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).
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.
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
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 ...