring a film in on budget and which stylistically could be considered a known quantity to both producers and expected audiences. New Wave directors were, at least in the very beginning, working on extremely tight budgets and were completely unable to achieve the "gloss" which is characteristic of these classic directors. The New Wavists demeaned the strong classic tradition which itself is indebted to literary parallels, in my view, substantially because they had neither the resources, nor at the time, probably, the experience to create the same effect. Necessity being touted as virtue.

La Traversee de Paris (Claude Autant-Lara)
Lastly the New Wave directors exist in a specific milieu and time. The contradictions within the theory itself and the way in which it was incorrectly applied to the work of large number of directors (see above) reflect a the contradictions in French society at that specific time. The Fourth Republic which was only established in 1945 was avowedly left liberal and yet fought fiercely and savagely to maintain its colonial empire, especially in Algeria. In 1954 the French suffered a monumental defeat in Vietnam which put paid to any expectation that they could hold their colonial empire and really justify their position in the front rank of nations. These disintegrating factors led to a new Republic in 1957. Now whatever one may say about the interaction of a particular theory and the society which brings it forth, vastly different social conditions applied to this country Australia and indeed to all the other Anglo-Saxon countries which were manifestly stable.

I have read over the subsequent years very considerable number of theoretical texts about cinema, including that of the New Wave. As concerns this latter, much of the writing is convoluted and almost deliberately opaque. But so is a very considerable amount of European theoretical work. Much as I have tried through work and study, and a great deal of viewing, I can't convince myself that the New Wave, even at its inception and height, was other than a temporary byway in the history of cinema.

Max Berghouse's latest contribution is his review of DUNKIRK

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