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!
Although there is more than a little argument about when we should begin charting the history of the Nouvelle Vague, 1959 is the year that Francois Truffaut‘s Les Quatre Cents Coups took Cannes by storm and so 2009 is the year the world is celebrating 50 years of the Nouvelle Vague.
Simon and I love french new wave film. We watch it, we read about it, we talk to people about it — our shelves are cluttered with the books and box sets we’ve collected, pamphlets from the lectures attended, rolled up posters and 1960s magazines. I still remember watching Jules And Jim for the first time and the profound effect it had on me — discovering for the first time that cinema, far from being simply the medium of Hollywood dreams, can also reflect life back at us in a way that digs down deep and unearths things from ourselves that we had never before even articulated.
So, I thought, what better time to start writing about the new wave than now, fifty years on? The internet seems just as good a medium as any to talk about a movement that capitalised of do-it-yourself, off-the-cuff freedom and created a style that still resonates on into the digital age.