Sunday, December 16, 2007

Qu'est-ce que la Nouvelle Vague?

"I do not think that Chabrol and Truffaut have deliberately sold their souls to the devil, as certain young left-wing critics, and certain young film-makers less fortunate than they, have claimed; they are probably making the films they want to make, but anyone who claims that theirs are any better or, above all, any more "advanced" than, let us say, the highly respectable Diable au corps, is simply deluding himself. It is true that in so far as they choose "serious" subjects--most of their films deal with youth in a far more sophisticated way than Carné's lamentable Tricheurs--they are not disgracing the French cinema and have, in fact, slightly raised the average intellectual level of French films; but it would be pure hokum to claim that these young men are working any kind of aesthetic revolution, for technically--and, above all, poetically--their films are a good twenty years behind the time."

Above is a paragraph from Noël Burch's polemic on (against?) the earliest stirrings of the Nouvelle Vague (Film Quarterly, Winter, 1959), wherein he gives a passing grade to Rivette ("alone among the Cahiers group, [he] seems to have acquired a real mastery of academic film technique" and "has the added merit" of prior journeyman, low-budget film experience), somewhat dismisses outright Chabrol, Truffaut, and much (not all) of Vadim (the exceptions are Sait-on Jamais? and much more modestly, Les Liaisons dangereuses), and of the early short films of Doniol-Valcroze, Godard, and Rohmer, says nothing in what he's seen indicates "that the three features they are now completing are likely to prove very exciting." He eviscerates Camus' Orfeu Negro (had it not "inexplicably been graced with the grand prize at Cannes this year" he would have ignored it altogether). Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'echafaud earns approval but Les Amants is a disappointment ("unbelievably flat" "academic formlessness").

Who gets praised? Well, Jean Rouch, obliquely (Burch mentions in a footnote that he leaves out Rouch largely because that ethnographic master is being treated in another article in the same issue of FQ); Jean-Daniel Pollet (of his short film Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse: "Although ... formally as banal as Les 400 coups, its ferociously realistic description of a provincial dance hall betokened genuine artistic talent and a real need to create"); Alain Resnais (he praises Hiroshima, Mon Amour very, very highly but also subjects it to rigorous criticism); and most of all Marcel Hanoun (for Une Simple histoire).

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Saying anything about Noël Burch necessitates designating which Burch to whom you're referring--he refined and reassessed his opinions about things many times over the course of almost fifty years. (Recall that he more or less disowned--though did not try to bury--Theory of Film Practice by the late 1970s.) A polemic like this one has a weird place: it suggests to cinephiles where the discourse "might have gone." For Burch criticizes the Nouvelle Vague, and does it partly from the standpoint of a refined, rigorous, and cultivated person. But he's not a highbrow hack like John Simon: the idea is not about the establishment and maintenance of bourgeois Western Kulcha. The idea is to honor tradition so long as it is useful (he refers to "tried and true" methods once in the essay), but otherwise to try to move forward: a fearless vanguardism whose only true caution is the desire to be authoritative, in order to be victorious. One can see why Burch and his aesthetic system(s) have found marginal acceptance: it's hard. Burch uses terms like "academic" as either damning or vaguely positive descriptors, depending on context: the quick-and-dirty breakdown is that academic artistry is good, or anyway acceptable, when it is a starting point, and bad when it's a goal or a cage. There's a fine balance to be preserved, and in this deployment of terms of evaluation I see for the first time a certain affinity on this point between Burch and another out-of-lockstep, syncretic, left-wing film critic, Raymond Durgnat.


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I think it is sometimes amazing how the discourse surrounding the Nouvelle Vague has colored popular perceptions--at least outside of France, though I assume also within France (just in a slightly different way)--of the French cinema up through the 1960s. Consider:

"During 12 years, from 1945 to 1957, 167 films, or 20 percent of France's total production output, were shot by only 9 directors, for an average of 18 movies each. It is worth listing all their names so as to perceive better the true nature of French cinema during the 1950s. These are the filmmakers who were supported by producers and to whose movies most of the cinemagoing public flocked: André Berthomieu (30 films), Jean Stelli (22 films), Jean Boyer (21 films), Richard Pottier (18 films), Robert Vernay and Maurice Labro (17 films each), Henri Lepage, Maurice de Canonge, and Raoul André (14 films each). These diectors were all professionals who shared a narrowly artisanal conception of their work. They directed their films so as to maximize their box office takings and thus increase the return on production costs. A complete list of their films would be excessive here, but, needless to say, this state of affairs was not able to permit a renewal of creativity such as could be seen in the ongoing revival of 1950s French literature and theater."

--Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School (trans. Richard Neupert), pp. 18-19

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A strange question: would we have been able to identify the pros and cons of the new movements of the 1960s? Have the dominant (positive) readings of the New Waves been taken too much for granted, i.e., been accepted too thoughtlessly by my generation? (I for one first approached works of the Nouvelle Vague with nary a skeptical thought in my head.) The question is different now because the film industry is different, the mediascape is different. I'm probably wrong but I feel as though it was easier to be comprehensive on all fronts of cinema--that is, all fronts of what people (cinephiles & civilians both) are talking about--in 1959 than it is in 2007 ...

