No one serious about the study of cinema and its history should excise the French New Wave from their concerns. I do think, however, that our current perspective necessarily differs from earlier representations of the movement. This is a complicated question but it basically involves understanding the historical relationships between style, technology and cultural priorities at any one moment in cinema’s past. That is to say, while we can see clear evidence of the New Wave’s influence in other national and regional cinemas (British, Italian, Taiwanese, etc.) they are not copies of the original conjunction in France, but refractions of its cinematic meaning.
“The average movie goer” today, (and I would characterize her/him as such only tentatively) will find Breathless both vaguely familiar (the peripatetic pacing and cutting) and frankly anachronistic. This makes Breathless today an anachronism of an anachronism since Godard himself was making something of a paean to Hollywood genre films of the Thirties and Forties. In that respect, it might be useful to think of the French New Wave as less new in a French way but just new, new in the way it approaches cinema in its own history. It has more joy than an anxiety of influence and this is at the heart of what makes the New Wave so stunning.
Now, of course, cinematic anxiety prevails—film is essentially dead and its “new” emergence in digital form means that its sense of history has changed irrevocably under the terms of media, mediated, and mediation. Think of Scorsese’s Hugo—a passionately nostalgic précis of cinema’s beginnings based on a novel that is itself anxiously caught between the graphic and the grapheme (a mediation of a mediation), a movie wrapped in CGI and attempting to burst beyond the screen in 3D. The French New Wave wanted to break from literary conventions to find a voice in the image itself. Their commitment to film and cinema must now be viewed from a position where both are dissolving. We can appreciate their long tracking shots (even though technically these can be digitally produced—as in Hugo) and express surprise at black and white chiaroscuro (which was sometimes just an economic exigency). Ultimately, watching the French New Wave today deepens one’s sense of cinematic possibility in its history, one cast against the transformation of that possibility in the present.
Whatever is new today is probably not going to be French, a wave, or even a film. But that doesn’t mean we can’t love it or the French New Wave itself.
Posted on May 28, 2012
Peter Hitchcock is a professor of cinema and literary studies in the Department of English, Baruch College and the Graduate School, City University of New York, where he has taught since 1988. He publishes widely on world cinema, and his books include The Long Space: Transnationalism and Postcolonial Form (2010) and Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism (2003).