Wednesday, April 08, 2009

50th Anniversary of the French New Wave

I am doing this in order to take part in a blogathon on this event . I don't know the host. I just stumbled upon it. A blogathon seems to be a combination of a special magazine issue and a conference where people give learned papers translated to the milieu of the blog form. The host is a much more intense student of the cinema than I am--in addition to breaking down the classics from a multitude of perspectives he does rankings such as "Top 25 Horror Films", with references to a hundred others, none of which I have ever seen. I fancy however that I will be up to a little piece on the French New Wave, though I am not sure I have seen more than five movies that would definitely qualify under this heading : The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Breathless and Contempt. I assume My Night at Maud's is not counted among this group, having come out in 1968, which I would think somewhat late to really be part of the Wave, though it does have stylistic similarities. Likewise with Truffaut's movies from the 70s, which I imagine would be strong reverberations from the Wave, but not the Great Thing itself. One year when I was in college the film society's annual Wednesday night winter series featured the works of Truffaut. As this had been endowed by somebody and was therefore free, as well as featured work that had enough conventional attractiveness and comprehensibility for me to enjoy--I probably could not have made it through a Godard festival--my attendance at these showings was regular. I did not think too much about them at the time, other than of certain images from them that appealed to my sensibility: the drab mist of winter, grubby Parisian sidewalks, the shrine about the picture of Balzac (my wife once kept a picture of Edgar Allan Poe that she had cut from a magazine on our kitchen table for several months in a similar manner to this), the dull glimmer of bar bottles and worn wooden tables, the bare trees lining the side of the road. I was also impressed, to the extent I was capable of receiving such impressions at the time, by--in a positive sense--the naturalness of the story progession, the dialogue, and all the little details of action that make artworks the heightened and more interesting representations of experience that they are supposed to be. The five or six weeks of that winter that this festival went on were an interesting time (for me--the members of Van Halen or their like would have thought themselves in some kind of extreme detox/sensual deprivation program). For one thing I drank every night, which of course is very bad for you in so many ways but at the time did have a rather thrilling aspect about it for the first hour or two the quality of which I still find I miss and have not found an adequate replacement for in terms of getting a daily jolt (please don't suggest exercising). Socially I was at the peak period of closeness with various friends I had, past the initial feeling-out months and before the high intimacy of that time had run its course and the various members of the group--including me, doubtless, though I have always lived and felt and reacted at a far slower pace than everyone else and did not fully pick up on this dynamic until six or seven years later--needed to progress in various directions. In short, I felt that my life was in some way starting to take on a more distinct and not wholly uninteresting character, rather worthy of a French New Wave movie.

The series was not without more insidious influences for me however, who have the misfortune to be one of those people who takes what happens in movies to be a more accurate depiction of life than what is actually occurring all around me. The early New Wave films especially, as well as the mythology surrounding them, give an impression of life in which (compared to the one I knew) one creates art, dresses snappily, hangs out with beautiful women, drinks, smokes, reads newspapers and slim modern novels and books of philosophy, and has incisive conversations, all without ever doing much of anything the least bit strenuous. To be French, it is suggested, is almost to be born in many ways a perfectly-formed human being. One may have to be taught a few things to attain adulthood in such a perfect state, but it is rather unimaginable that any able person would not learn them, given the perfected state which French education and culture have reached. The New Wave broke out, it is often recounted, when Truffaut and Godard and a few others, working as magazine critics in the late 50s who specialized in condemning the tepid French cinema of the time, were challenged to make their own films, and Voila! six months later two of the fifty or so most acclaimed movies of all time burst on the scene, and if there was any great difficulty or Herculean effort required in the production, it does not seem to be considered relevant to the final work on the screen.

This is the impression an impressionable young person can take away from these films, that the mechanical aspects of life are easy. Yes, in Godard films people are forever dying in car crashes or whatever that are somehow directly brought about by their ennui and essential emptiness, but these are largely irrelevant problems to the casual filmgoer, as the empty characters are hopelessly good-looking, have hopelessly good taste in "design" (furniture, bathroom tiles, etc), gorgeous cars, apparently plenty of money, have had sex with numerous of the most beautiful specimens of their preferred gender--if they're bored with this then it makes sense they should die. I have often observed that many of the hippest people either remain childless, or have but one child. This is doubtless because they perceive they have carried their genes to the extent of greatness and fullness of life that is possible for them, and this instinctively; I suppose the point of Godard is that this dead end was reached by a wrong turn, that their perfection is wholly deceptive, which they also sense though within their understood value system it is impossible for them to refute it, and accurately perceive the more true perfection towards which their unconscious and undeveloped soul is still striving.

I cannot hold the French responsible however for my lifelong aversion to and total misunderstanding of the necessity of hard work. For it is certainly emphasized plenty in all manner of America media and my youthful self was oblivious to it, didn't recognize it, and did not realize how early one needed to set at it--the foundations of today's triumph were laid decades earlier and build up slowly and with unrelenting effort every day during that time. For contrast I would like to write about an American movie that came out around the same time as the French New Wave, was set and filmed in France, and even featured one of the New Wave's icons, Jeanne Moreau, fresh off Jules and Jim, in a comparatively pointless role, the 1964 World War II action flick The Train. The Train is a decent movie if you really like the culture of railroads, especially in Europe, and everything associated with them, which I do, but otherwise the plot is a bit clunky, the capers dated and amateurish (the various tactics employed to deceive and foil the Nazis would never have worked in a million years) and the casting off. On the positive side it is attractively filmed, and has the aforementioned great footage of the railyards and stations of old Europe, particularly the night shots, nighttime rail travel being variously romantic, lonely, eerie, reassuring. There is a lot of conscious hard work and effort visible on the celluloid, both in the story itself and in the production; elaborate scenes involving explosions, derailments, aerial bombardments, constant track switching and repair on the locomotives, the overly complicated schemes employed to deceive the Nazis. The biography of the director, John Frankenheimer, indicates a vision/aesthetic theory forged during and over years of hard and constant working experience rather than as abstractions. This is the American way, and it is probably really the French way too if one looks into it prosaically, though they choose to place the emphasis, the importance, the interest of the finished work, elsewhere, and I think properly so, so long as one is not naive and deceives himself as to where such advanced abilities have by necessity a considerable, if not the greater, part of their origins. One cannot be overly conscious of and fascinated by his own processes in art or any other manly area of life; one must have them, and to a fairly advanced degree starting at an early age, however, to make a worthwhile figure in anything.

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