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British Free Cinema & New Hollywood: Karel Reisz’s The Gambler

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The Gambler

This post is the second in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. The Gambler was curated by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here.

Because this is a new wave film blog, I admit that with each of these Cineastes entries I do attempt to find some connection to the new wave, however small. Although this film has very little to do with the French New Wave, it does, however, have everything to do with the American New Wave – New Hollywood. Karel Reisz himself was also a graduate of British Free Cinema, a movement some refer to as the British New Wave for its similarities to the Nouvelle Vague.  Whether or not New Hollywood and British Free Cinema are seen as parallel to, descendents of, or antithetical to the nouvelle vague is a discussion perhaps for another time.  What they all had indisputably in common, however, were a sense of naturalism, a predilection for bittersweet endings, and a tendency to wax poetic about The Outsider, the anti-hero — all qualities, if you’ll pardon the pun, which The Gambler holds in spades.

This is not a 21-like story of a romantic card jockey who beats the system with his unorthodox tactics and cocky, Joe Cool attitude. This film is a modern interpretation of Doestoevsky’s The Gambler (1867), and it is, like the novel before it, a study of human weakness and compulsion and, essentially, an existential tragedy — not just because of the failure of the protagonist, but also for the societal mechanisms that drive him to his own private madness.

Not Even Anti-Hero

James Caan plays Axel Freed (Axel a near anagram of Alexei, the main character in Doestoevsky’s novel), a literature professor with a macho gambling addiction. The movie opens at a card table where Axel loses an astounding $44,000 over the course of a single evening.

What follows is not a typical story arc. We are not taken through various trials, to be lead at the end to Axel’s salvation.  Axel, in fact, does not learn any lessons; he is not even an anti-hero, because there is very little that is heroic about his behaviour.  Over the course of the movie we watch our protagonist gamble compulsively; look on gormlessly as a loan shark breaks the knuckles of a penniless client (as the man’s wife looks on in horror); finagle his hard-working mother out of her life savings, then blow it all almost immediately in Vegas; nearly rape his long-suffering girlfriend; convince a student to fix a basketball game to worm his way out of debt with the loan sharks, only to blow off his only friend to visit a whorehouse where he deliberately provokes the pimp into a bloody fight.  The movie ends with the hooker slashing his face with a knife.  He stumbles out of the room, blood pouring down his face, looks into the hallway mirror, and smiles.

What are we to make out of a movie like this?  Are we supposed to enjoy it?  Maybe not, but perhaps in the same way we are not meant to “enjoy” La Nausée or L’Etranger. What we have instead might be a feeling of wakening, the small and perhaps painful light that illuminates something truthful about this character, and in turn something in him that we see also in ourselves. This is not a story about human strength, it is not even primarily a story about human weakness.  The Gambler is a treatise on freedom.

Freedom & Manhood

In Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home”, the protagonist, Krebs, returns home after years serving in the Great War, only to realise that he has become completely alienated from his family and friends.  No one understands his war experiences, or wants to hear his stories about what it really felt like on the battlefields. They see him as a hero perhaps, but they no longer share his reality, one which has become fractured and reconstituted through the turbulence of war. He begins to feel restless and apathetic, and he fills his days with trivial activities, idling and playing pool.  He can’t get a handle on normal, everyday life, because after the heightened reality of the war, everyday life feels unreal. During the war, there were times where he’d felt “cool and clear” inside, heroic, free to make the choice to do the “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do easily and naturally”.  This natural expression of heroicism was crystallised only through danger and the risk that it could all go wrong. He felt he was a man because he met those risks head on, faced them, and conquered them with courage and clarity of purpose.  Back at home, he cannot help but become a slave to a set of social and societal customs which, without risk, are meaningless. He realises he can no longer express his true self, and thus is not free.

This suspicion that modern life, for all of its safeties and conveniences, might be meaningless or a trap, is not isolated in fiction to war veterans or ex-fighters.  It is a common theme in existential literature (the aforementioned La Nausée and L’Etranger, Kafka, Doestoevsky and others).  What is interesting is how this restlessness manifests itself. There is a reason, for instance, why Axel’s character is a college professor. He is, for all of his open-shirted machismo, an intellectual; and while some men express the need to master risk by getting involved with a sport, by skydiving, by becoming boxers or firemen or policemen, Axel needs to take it further, to pit his mind against the universe, to dominate at the most basic physical level of reality.  He wants to bend fate to his will, and to become the master of chance, he can only be a gambler.

Reisz isn’t romanticising; by spending two hours with Axel we begin to understand that the tragedy of his character is only that he does not know how to live his life without courting death or ruin. He needs danger and risk, and the feeling of domination that comes through conquering those risks through gambling, more than he needs love, or career, or family.  And it isn’t until his fear for his own life drives him to cheat, to dishonour himself by asking one of his students to fix a game, that his emotionless composure crumbles. The look on his face, when his debt is cleared, is not one of relief: but of failure.  He hasn’t won.  For Axel, even though his decision has saved his life, and even though he didn’t actually cause his student to lose the game, he knows his choice was the wrong choice. His Fate found him and he bended to its will – and instead of doing “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do”, he took the coward’s way out.  He is ashamed. For Axel, it was never about the money; it was always about his potency as a man, and his misdeed has, for a time, gelded him.

