'The Last Uprising'
The film critic and writer Peter Biskind has observed that every bygone age is lit by a retrospective glow of nostalgia; for American filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the New Hollywood of the seventies was a golden age, "the last great time." So it is with those who witnessed the arrival of the first movies made by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and their colleagues from the French nouvelle vague in the early sixties. David Thomson, in a column whose headline--"Sit Down, Child, and I'll Tell You About Jean-Luc Godard"--indicates how distant we are from that time, reflected, "If you are 35 or less, even if you've heard of Jean-Luc Godard, you won't appreciate the aura he had in the early 1960s."
When Hollywood set its attack hounds on the French film industry during the last GATT round, we were reminded of this distance. Rallying filmmakers like Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to the call of "artistic freedom," Jack Valenti's Motion Picture Association of America, with the help of the Commerce Department, tried to bully France into removing the French film industry's remaining protectionist mechanisms. Hollywood's actions helped clarify a tribute paid to Truffaut, in the wake of his untimely death from a brain tumor in 1984, by Jean-Luc Godard, who declared: "Now we have lost our protection." How prophetic. Big Hollywood would have undoubtedly behaved similarly if Truffaut were alive; it is questionable, however, whether the MPAA would have been able to engage Scorsese and Spielberg. The New Wave had an electrifying effect on these young filmmakers. Moreover, it was Truffaut, as the New Wave's international diplomat, who did the most to cultivate and befriend this community, to the extent that Spielberg cast him in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Though France prevailed during the GATT quarrel, the consensus was that Hollywood was winning the war. Irrespective of a tariff here or there, Tinseltown held dominion over the international film industry with an 80 percent market share. And both critics and supporters have pointed to a malaise in French cinema that the GATT round illuminated: an industry heavily subsidized, losing market share to Hollywood and becoming internationally insignificant. Moreover, a range of voices in France and the United States accuse the French New Wave of nurturing the forces that corrupted French cinema.
The auteur theory, first popularized in the fifties by Godard and Truffaut while employed as film critics for Cahiers du cinéma, proposed that true films of distinction bear the mark of their director. The theory is blamed for enthroning a director-as-king ideology in which everything else, including audience, is secondary. The epithet nombriliste--navel-gazing--has been flung at French art cinema by many in France. David Puttnam, the English producer of Chariots of Fire and The Mission, devotes two rather shrill chapters in his recent book Movies and Money to charging that the New Wave's legacy was "dangerous artistically as it was damaging commercially." Even from the left, the upstart Danish filmmaker's collective Dogme 95 has called the New Wave a political failure, hopelessly compromised from the start, "a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck," its slogans of freedom and individualism, and the auteur concept itself, "bourgeois romanticism."
So much for the Black Book of the New Wave. The New Wave, like so much else from the sixties, if it isn't recommodified, is invoked as a dangerous place where youngsters ought not to prowl. Two recent books, however--Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana's Truffaut and Jean Douchet's lavish study The French New Wave--rescue it from caricature and what E.P. Thompson called "the condescension of posterity," bringing us closer to its retrospective glow, retrieving and illuminating what Godard described as the "last uprising." A cinematic social movement of sorts emerges; perhaps that's what agitates the New Wave's detractors, many of whom would be only too glad to sign manifestoes championing the rights of studios' accountants and shareholders.
What we now know as the New Wave was a relatively short-lived affair. A close-knit group of filmmakers who had been France's most precociously brilliant film critics in the fifties had, by decade's end, graduated to filmmaking. Nineteen fifty-nine was the watershed: Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless catapulted the group to international attention. The box-office bonanza that this new streetwise, low-budget cinema generated, with its infectious yet bittersweet romanticism, youthful swagger and asphalt-aimed, handheld camera, enabled others from the entourage, like Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, to share the limelight. A thousand gardens bloomed, and innovators outside the immediate Cahiers circle who had toiled in making documentary shorts--Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda--were also given greater exposure.
And then by 1962 it was all over. A series of box-office flops had removed the spring in their step. Then a libel suit filed by Roger Vadim against Truffaut, after Truffaut had accused him of breaking the auteur's moral code on the set of his friend Jean Aurel's movie, created a sensational atmosphere that delighted the New Wave's enemies. When Vadim won, the pundits were describing the New Wave as "dead and buried." Godard noted how the camaraderie had gone: "We've each gone off on our own planet, and we can't see each other in closeup anymore, only in full shot. The girls we sleep with separate us each day even more, instead of bringing us closer."