One month ago, the Belgian broadcaster Canvas made available on its website a precious artifact: a February 1, 1960 broadcast of Close Up featuring a 40-minute conversation between Pierre Kast, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, and Jacques Demy. They discuss la nouvelle vague (1958-1964). The New Wave was all the craze at that point, and cinephiles were grappling with its implications. What was its relationship with the past? How was it redefining cinema as an art form? Was it in fact “new” at all? And did it constitute a unified movement?
Despite appearances, the last question can’t be dismissed as academic. In my “French Film Culture” course at Washington University in St. Louis, I teach students that the question of whether the New Wave is a movement bears directly on how we understand the cultural marketplace for film—on our sense of how ideas, forms, sensibilities, languages, and practices shaped the contexts in which films were made and circulated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Labels matter; they ought to be motivated. If we call the New Wave a movement, then we’re saying something about the cultural circumstances that made alternative cinematic forms and practices possible in the postwar era.
Coming to terms with this culture and its makeup is important because, over time, it tells us something about the necessary conditions for alternative cinema throughout film history. If filmmakers seek to explore alternatives to mainstream filmmaking, what factors encourage them to launch a movement in order to pursue their artistic aims? By contrast, when do they decide to “go at it alone”? What types of social ties–partnerships, alliances, and more indirect relationships–rest between the two poles of group activism (movements) and pure individualism (the isolated vanguard auteur)?
In my forthcoming book, I argue that while Robert Bresson (1901-1999)–a figure widely admired among New Wave directors–is often described as one of cinema’s great individualists, he in fact had a different approach to the market. He circulated at the margins of a major movement (1930s Surrealism), forged ties with cinephiles, and associated his art (albeit on his own terms) with a range of intellectual, theoretical, and aesthetic discourses circulating within film culture. These and other conditions allowed him to forge an aesthetic all his own.
What, then, of the New Wave? Is it a movement, or isn’t it? In the aforementioned broadcast, critic and filmmaker Pierre Kast (fig.3) takes a position some might now find controversial. He explodes the notion that the New Wave is a movement: “La nouvelle vague n’existe pas.”
By that he means the following. Movements, like that of the Surrealists, assert themselves within the cultural market in specific ways. As Kast explains, movements promote, quite publicly, “a common ideology, a common aesthetic, common intentions. They hold group meetings, they decide matters, they exclude, they include, they fracture, separate…”
“The New Wave is none of this,” Kast asserts. There’s a new phenomenon in French cinema, he concedes, united–albeit loosely–by a common impulse: to “renew certain cinematic conventions.” But there is no “formal group”–it’s a rather “fluid” entity.
There is, nevertheless, an “admission card” to the New Wave: an acknowledgement on the part of a filmmaker of two linked points. First, Kast explains, a New Wave filmmaker “does not despise what he does.” Commercial filmmakers of the past (presumably in France) despised their art. “I would’ve preferred to do this or that, but I never made it,” they have often found themselves saying. The New Wave, by contrast, brings a sense of responsibility to the work of making movies. “There it is: first of all, self-respect.” Second, the New Wave brings a new “respect for the public.” Conventional commercial filmmakers adhered to the precept that “one should not go over the heads of the public.” The New Wave said, no, express oneself as one will, and “the public will understand.”
If we accept Kast’s criteria–and I am increasingly inclined to do so–the New Wave doesn’t qualify as a movement. What should we call it, then? Our art-historical language seems rather paltry in situations like this. The range of choices appears dauntingly thin. Perhaps, playing off François Truffaut’s attack on the quality cinema the New Wave opposed, we could call it “a certain tendency”? That doesn’t seem fitting, for obvious reasons.
Whatever term we decide upon, the crucial point here is that “movement” is distinct from “individualist,” and neither seems appropriate for the socio-aesthetic ties–one might call it a shared ethic towards the medium and its admirers–that bind together the members of the New Wave.
For more on my approach to cultural marketplaces, see my 2013 article, “Transnational Auteurism and the Cultural Dynamics of Influence: Mani Kaul’s ‘ Non-Representational’ Cinema,” available here. I draw the concept from art historian Michael Baxandall, whose work I address here. And I provide context for Truffaut’s criticism of quality cinema here.