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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.

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