Update: A Rejoinder to the French New Wave issue

The French New Wave and the Silent Generation

by Roger Rawlings

The French New Wave issue of The Cine-Files was terrific because it covered so many important and diverse narratives: the “misprison” that the French New Wave artists practiced by attempting to make tributes to Old Hollywood B-films; the French New Wave’s emphasis on existential humanism and their love of French masters like Jean Renoir; the difficulty of trying to explain how innovative the New Wave was to today’s students who see techniques such as jump-cutting and elliptical narratives every day on the web. There were even some very nice on-line shout outs, especially from the Film Studies for Free website (http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2012/06/cine-files-on-french-new-wave.html).

But one narrative thread that wasn’t mentioned was that the New Wave’s critics-turned-artists were also very much products of their day, a Parisian pre-war, war, and postwar generation raised on very tough realities about the world (occupations, genocide, holocaust, the atomic bomb), infusing them with a militant distrust of their elders and of the institutions they were confined by (schools, government, the French film industry itself). In America, this generation is known as the “silent” generation, but it was hardly an exclusively American phenomenon.
The silent generation, born between 1925 and 1943, includes the French New Wavers Jean Luc Godard (1930-), Claude Chabrol (1930-2010), François Truffaut (1932-1984), Agnes Varda (1928-), Jacques Rivette (1928-), and Jacques Demy (1931-1990), as well as a few others who were born slightly earlier but shared the New Wave sensibilities: Alain Resnais (1922-), Eric Rohmer (1920-2010), Alexander Astruc (1923-), Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008).

Generations are writ with “real-world-events,” narratives creating tropes and characteristics that lend themselves to studies in mass psychology and behavior. These silents grew up being first conscious of the Great Depression, then the long traumatic years of World War Two, the 1950s “culture of conformity,” the 60s revolutionary tumult and the 70s malaise. In both America and Europe, many of their fathers fought in the war and, if they survived the war at all, often wanted to re-start their lives anew—new education, new job (the GI Bill/the new European policy and promise of “full employment”), new wife, new house in the suburbs (1946 still holds the record for most divorces in American history/a rebuilt subsidized Western European welfare state)—almost to the point of ignoring those children born in the 1930s. In fact, many worked to forget them, as they wanted to forget the Depression, leaving heavy psychic scars that made cinema such an especially effective palliative for the silents.

Because of the postwar Red Scare, the silents in the U.S. had to be secretively inventive in their protests, disguising their anger by speaking in code: painting abandoned representation for abstract expressionism; in acting they used “the Method,” turning inward to express these cultural frustrations; in theatre/film, allegories were the strategy of choice (Crucible/Streetcar/Waterfront); music literally became silent (Cage’s 4’33”) or wildly unwieldy – be-bop, jazz solos, rock and roll scat (“Be bop a lulu”/”Womp-bomp-a-loom-op-a-womp-bam-boom!”); poetry and the novel spoke in tongues or hyperbolic run-on asymmetrical non-iambic verse; criticism shifted inward, too, with the “close reading” and anti-contextual turn. The European silents of the NewWave, however, were definitely not so guarded, or so silent!

The French New Wavers were fierce antagonists to the age they were born into and the generation before them (the self-named ‘Greatest’ generation). The French silents’ desire to rebel against their elders who had caused so much physical and emotional carnage became their raison d’etre, and they did it through the more subtle, but also somewhat more direct, even hot, medium of cinema, embracing a “shoot whenever and wherever you can” do-it-yourself aesthetic, embodied in Godard’s quote to the writers of Bonnie and Clyde (who wanted to wait until it was spring in Texas) that they were “talking meteorology, I am talking cinema! We can shoot this ANYWHERE, NOW!.”

They were a new European generation that spoke out in brash, irreverent and sassily innovative protest, favoring a High Modernist approach through the use of collage, impatient character and story development, firecracker montage, and shockingly frank subject matter that emphasized a more psychological realism against the everyday realism Hollywood relied on (invisible storytelling and representation based on recognizable aspects of everyday life). Their rejection of their elders’ (and even their idols’) practices and customs liberated these artists to experiment with new “free” forms and jazzy rhythms, lending their works a devil-may-care existential attitude. And, they championed the visionary auteur, with godlike reverence (not to mention male chauvinist sexism), who seemed to beat the “studio” system (hence their admiration for the independent hot dogs like Welles, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Huston and Fuller).

Sandwiched between two very high profile and needy generations (the “greatest,” the “boomers”), wishing to have been born at any other time in world history other than the one they occupied, the silents’ carried an anxious air of exasperation and mistrust to any situation they encountered. The French New Wave’s silents stuck to the script of their generation’s most trying challenges, and their motivations and sensibilities were classically silent. Sadly, we are now losing them at a rapid clip: Godard is 82, Agnes Varda, 84; Claude Chabrol, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jacques Demy, Gore Vidal, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael are gone. Is further proof even needed that studying the French New Wave and its “silent artists’” achievements is more crucial than ever?

Posted on December 3, 2012