A New Multiple
There are two questions worth asking when thinking of the notion of a ‘new wave’. One concerns its appearance; the other its components. How does a film movement present itself to the world, and what makes it distinct, different from other waves and earlier cinema? To try and answer these questions let us look at three film movements of the sixties, two from the seventies, and three from more recent decades. Let us see how they became ‘events’.
The film movement synonymous with a new wave were the French films from the late fifties and the early sixties, and it was given the very name Nouvelle vague – French for new wave. In both its appearance as a wave and the components that belong to it, the movement is exemplary. Many of the films were released around the same time, were made by new young directors, reflected a fresh social category and were backed up by a critical discourse. The term Nouvelle vague was first coined by journalist Francoise Giroud in 1957 in the French newspaper L’Express, and Giroud turned it into a book a year later. People between eighteen and thirty were interviewed about their tastes, thoughts and ideas and Giroud came up with the term to define this new generation. Elsewhere, critics at Cahiers du cinema were writing articles defining what was important in film form. With little respect for predictable adaptations giving cinema a veneer of classiness, they were often more interested in Hollywood films by Hitchcock and Hawks, Fuller and Ray, and European works by Rossellini and Renoir – the latter realists sometimes dismissed because of their interest in longer takes and their fascination with behaviour. It was as if generally the former had been seen to master their craft but had nothing to say; the latter had something to say but hadn’t mastered the rudiments of filmmaking. Cahiers thought these false dichotomies nonsense, but at the time defending certain filmmakers as auteurs was seen as very suspect. As Jim Hillier says: “It verged on positive outrage when, at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, such perspectives were brought to bear on, say, Vincente Minnelli or Samuel Fuller.” (Cahiers du Cinema, The Fifties: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave.) It was the combination of these elements that would make the Nouvelle vague of interest.
What also made it a new wave was the enormous number of films that were released in 1959 by young filmmakers: 150 feature length debuts arrived in that year. Even if Genevieve Sellier in Masculine Singular is absolutely right to point out that not one of these films was made by a woman (imagine if the L’express article had only questioned men?) it was unequivocally new in its formulation. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith says in Making Waves: “Although the young filmmakers soon got tired of having the label ‘Nouvelle Vague’ attached to themselves and their work, there is no doubt that a wave existed, and, furthermore, they were riding the crest of it. Les cousins, Les Quatre cent coups and A bout de souffle each attracted audiences of a quarter of million people, predominantly young, on their first run…”
The wave even had geographical and, up to a point, political demarcations. Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette were Right Bank filmmakers affiliated with the Cinematheque; Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy were Left Bank directors associated with the Latin quarter. Antoine de Baecque talks of the right-wing penchant of the young critics of the Right-Bank in Camera Historica, while Truffaut himself admitted, “it was not until Alain Resnais turned to making feature films that we finally got to see ‘left wing’ films that were good and beautiful.” The Right-Bank directors had absorbed the thoughts and attitudes of what Bernard Franck in a December 1952 article on literature in Les Temps modernes called the Hussars – “these troublemakers hastily labelled ‘fascistic’ by their adversaries, mounted a kind of rebellion, elegant and nonchalant, that fuelled the revolt of style against a moralizing, progressive and didactic literature landscape at the time.” (Camera Historica) Where Sartre wanted a literature of engagement, the Hussars disagreed, and many of the critics at Cahiers concurred with the Hussars more than with Sartre. Yet Resnais’ first two films were scripted by nouveau roman novelists Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, two writers who, if not quite of the Hussar movement, were nevertheless far removed from the engagement proposed by Sartre. Where for Sartre political commitment was vital; to Robbe-Grillet commitment was an aesthetic question chiefly. “Instead of being of a political nature, commitment is, for the writer, the full awareness of the present problems of his own language, the conviction of their extreme importance, the desire to solve them from within.” (For a New Novel) Also, at the time Resnais was making a film deliberately devoid of ready socio-political content with Robbe-Grillet (Last Year at Marienbad), Godard was in conflict with the authorities over Le petit soldat, with its querying analysis of the Algerian war.
