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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.

Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On Conference. Part 2: “Jean-Luc Godard: Continuity & Critique”

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Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

For many people, especially those recently introduced to the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard is the personification of French New Wave. That look, those sunglasses, even the way he grips his cigarette, like a toothpick from a martini glass. All of these things say “rebellious”, “french” and “cool”.

Godard is both icon and iconoclast and, like Brigitte Bardot, his style is as equally recognisable as his films. Perhaps, then, it is only fitting that the conference moved directly from a discussion of Brigitte to a discussion of Jean-Luc. Except this time we were the recipients of two distinct points of view.

The second lecture of the conference was in fact a double feature: a lecture by writer and film critic Chris Darke, followed by one from film studies professor Yosefa Loshitzky. Afterwards, the audience would be able to directly address questions to both and the speakers could then discuss those questions and respond to both the audience and one another. Not precisely a panel, but close enough.

Chris Darke’s talk was entitled “Following Godard: some thoughts on JLG-watching” and, thankfully, presented exactly the sort of thoughts I had intended to fill my notebooks with – highly analytical, well imagined: theory. Before I begin discussing it, however, it’s probably worth mentioning that Chris Darke has written a book, a monograph on Godard’s Alphaville, which is going straight onto my Amazon wishlist. There’s an excerpt from it here.

But back to the lecture. Darke opened his presentation with this corker: “Jean-Luc Godard had more ideas in a single one of his films than most filmmakers come up with in several lifetimes.”  Provocative, but I happen to think he is right.  Yes, some of Godard’s later films, especially, are more obtuse (and okay, some of them are downright awful), but after watching a clip from Two or Three Things I Know About Her at the end of Darke’s talk, all of us in the audience knew what he meant. Godard is the Thomas Edison of filmmaking. Even in that single film, the sheer quantity of original ideas, in both in content in style, boggles the mind. Not all of his films are masterworks, but piece by piece there is no denying his genius.

“Godard in Space” (& Time)

The bulk of Chris’s talk was focused on Godard’s cinematic relationship to the concepts of space and time. Classical cinema, said Darke, answered the questions of space and time in narrative by simply ignoring them. If a man walks across a room, he is shown walking across a room – but only for as long or in such a way that his action relates in context to a pre-existing plot. Or else, his walking across the room is considered unimportant, and is not shown within the context of the narrative at all. The narrative is just what is relevant to the plot, in sequence, and nothing more. The fact that memory does not usually happen in sequence, or that it is usually emotionally connected to images, rather than logical sequences, does not matter to classical cinema. Neither does the fact that reality, the obverse of memory, is not selective on the basis of relevance. Real human lives are not plotted. Real human lives unravel through time, are always unravelling, and yet they still have meaning. If film is a medium of images rather than just words or text, and thus has the ability to represent experience and thought in a way that words and language and literature never can, why do we treat time and space in films in the same way that we treat it in books? The Nouvelle Vague, and through Godard all modern cinema, reposes these fundamental questions.

There were a few other points that Darke made that I found interesting. Because I am very aware that I still need to fit in a discussion of Yosefa Loshitzsky’s lecture, I’ll just briefly bullet point them below.

  • A recurring feature of recent discourse with Godard is him saying that the New Wave was not the start of something but the end of something – that is the decline of the film studio and the coming  of television. The Nouvelle Vague were lucky enough to ride out the last breakers of the wave, but the age of cinema is perhaps over forever.
  • What follows cinema? “Video thinks what cinema creates.”  I don’t remember that Darke expanded on this phrase, but I took it to mean that video is a more personal, reflexive medium than cinema.  It takes what cinema has created and “mulls it over”, recogitates it at the command of the Play button, can be fast forwarded or rewinded like memory, and is designed to be enjoyed alone, or in conversation with a small group. Any other thoughts as to what this might mean?
  • There was a small section on Godard’s use of sound in his movies, and how a disjoint between what is happening on the soundtrack and what is happening on the screen can also be used as a stylistic device to add or subtract emotion or meaning.  Darke: “This is where things happen – on the boundaries between picture and sound.”
  • Finally, I think there was a question from the audience about Hitchcock, who Godard and most of the New Wave very much admired.  The point was that, when it comes to directed plotlines and straight-forward classical narratives, there’s nobody more eager to push the audience from scene to scene than Hitchcock. So why was he so admired by the New Wave when they rejected this conception of time? Darke’s answer was that: as far as the Nouvelle Vague were concerned, “What we remember from Hitchcock is not plot but images.”  In other words, the New Wave was more fascinated by Hitchcock’s impactful use of images than his way with narrative.