To make up for his cowardice, Axel spurns his friend’s suggestion of celebration and immediately drives to a brothel/bar where he first picks a fight with a hooker, then her pimp.  “What is wrong with that guy?” we think as the pimp pulls out a switchblade. “How could he possibly be such an idiot? He just cleared all of his debt – shouldn’t he be grateful for this second chance and just start living his life?”  But what does a man like Axel have to live for now that he has seen the shape of his own cowardice? No, he has to prove to himself that he would be willing to give up his life.  He needs some event to stand in for the decision he should have made when the loan sharks began to pressure him to choose between money and his honour. So when the pimp pulls out his knife, Axel only is doing what comes naturally.

New Hollywood

[tbc]

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Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On Conference. Part 4: “Channel Crossings: Free Cinema and New Wave in the UK”

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Day 1 of the symposium concluded with an extended discussion of the Nouvelle Vague in the UK with a panel of luminaries which included the veteran film critics Charles Barr and Philip French, as well as director Stephen Frears, looking characteristically rumpled.

Simularities between the British Free Cinema movement of the 1950’s and the Nouvelle Vague have been remarked upon before and Christophe Dupin, an expert on the movement, made a strong case for their parallel development. Points in common included:

1) A violent rejection of their respective commercial national cinemas and an unconditional support for a small number of American directors (ie. Hitchcock and Hawks for the Nouvelle Vague and John Ford for the Free Cinema crew)

2) Both movements gathered initially around a film journal in whose pages a seminal work of criticism was written which broke with tradition and called for a new cinema (Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” in Cahiers du Cinema, and Lindsay Anderson’s “Stand Up! Stand Up!” in Sight and Sound.)

3) The importance of a national cinema as a platform for a new kind of cinephilia (The Cinematheque Francais and The National Film Theatre)

4) The directors of both movements relied on skillful technicians to break new ground.

5) The sudden availability of new film stocks and cameras which allowed hand-held location filming, often at night, which gave a sense of realism and therefore authenticity to their productions.

This Sporting Life, 1963

This Sporting Life, 1963

Using slides to back up his assertion that there were a number of connections between the two movements, Dupin showed us a free cinema programme put on at the NFT in 1959 which introduced British audiences for the first time to work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. We were also shown letters from Lindsay Anderson to Truffaut praising his work and generally offering support.

Dupin’s obvious admiration for the Free Cinema filmmakers was not shared by Charles Barr who spoke next. He asserted that it was in fact Movie, the magazine he wrote for, which was the true counterpart to Cahiers du Cinema. It was they, he said, who had introduced the concept of the auteur to Britain rather than Sight and Sound. Still harbouring resentment towards Lindsay Anderson for dismissing Andre Bazin in an article from the time, he made it clear that he and his colleagues had not thought much of either free cinema or the feature films of the British new wave. Indeed, in his view it was quite ridiculous to put them on the same level as the films of the Nouvelle Vague.

Stephen Frears, a young Cambridge graduate at the time, who had assisted some of the British new wave directors, on both their filmwork and with theatre productions at the Royal Court, pointed out that the British new wave directors had different priorities. They were less interested in aesthetics, more in breaking down class structures. Their films were generally adapted from successful books and plays, and while less revolutionary, were well crafted and successful in what they set out to achieve.

Philip French sidestepped this debate and instead described what it had been like encountering these daring new films from France for the first time. Although seen now as a distinct collection of films, at the time, he explained, they were just another part of a greater flood of films and art which were transforming a grey, stultified Britain into the place it would become in the swinging, technicolour 60s. It was an exciting time and the start of a period in which European cinema was suddenly challenging Hollywood. Even mainstream moviegoers were suddenly turning up at the local ABC to see the latest Bergman or Godard.

This was contrasted by Jonathan Romney with the contemporary situation in which the auteurs of the nouvelle vague are finding it increasingly difficult to get their films distributed in the UK beyond a few art cinemas. “The films being released at the time of the new wave are better than anything that’s come out in the last twenty years,” asserted an older member of the audience, and it was hard to disagree with him. “We try our best,” said Stephen Frears, at which point, as if to underline his commitment, he ducked out of the hall, scarf flying, no doubt on important filmmaking business.

Overall, despite the fact that no really solid conclusions were reached, it was an enjoyable discussion. I happen to agree with Christophe Dupin, that the development of the New Waves in France and Britain were remarkably similar. Truffaut’s oft quoted claim that there was a certain incompatibility between the words “British” and “Cinema” was written in the early 50s, a relative lowpoint in this nation’s film output. In later years he relented and the films of the British new wave were instrumental in changing his mind. They may not have been as groundbreaking as the films of the Nouvelle Vague but some terrific films came out of that time. Who could forget Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or Billy Liar? And as far as influence goes, try watching This Sporting Life and Raging Bull back to back and tell me the former wasn’t a key influence on the latter.