Thus the divisions were not clear. Yet this was part of the richness of the movement; that it had a wide range of filmmakers from differing political perspectives, occupying different parts of the city. However unifying elements were still apparent. There was a new approach to editing, whether this lay in Godard adopting jump cuts that seemed to throw the viewer around in film space, or Resnais’ flash cuts that appeared to toss us around in film time. Godard in A bout de souffle would cut abruptly into a scene so that it was as if we had blinked and missed something. Resnais in Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad asks us to wonder when certain moments are taking place in time: is it in the past or in the present? Rivette, meanwhile, became fascinated by extending time: the editing was evident in its relative absence as he allowed scenes to go on longer than usual in Paris nous apartient and the later L’amour fou. Truffaut was also interested in the long take, but wanted to play up his admiration for Renoir and the Hitchcock of Rope and Under Capricorn as he created elaborate sequence shots like the one where we are first introduced to the central character’s home in Soft Skin, or the scene in the friend’s house in The Four Hundred Blows. The Nouvelle vague was exemplary then as a movement of social presence and aesthetic innovation. It brought together various elements of French cultural restlessness in the fifties, and found a fresh form within which to contain them as numerous new filmmakers appeared.
Any film movement is usually compared to the French New Wave, to see if it constitutes merely a few films that coincide in sensibility, formal presentation or social manifestation, or a full flowering of newness. The other waves of the sixties that we will choose to focus upon, the British and the Italian, were less sudden, and possessed none of the youthful energy of the wave in France. Some might even insist that the Italian films of the late fifties and into the mid-sixties didn’t constitute much of a wave at all: that the new, young filmmakers and the older directors all came to prominence around the same time, and that the senior auteurs were at least as innovative as the younger ones. Antonioni was born in 1912, Fellini, 1920, Visconti in 1906; the younger directors Ermanno Olmi in 1931, Bernardo Bertolucci in 1940, and Marco Bellocchio in 1939. Pasolini (1922) was an older director making his debut in the same decade as the younger ones: making Accatone in 1961. There was also no equivalent sociological dimension to which the wave was attending, no youthful thrust asking for new images to reflect a generation.
Yet the filmmakers were as formally distinctive as their French counterparts, and also interested in the subtle exploration of human feeling. If the Italian neo-realists of the forties (of which Visconti happened to have been one, and a movement to which Fellini was indebted) gave way to a cinema where socio-economic problems were less important than the manner in which people chose to live their lives, this led to a cinema of aesthetic innovation, more than one of social amelioration. The neo-realists were rebuilding the film industry as the country was rebuilding its cities. There was a sense of necessity. With many films of the sixties the problem was one of a certain lazy luxury. Antonioni’s L’avventura and La notte, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, and Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution all exemplified this shift. Others like Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, Pasolini’s Accatone and Mamma Roma were still interested in the poor, but less interested in special pleading than in saying there were subtleties of thought and feeling even in the most deprived of places. Pasolini’s early work elevated his characters through form: the tracking shots and the non-diegetic music of Bach and Vivaldi generating dignified expression, aware that the characters didn’t quite have the wherewithal to express it themselves. This isn’t an issue of class snobbery; more an ontological fact: the general difficulty of speaking for oneself about things so much bigger than oneself.
After all, Antonioni’s character might usually have been financially much better off than Pasolini’s early figures, but they are no more articulate in their verbal expression. Whether it happens to be the leading characters in L’avventura tentatively starting an affair whilst searching for the woman’s friend and the man’s lover, or the three main characters talking at cross purposes in a scene near the end of La notte, we don’t expect the characters to be able to make sense of their experiences. In an exchange between Pasolini and Bertolucci, Pasolini says “Yes, when making cinema – not a film of mine – making cinema, if I must express a porter, I express him by taking a real porter, with his face, his flesh and the language with which he expresses himself.” Bertolucci replies, “Ah no, here you are wrong. Why one must make a porter say what he, the porter, would say? One must take his mouth, but in his mouth we must put philosophical words (as Godard does, naturally).” (Heretical Empiricism)
This question of naturalism in film and how obligated one should be to what Pasolini elsewhere calls “the written language of reality” was one that neo-realism generally ignored and that the Italian new wave questioned. The naturalism may have been playfully touched upon in the neo-realist work from the early fifties Miracle in Milan, but it was radically challenged in many ways a decade later. Antonioni would talk of altering the realities he came across, thinking nothing of changing the colours reality provided him with. “…I want to inject my own colour scheme, that is, I want to paint the film as one paints a canvas. I want to invent the color relationship. I don’t want to limit myself by only photographing natural colors.” (Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews) If Bertolucci wanted a philosophical porter, Antonioni demanded a self-imposed mise-en-scene. Putting aside that there is no reason why we can’t have naturally a porter who knows philosophy as we cannot have grey fruit, as in Antonioni’s The Red Desert, we can see Italian filmmakers of the sixties pushing form as the problem of questioning naturalistic assumption and the neo-realist heritage. If the Italian cinema of the period is so important it lies not in reflecting the times but examining formal questions and the nature of one’s being. Subsequently it becomes a movement not of its time and its moment, but exists as an international phenomenon. While the French new wave was both culturally specific and internationally important, it was as though Italian film wasn’t very interested in interrogating Italian everyday life, but abstracting it for the comprehension of broader issues. It made sense that many Italian films of this period used actors from elsewhere: Jean Moreau for La notte, Richard Harris for The Red Desert, Anita Ekberg for La Dolce Vita, Alain Delon for The Eclipse.