Just Who Had Contempt For Whom?

Yosefa Loshitzsky was up next and started her lecture with the famous opening scene from Le Mepris, of Bardot’s nude body and her assessment of it, through the eyes of her lover.  Firstly, I’d like to say that while I didn’t wholly agree with Loshitzsky about Godard’s misogyny, I did learn quite a bit from her and she had some interesting points.

Getting back to Bardot’s nudity…. 🙂  Loshitzsky’s lecture revolved around Le Mepris/Contempt, and the many meanings the title of the film held for Godard and his relationship with the studios, with Bardot, with women, and with cinema in general. One of the main ideas, however, if not the main idea, was that the contempt in Le Mepris was really Godard’s contempt for Brigitte Bardot (as an actress, not Camille’s character in the film).  I don’t really agree with this, but as I think that maybe the topic of Godard’s alleged misogyny deserves a whole post of it’s own, I’ll skip over it for now.  I’ll skip over it so that I can focus on the things I did like about Loshitzsky’s talk.

Here’s that opening scene if you haven’t seen it in a while. You’ll need to skip to around 1:57 –

I liked watching the opening of Le Mepris on the big screen, and with fresh eyes.  Even before the lecture began, I noticed two things for the first time: 1) the camera seems to deliberately move away from the body part that the naked Camille is asking her husband to praise, and 2) this somehow makes Camille’s definition of her body as “all of her” take on a shade of irony. Or was I imagining it?

Apparently, I was not.  Loshitzsky also pointed these things out to us, and then went on to tell about the production of Le Mepris – how the producers had complained to Godard that there was not enough of Bardot’s naked body on screen and how Godard had included this initial scene as a kind of “up yours” – well, it all kind of made more sense.  Loshitzsky was trying to make it into a case of transference: Godard’s hatred for commercial moviemaking displaced onto Bardot.  But I don’t think that had anything to do with this. This is not Godard saying that woman are just the sum of their parts.  Otherwise the camera would have lingered on each pornographic angle as it was being described. This is Godard saying this film is more than just the sum of its parts. “Hey!” he seems to be saying as he switches on the technicolour on Bardot’s behind (while she is talking about her shoulders, unseen). “Is this what you studio men wanted, eh? Some cheap shot by shot softcore pornography? Well, fine. There you go. I hope you enjoyed making me your whore too.” Misogynist or no, I think it is a testament to Godard’s integrity that he does not treat Camille like this in the rest of the film.

I also enjoyed some of the backstory Loshitzsky provided about Godard’s own life and the autobiographical flavour of Le Mepris. She told a story about how Bardot wrote once that she hated making Le Mepris because Godard asked her to walk “more like Anna Karina”. Anna Karina was still Godard’s wife at the time, but their home life was deteriorating, and art was imitating life.

I wish I could say that the end of the “panel” was a rousing argument between Chris Darke and Yosefa Loshitzsky about whether it would be better to typify Godard as a boundary-busting intellectual or as a raging woman hater, but sadly the two speakers interacted hardly at all, instead just responding to the off question from the audience. Most of these questions were very boring. Oh well. Missed opportunity for what could have been a fantastic smackdown.

Next up: Antoine de Baeque! I can’t wait!

Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On Conference. Part 1: “Was the New Wave just plain uppity?”