11 comments:

Dan Sallitt said...

I find it interesting that Burch said that Nouvelle Vague technique was "a good twenty years behind the time." Because there's a sense in which the Bazinian ideas that so influenced the Nouvelle Vague directors are a reaching back to a pre-Griffith aesthetic, an attempt to make a connection with the most basic things that a camera can do. I don't know Burch well enough to say exactly where he's coming from at any given point in time, but my sense is that he's got a more forward-looking agenda for the cinema.

Zach Campbell said...

Dan--yeah, when he was writing this in 1959, he was very much a vanguardist, and didn't let many people in the vanguard. Don't know if you'd seen it, but I posted that takedown of Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica he posted at the same time. Whatever the Nouvelle Vague looked like in 1959, it's understandable how it may have seemed retrograde to Burch and others like him--the NV tied as it was to a journalistic description of youth, almost like a fashion or something like 'Generation X.' I'd be kind of cranky if serious and informed people decided Fincher, both Andersons, Russell, S. Coppola, Kaufman/Jonze/Gondry were really and truly the Big Thing, an aesthetically radical improvement upon tired and ossified old masters. (In fact in 1999, back when I was still reading Entertainment Weekly, they published an infuriating article that argued just that. Its negative impact was actually a big step in my becoming a "serious" cinephile.) And I certainly like some of those films/filmmakers.

(The difficult point that I'd like to retain, and entertain, is that maybe Burch is onto something, even if just a bit.)

On a_f_b a while back Mike Grost posted that Burch was like a Calvinist, only a select few got into his approved filmmakers list. That's a caricature but not a wrong one for Burch before the 1970s, I think.

I ramble ...

Peter said...

I responded to that Entertainment Weekly article by stating that their idea of innovative filmmaking in 1999 had been done already in 1959. My letter was actually published.

Dan Sallitt said...

Zach - Burch can drive me a little crazy, but I'm all for the ongoing and continuous reevaluation of the Tradition of Quality filmmakers whom the Cahiers critics trashed and the Nouvelle Vague successfully supplanted in the esteem of the critical community. I haven't poked around the Tradition of Quality as much as I could have, but a few filmmakers who were on Cahiers' bad side are favorites of mine (e.g. Gremillon, Clouzot), and a few other establishment directors (e.g. Feyder, Clement) seem to me worthy of further investigation. And, as aesthetically exciting and important as the Nouvelle Vague is, it will do us no harm to take them off of their pedestal and subject them to scrutiny.

I think though, that Burch is not simply reacting to the downgrading of the past in favor of the present, as you were with that Entertainment Weekly article. I suspect he would consider Renoir and Rossellini, the direct inspirations of the Nouvelle Vague, just as retrograde - are his opinions of these filmmakers known? Without refreshing my memory on his aesthetic, my sense is that he's just not interested in a cinema that "puts its faith in reality," to use Bazin's phrase: he seems to favor film style that comments, disorients, makes "passive" viewing impossible.

Zach Campbell said...

Peter, I'm sure I must have read your letter back in the follow-up issues to the '99 article. Cool.

Dan--absolutely to your second paragraph. It definitely isn't the displacement of old by new that bothers Burch. I think he generally likes Renoir, or at very least earlier Renoir (like earlier--German--Lang), since Nana gets a chapter in Theory of Film Practice, but he did trash Viaggio in Italia in the article that provides the subject for this post. (Along the lines of, "These New Wavers inexplicably love Howard Hawks, and they respond mostly to the moral--i.e., Christian--themes of Rossellini, but Viaggio in Italia is just awful." That's a paraphrase but more or less accurate of his presented views. He's no Bazinian.

Who knows how post-1970s Burch felt/feels about Rossellini & Renoir, though.

Dan Sallitt said...

Zach - not meaning to be a wise-ass about Burch, but I have this very strong hunch that he'll say somewhere in Theory of Film Practice that Nana is far more cinematically sophisticated than Renoir's later work.... I have the book at home - I promise to correct the record if I'm wrong.

Zach Campbell said...

Dan, your suspicion is justified, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see it confirmed, but checking through a few of my sources he actually seems to be fairly big on Renoir all around. (Maybe the late silent/early sound stuff--plus Rules--is his favorite. But he gives much praise to This Land Is Mine, at least in a 1987 addendum to an article he wrote on Lang, collected in In and Out of Synch...) Let me know if you come across more examples ...

Dan Sallitt said...

Yeah, I withdraw the charges: I can find no evidence that Burch's admiration for Renoir was partial. In my defense, I think I may have been remembering Richard Roud's claim in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: "For a critic like Noel Burch, the essential Renoir is the silent period, or more precisely Nana (1926)." But Burch's own writings, at least the ones I've seen, show enthusiasm for other Renoir films as well.

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