In this sense the British new wave, Kitchen Sink Realism, was the opposite. Sure, Room at the Top had a small but significant role for Simone Signoret, but this was very much the foreigner out of place in Northern England; hardly the internationalist as part of a jet set community. Rome and Milan in Antonioni and Fellini’s films are European cities suggestive of easy movement; the northern town often utilised in kitchen sink cinema indicates the contrary: as places one cannot easily leave. Thus the British new wave was nothing if not a sociologically precise movement. Vital to it was the presence of regional accents (occasionally deployed in earlier British films but rarely centrally present). Even if the actors’ accent was exaggerated for the role after acting training had given them a more ‘refined’, educated one in the place of its regional specificity (Derbyshire born Alan Bates went to RADA; Albert Finney, born in Salford, likewise), nevertheless Bates, Finney, Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris were actors very far from the received pronunciation of those that preceded them: from Laurence Olivier to David Niven, from Rex Harrison to Dirk Bogarde. We wouldn’t want to exaggerate this shift: after all David Niven was a Highlander, and actors after Kitchen Sink realism continued the tradition of stiff, smug and superior in various manifestations; Edward Fox and Michael York, right up to Hugh Grant and Jude Law. Yet as Karel Reisz insisted: “A lot was happening in the ten years after the war. We’d had a Labour government [from 45-51] and an Education Act and a lot was changing in people’s lives. To take a simple, practical example, the young actors who were going through RADA were not the same sort of people who had come before the war. People like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris would simply not have got to drama school pre-war.” (An Autobiography of British Cinema)
Here was a movement concentrating on northern England, utilising regional accents and mores, and creating complex characters kicking against a system they often didn’t quite understand, but which possessed values they definitely didn’t accept. In John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving, Bates marries his sweetheart when she becomes pregnant, and gets caught in a trap, living with his mother-in-law who constantly espouses small, mean-minded Tory views that he can’t abide but has to live with. Though a trained draughtsman it is not easy getting a house for himself and his wife and Bates has to stay put and keep his mouth shut. Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning lives at home, has an opinion about everything, thinks nothing of sleeping with a colleague’s wife, and reckons life is for the taking, even if there isn’t that much in Nottingham to be had. Is this why he gets into brawls, falls down drunk and is lippy with anyone who irritates him? In Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, Harris plays the comfortably off rugby player in a northern town who has much that Finney’s character would wish for, but he wants love, and wants it from the very actress (Rachel Roberts) who gives it too easily to Finney in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. If these are the three finest films of the movement it is because they explore nuance of feeling within the context of a certain type of geographic limitation, yet without falling into the readily condescending. These are places that are clearly located in time (Britain near the end of thirteen years of Conservative rule) and space (the north of England), but they also indicate a feeling of suffocation. The opening shot of A Kind of Loving sweeps across the town and suggests there is little hope to be found there. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ends with Finney and his young girlfriend out on the hill behind the housing estates, but this is a brief respite from the daily grind, rather than a new beginning. Any narrative expectation is contained by a socio-political sense of limitation, an awareness that the young are fighting against what they are expected to accept as their life ration. The Manchester Guardian said in 1962: “A British film nowadays, if it is to be taken seriously, must set its scene among the more or less rebellious young people of the industrial North or Midlands; it must be tough, realistic iconoclastic (possibly nihilistic too) and thoroughly working class.”