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Les Bonnes Femmes

Les Bonnes Femmes

Ah, to be French! Last weekend I was once again reminded of the boxes of French language tapes lying dusty and forgotten at the back of my closet. They would have come in handy last weekend at the Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On conference, hosted by the Institut Français at the Ciné lumière in London. I’m certain I missed out on some of the best nuggets from the superb French lecturers at the conference who were only very loosely translated, if at all. I think I would have given my bras droit to have been able to talk to Antoine de Baecque afterwards, for example. Even so, the event was still a memorable experience, especially for those of us who no longer run in academic circles, not only because it gave us a chance to see that these films are still being studied and talked about at universities all over the world, but also because it gave us an insight into what, precisely, is being said.

The conference was organised by the University of London Screen Studies Group and the AHRC-supported French Cinema in Britain Research Project at the University of Southampton. It was two full days of lectures and panels, each day followed by a screening of shorts and one full length feature film — the stars of the conference were billed as director Stephen Frears, who was there to talk about the British Free Cinema movement and its connection to the Nouvelle Vague, and also, supposedly, Bernadette LaFonte, the hypnotically lovely star of Le Beau Serge, Les Mistons, and Les Bonnes Femmes. It was announced, however, before the last lecture that she was ill and would not be attending. Boo!

Now, I wish I could say that we arrived early to stake out the best seats and chat with the other participants of the conference, but sadly — London transport being what it is — we arrived 15 minutes late, missing the first part of Vanessa Schwartz‘s opening lecture, a populist/feminist critique entitled: “Who Killed Brigitte Bardot? Re-thinking the New Wave After 50 Years“.

In hindsight, part of me is glad that I missed those first 15 minutes as the latter 45 minutes of the lecture left me so aggravated that I was furiously scribbling exclamation points in my notebook and passing them over to Simon so that he too could register my discontent.

Before I launch into my first major beef, let me say firstly that I am a woman, and a feminist woman at that. So much so that, after reading my first feminist textbook as a teenager, I convinced my high school English teacher to help me conduct an experiment on my classmates so that I could see for myself if young women and young men view success differently as a function of gender. I had read in my textbook — stolen from a university library — that when given the sentence “At the end of her second semester of medical school, Ann learned that she was at the top of her class” as a story prompt, girls tended overwhelmingly to write stories of Ann dropping out or becoming a failure. Meanwhile boys, when given the same prompt with “John” instead of “Ann”, would write about space alien adventures, pirates, millionaires, etc. My teacher assured me that since our class was mostly upper middle class and an “honors” class that this effect would not apply when she issued these prompts for our next journal writing assignment. Guess what? The girls mostly wrote about their heroines dying in a ditch somewhere while the boys wrote about zombies and flying cars. Ever since then I have been particularly aware of my place as a woman in society. I have read Judith Butler, Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous, etc.

That said, I think having Vanessa Schwartz open the conference with a feminist, populist critique of the Nouvelle Vague was a mistake. I will get into my particular problems with her assessments in a second, but more importantly: by opening the conference this way she set a tone under which (most) everyone who followed felt that they had to address misogyny and/or elitism as an identifying trait of the New Wave, whether they agreed with Schwartz or not. Instead of talking about the films, the concepts of their directors and their impact, too many of the lectures and discussions centered around a very strange and modern socio-political critique of their context. This might have been interesting had it been covered in one lecture but instead it seemed to permeate through the entire event (with a few very wonderful exceptions).

The crux of Schwartz’s lecture was this:

1) The narrative of the New Wave should not begin with Les Quatres Cents Coups or even Le Beau Serge, but with Brigitte Bardot’s earliest films in the 1950s. She asserted that the “New Wave was founded on Bardolitry” more than the intellectual theories of Godard or Truffaut, and that her influence was deliberately suppressed.

2) Furthermore, the intellectualism of the Cahiers group and others alienated the audience at the time. She reminded us that most of the New Wave films were not hits. Is it not a sign of history’s elitism and misogyny, she asked, that these films — and especially those of the white male Young Turks from the Cahiers group — are valued and revered as cornerstones of French cinema, while box office hits like La Grande Vadrouille are not given their proper place at the top of the pantheon of French cinema? After all, the audience, not the academics, chose them? Should we not have more respect for the audience?