If Roberto Rossellini could say that Italian neo-realism was more an issue of morality over aesthetics, the British directors were inclined to agree; in opposition to the French directors and the Italian filmmakers of the sixties who generally predicated the form over the content. Yet this would be to ignore the importance of the complexity of the editing in This Sporting Life, which shifts between various time frames, and the importance of Karel Reisz’s book on montage, The Technique of Film Editing. First published in 1953, it was in its thirteenth imprint by 1967, and had been updated to incorporate films that had been influenced by Reisz’s book, including Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais and Reisz knew each other. There is a lovely anecdote in the LRB about a visit Resnais makes to Reisz’s house where the Frenchman has a suitcase full of Heinz Beans to take home with him. Resnais would later work with David Mercer on Providence, as Reisz had worked with Mercer on Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment, and Resnais admitted in Film Comment the importance of The Technique of Film Editing: “I am sure that Karel Reisz was my real teacher. I took a lot of things from his book. I am not ashamed to say that.” (July/August, 1975) It might be assumed that the formal connection between Kitchen Sink and the Nouvelle vague had been a one way street; Resnais’s remark suggests otherwise.
However we may notice that cinematic waves are often sociologically specific and, out of this specificity, comes certain formal constraints. One reason why we feel the Italian films of the sixties didn’t quite constitute a wave is because this socio-political aspect appears less pronounced, and the formal elements, though of immense importance and which resulted in many of cinema’s greatest works (L’avventura, Red Desert, La Dolce Vita, 8/12, Accatone, The Leopard, Before the Revolution), seemed less formulated as a wave than the French or British movements. New German Cinema was interesting partly because while the seeds were sewn in the early sixties, they were reaped almost a decade later. This was a film movement unlike the Italian work of the period that did present itself as something new. James Franklin in New German Cinema begins by saying, “Born in 1962 [with the Oberhausen Manifesto), the New German Cinema did not exist for most Americans until the mid-1970s, because nothing truly exists until it has been recognized by Time and Newsweek.” Yet it would be understandable if someone hadn’t been aware of the movement before 1970. While the manifesto was signed by 26 filmmakers, writers and artists in 1962, it wasn’t until works by Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog started to appear in the late sixties that a wave could be clearly discerned. Obviously before this there had been important works by the Straubs (Not Reconciled), Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl) and Volker Schlondorff, (Young Torliss). But it was as though the movement gained energy and momentum from these young men, and occasionally women, born during or just after the war, and the radical activities of political organizations at the time. The young filmmakers were of course sceptical of the terrorist group the Red Army Faction even if they acknowledged its importance in German society, and the oppression of the German state, evident in the compilation film Germany in Autumn, Fassbinder’s The Third Generation and Margarethe von Trotta’s The German Sisters for example. Speaking of the latter John Orr says, “the Foucauldian transparency of austere institutions, bleak and demeaning, is the abiding image one takes away from the film and cues in the ruthless methods of incarceration which marked the German’s state treatment of the Baader-Meinhoff group in Stammheim jail.” (Contemporary Cinema) However it was as though while the young political activists were going underground by changing their identities, living with false passports and deliberately ostracising themselves from family and friends, the filmmakers wanted to change the world too: perceptually rather than violently. In The Third Generation, Fassbinder allows his favourite philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to be used by the terrorists when they talk of “the world as will and imagination”, but where for Fassbinder the phrase was about willing a better world through aesthetic form, for the freedom fighters it lay in destroying material bodies and buildings. One is the work of creation; the other of destruction, but both are concerned with will and imagination. As Christian Braad Thomsen notes in Fassbinder, the director “had the same fragile utopias in mind as the capitalists and the same motto as the terrorists, even if he distinguishes himself from the way both practically organize their lives.”
While Fassbinder was constantly trying to negotiate a position between the conservatism of the state and the extremism of the radical organizations, other directors of the movement were internalising the problem or tracing its anthropological genealogy. If Fassbinder was more ‘superficial’ than Herzog or Wenders it was because he was also the most direct. He was frequently looking unflinchingly at his times, and the social problems therein. These were often based on class conflict (Fox and his Friends, The Merchant of the Four Seasons) or ethnic issues (Katzelmacher, Fear Eats the Soul). Herzog was instead an ethnographic archeologist: frequently looking to past periods to understand an aspect of man. In Aguirre, Wrath of God it was the titular Spanish conquistador, in Heart of Glass mysticism in the 18th century; in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser the case of a man in 1828 who had spent the first seventeen years of his life alone in a cell. Wenders films were generally set in the present, but contained within them the enigma of loneliness and isolation. The Goalie’s Anxiety of the Penalty Kick, Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road are all concerned with the specifics of the self in relation to the distance of others and the presence of places. This sense of self comes more from movement than from other people; no doubt why the road movie has been central to Wenders’ aesthetic. “I always used to like the connection between motion and emotion” he said to Jan Dawson in Wim Wenders. “Sometimes I think the emotion in my films comes only from the motion: it’s not created by the characters.” His interest in the condition of modern Germany is often geographical, be it the border with East Germany (Kings of the Road and Wings of Desire), or the importance of the US in Alice in the Cities and Paris, Taxis. “The Americans have colonized our subconscious” a character says in the most quoted line in Wenders’ work, from Kings of the Road.
With an initial manifesto, a generation coming to cinema at the same time as revolutionary movements were radicalising German political consciousness, filmmakers interested in examining the German mindset, and its impact on international film (however belatedly), New German Cinema was from the point of view of social appearances definitely a movement. But what about aesthetically? Again, it was unequivocally new. Straub and Huillet in History Lessons, Fortini Cani and, Too Early, Too Late, were rigorously insistent about form. Often they would interrogate the landscape of events past rather than dramatise the present. They searched out places where atrocity had taken place and film it in the tranquil now, yet excavate in voice-over what had happened there. They would also insist on source sound, saying that most films are dubbed, and dubbed out of laziness. As Straub said: “If you have decided to make a film with direct sound, the locations that you choose have to be right not only in terms of the images but also in terms of the sound.” (Film Theory and Criticism) Here the visual landscape and audio necessity meet. Looking for locations for the Schoenberg opera Moses and Aron, “what we wanted was simply a high plateau, dominated, if possible, by a mountain. We started to look for this plateau four years ago, in a borrowed car, and we put 11,000 kilometres on it, driving more on back roads and country lanes than on paved roads, through all of southern Italy, down to the middle of Sicily.” Eventually they found what they were looking for; if they hadn’t the film would have been abandoned rather than having been made with a superimposed soundtrack.
Herzog’s resistance had little to do with dubbing; it was more a problem of the close-up. “…there is a certain indiscretion if you move too close into a face. Close-ups give a feeling of intrusion; they are almost a personal violation of the actor, and they also destroy the privacy of the viewer’s solitude. I can get very close to my characters without using extreme close-ups, probably much closer than some directors who are using them constantly.” (Herzog on Herzog). Meanwhile, in an interview with Wilfried Wiegand, Fassbinder insisted: “what I previously put into language I now try to put into the structure of images, because I believe that that is more effective…than language which is beautiful and precise but yet very alien.” Then we have Wenders believing that “making films wasn’t so much the possibility of altering or affecting or directing something, but simply watching it.” (The Logic of Images) These were directors very antithetical to modes of dominant cinema, even if few sustained the hard line position on it as completely as the Straubs. The work was generally as radical in its form as it was trying to make sense of the socio-political issues in post-war Germany, or the roots from whence certain contemporary problems came.
Australian cinema of the seventies was quite different. It was haunted less by its past than the relative absence of it, and the gap between the immensity of the land’s presence, the paucity of people occupying that land, and the way in which the white man who came to rule it remained mainly on the periphery of this great land mass. A few of the films did of course address the aboriginal question, with British director Nic Roeg giving a leading role to David Gulpilil in Walkabout, as it shows a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her brother trying to find their way around the outback after their father has committed suicide. They are saved by Gulpilil’s help. There was also Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith showing the outsider status of aborigine Jimmy. While Schepisi says “it was never meant to be the definitive Aboriginal picture, as everybody seemed to expect” (Australian Cinema: 1970-1985), that there were so few of them being made it was understandable that a film so centrally focused on one of Australia’s isolated and oppressed would be expected to speak volumes. But Schepisi was always more sotto voce than that, and here he wants quietly to explore a young man, half-white; half aborigine trying to get on in a world of freshly ensconced whites. He eventually runs amok killing seven non-aboriginals, and Schepisi takes this story from Thomas Keneally’s factually based novel set around 1900. But maybe the director was expected to speak for the aborigines because too little had been explored thus far: the film came out in 1978. As Pauline Kael would say of Peter Weir’s 1977 film Last Wave, “they’re [the aborigines] kept on the margins and used as supernatural forces.” (New Yorker) This is all the more a pronounced omission considering how many films were released between 1970 and 1985. “Nearly four hundred feature films were made in Australia,” according to Brian McFarlane, “that is to say, about twenty more than were made in the preceding seventy years.” (Australian Cinema: 1970-1985)
Yet despite this failing, Australian cinema during the seventies was clearly commenting on the country, and could thus easily pass for a cinematic wave. After all, when we talk about new waves we are usually locating them specifically in a national context. Whatever the limitations of such a view, one reason why cinematic movements appear is because the filmmakers want to address questions of national consciousness. Now as we’ve suggested, the Italian cinema of the sixties produced a high number of great films, but it was as if it were doing so without feeling obligated to view them nationally. It would make sense that Antonioni would go on to make films about London (Blow-Up), California (Zabriskie Point) and Europe and North Africa (The Passenger), that Pasolini would explore the past and other continents in Oedipus Rex, Medea and The Arabian Nights ,and Visconti offer a German composer in Italy in Death in Venice, an exploration of Nazism in the Damned, and adapt Camus’s novel The Outsider. After all in Italy, Neo-realism had already offered a movement of national consciousness; the later filmmakers were interested in exploring other worlds. The Australian wave was decidedly Australian. When, as David Stratton explains in an essay in Movies of the Seventies, “in 1971, the Australian government began to make available money to support a feature film industry”, it was partly to counter “the culture drain [to Britain which] had reached epidemic proportions.” It was like an inverted aesthetic border control: a means by which to keep talent in Australia.