Schwartz’s views about Godard’s and/or the Nouvelle Vague’s misogyny were at least in part echoed in Yosefa Loshitzky‘s lecture which followed and their vague imprint lingered like a stain on the rest of the conference, perhaps because the tone had been set or perhaps also because Schwartz herself sat in the front row of the cinema and insisted on self-aggrandisingly flinging her argument at every subsequent lecturer, whether it pertained to them or not.

There are several reasons why this kind of scholarship both bores and irritates me. For one, although I realise that women have only just recently escaped certain societal yokes and are, as yet, still under a few particularly insidious ones, it also makes me sad that whenever I attend a conference on a particular topic, a majority of the female lecturers inevitably gravitate towards talking about how women have been marginalised in past scholarship/historical narratives on that topic, how unfair it’s all been etc. Yes, the unfairness of it all should be discussed, but come on ladies — it can’t be all we talk about! How can we be respected and treated as equals if we can’t move the conversation out from under the weight of victimisation? For 99% of history women have been treated as incapable of higher thought. Now we are finally able — not to show that we are, not to prove that we are, but to just be — capable thinkers. Isn’t it more constructive as a female academic to meet male academics on universal terms and just talk about the darned topic? We’re smart enough. We don’t have to beg anymore to be taken seriously. Also, it seems to me that laying waste to the legitimate artistic accomplishments of our historical male counterparts only works to devalue our own achievements in the here and now. Although we should all be aware of how women are and have been misrepresented in the past, women don’t deserve equal respect because we have been victimised by history. We deserve it because we have the capability now to create on equal terms.

Secondly, populist arguments annoy me because I can’t help thinking that they are often the lazy academic’s way of trying to earn a reputation with their peers through those two despicable weapons of rhetoric: bullying and good old fashioned liberal guilt. Their arguments tend to go something like this: Popular things are inherently good, because the largest amount of people say they are good, and we must respect all people as having equally good judgment. To do otherwise would be condescending to those people and elitist. In fact, Schwartz went so far as to say that academics shouldn’t be passing value judgments on anything and she was, ironically, very judgmental in this assessment. “Look,” she told a detractor, “You can go along and make your judgments about what’s good and what’s bad in the film world, but let me tell you — in the art history world we’ve moved past that.” Of course, nobody wants to be an elitist. In fact, those of us on the left usually found our principles on tenets of fairness and justice and we hate the idea of looking down on our fellow man. So we apologise to the lazy academic for being so uppity and try to include her discourse in our own.

The problem with these arguments was neatly encapsulated by a participant of the conference who (thank God!) was the last to speak on the very last day. She said:

1) That to generalise audiences is to disrepect them. Audiences are complex and made up of many individuals with varying opinions. To devalue the choices of a minority audience as less important than that of a majority audience would be, there is little doubt, at the peril of culture itself. Is High School Musical more “worthy” than The Seventh Seal? Ordinary People a better film than Raging Bull? Was George Bush good because he was elected by a majority? After all, his audience chose him.

2) Secondly, even within the context of a strictly populist and/or quantitative review, Schwartz’ assessment seemed to ignore that the New Wave films have made more money over the years via DVD sales and re-releases than any of the blockbusters of the time. History’s audience has chosen them, and the fact that the remain popular even after 50 years is worth noting if you are going to take a populist view.

I wanted to hug that woman, let me tell you!

This is not to say that I thought Schwartz was completely off base. I do, in fact, think that she had a point when she said that the New Wave was (at least partially) springboarded off of Brigitte Bardot’s popularity. One need only to look at the record concerning the production of Les Mépris to know that it would never have received funding or distribution if not for the commercial sex appeal of the star. She was important and probably doesn’t deserve to be batted aside when she was undoubtably influential to the New Wave’s initial, and especially international, appeal. However, I don’t think these points need come at a cost of the artistic value of the New Wave, or indeed, its value at all.

But that’s all I’ll say about Vanessa Schwartz’s lecture for now. The next panel of the day was a bit more interesting and the third lecture was, for me, the highlight of the symposium. I’m going to have to write about it tomorrow, however, as this is getting quite long! I’ll try to be a bit more succinct next time!