Of course part of the irony of this was that many of the directors and cinematographers (Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong and George Miller; Dean Semler, Don McAlpine, Ian Baker, Russell Boyd and John Seale) eventually took the knowledge and skills, learnt in an indigenous industry, Stateside. Yet not before making a couple of dozen films that helped define and give meaning to a national consciousness. Where Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, and Schepisi with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, indicated the vastness of the Australian landscape, Bruce Beresford in Don’s Party and The Club offered the urban environment as vividly vulgar. If the landscape works relied on the cinematographic skills of Russell Boyd and Ian Baker, Beresford’s two films were reliant on David Williamson’s words, with Williamson the well-known playwright wittily working with the Aussie demotic to capture the caustic. The Australian wave didn’t have the gravitas of New German Cinema, with neither the gaping ontological wound of a Nazi past that allowed the Americans so easily to colonise their subconscious, which Wenders, Fassbinder, Schlondorff and others wanted to fill with a conscious exploration of being, nor the formal rigour evident in numerous German directors’ work. Nevertheless it did share the New German Cinema’s interest in the urban and the rural beyond, with some filmmakers exploring social mores; others more interested in looking at the vastness out of which such societies come. The wave was helped along by a couple of films by outsiders: Roeg’s already mentioned Walkabout, and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, both works that muse over what civilization happens to be within the context of a landmass so vast. Here is a country that is 2,966,200 square miles with a population at the beginning of the nineties of under 20 million. France, Italy and Germany by comparison have landmasses of 210, 026 square miles, 116, 324 square miles and 137, 820 square miles respectively, and populations of roughly 57 million, 58 million and 80 million. How could the Australian filmmakers not acknowledge this sense of vastness? The French new wave did not at all concern itself with the geographical mass of the nation, and many of the Italian films were urban oriented, but numerous Australian works looked like they were as haunted, mesmerised and fearful of the size of their country as Roeg and Kotcheff were visiting it. As McFarlane says, “this kind of duality – this awareness of menace as well as spectacular beauty – has been a recurring characteristic in modern Australian film.” It can give a sense of the void to films that might otherwise sink into ready genre: Mad Max and The Long Weekend for example. The former is a road movie meets revenge with the title character looking for payback after his wife and child have been murdered. The latter shows a couple’s weekend becoming very long indeed as their trip into nature turns nasty. Other films reflected the enormousness not in narrative excitement but the boredom of labour. Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away is good on the frustration of work that must create its own excitement as Jack Thompson’s sheep shearer can’t help compete with other workers.
The Australian New Wave is a good example of a movement representationally very rich even it was formally quite conventional. The French New Wave and New German Cinema innovated in form, with jump cuts (Godard), indiscernibility of time (Resnais, Straub), elongating dead time (Rivette, Wenders), playing with diegetic and non-diegetic sound (Godard), questioning the gap between the actor and the character (Godard), creating frames within frames (Fassbinder) and so on. Australian film is of importance chiefly because it put an enormous nation on the cinematic map. It hinted at a country’s geographical immensity and, whether looking into its historical past (Breaker Morant, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gallipoli), its urban present (Don’s Party, The Club and the fine work of Paul Cox: Lonelyhearts, Man of Flowers, My First Wife) or the immodest vastness of the landscape (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sunday Too Far Away) Australian film showed that it possessed a cinematic consciousness. Australian cinema might not have been very innovative concerning our second introductory point (the formal components), but was very much a wave in its self-exploration and making that investigation internally relevant. As David Stratton noted: “It is encouraging to be able to say that, in general, films that have tried to be ‘international’ by importing foreign talent and adapting local themes to please some nebulous transatlantic audience have failed on every level.” (Movies of the Seventies)
Sometimes a wave has strong personalities that give tone and texture to it, something missing from Australian film. If the Nouvelle vague and New German Cinema were such strong forces in international cinema it was partly because the films were made by directors with very powerful aesthetic drives. We can say Godard is the most important New Wave figure; just as Fassbinder was the person most evidently generating a new sensibility in New German Cinema. This is not to say they were the most innovative (Godard was, but alongside Resnais) Fassbinder was in many ways definitely less radical than the Straubs, and no more so than Herzog and Wenders. No, it is partly the belligerent presence they offer within the film culture that allows for this talismanic role, and often the outspoken nature of the statements and the prolific presence of the work. However, while this is so for the Nouvelle vague and New German Cinema, does it work in the context of more recent movements, Iranian film, Danish Cinema, and the Romanian wave: is there a filmmaker who stands out?
The most important modern Iranian filmmaker is surely Abbas Kiarostami: a director who won the Palm d’Or with A Taste of Cherry, has led numerous critics and theorists to talk of his work in revolutionary terms (from Laura Mulvey to philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy,) and supposedly led good old Godard to say cinema starts with D. W. Griffith and ends with the Iranian auteur. Yet there are other figures more controversial, with Mohsen Makhmalbaf imprisoned as a young man, and Jafar Panahi under house arrest in more recent years. These and other directors have been filmmakers no less interested than Kiarostami in showing contemporary Iranian society as the great director of Close-Up, A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, no matter if he has given us a film about suicide (A Taste of Cherry) and one that talks about divorce and prostitution (Ten). Panahi’s The Circle observed the daily plight of women in a man’s world in Tehran, while Crimson Gold (which Kiarostami wrote) shows a young, mentally unstable delivery man taking his own life after a robbery, and flashes back to the stresses and strains of contemporary Iranian society to offer something of an explanation. These are more clearly political than most of Kiarostami’s films: both were banned in Iran. But one way of looking at Kiarostami’s importance is to imagine a combination of Wenders and Herzog: a director who can look at urban anomie and also search out the landscape as though it were capable of indicating truths far beyond the immediately human.
If Kiarsotami is less immediate than Panahi and others, he is also much more reflective. Kiarostami is a realist in form and a philosopher in his examination of content, using the latter often to call into question the assumptions of the former. In The Wind Will Carry Us he keeps numerous characters in the film off-screen, though we hear their voices. Even the leading character initially remains a vague presence – heard in the Range Rover but not at first seen. In A Taste of Cherry the central character wants to die, but Kiarostami neither allows us to know why he wants to take his own life, nor whether or not he has succeeded. The director removes back story and replaces it instead with a certain approach to wisdom. At a moment where we might expect to find out more about the character’s wish to die, we instead hear a taxidermist he picks up in his Range Rover telling him the moment he wanted to commit suicide and changed his mind. At the end of the film, instead of discovering whether or not our protagonist has killed himself, Kiarostami shows that we are watching a film within a film. In another work this could pass for a cheap narrative ploy, but in Kiarostami’s it is an attempt to extract philosophical content. It makes us see that the questions we should be asking aren’t ones about what happens next, but what happened before (why we might wonder does the character want to die), and what reflections in us it generates. Close-Up is a semi-documentary about someone who was arrested for impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Kiarostami chooses to make a film about the Makhmalbaf impersonator who then gets to play himself in an actual film directed not by Makhmalbaf, but Kiarostami. Makhmalbaf will be given a brief role at the end, though it is the impersonator who has the starring one. The film explores notions of authenticity and falsity, the roles we play, and what others expect from the ones we perform.
If we remember our distinction between the mapping of a country on consciousness, and the formal properties that push cinema forward, then Iranian film possesses both dimensions. Though Iran was ‘westernised’ through the sixties and seventies under ‘the white revolution’, which liberalised the country (women were given the vote and there were land reforms and free and compulsory education), the general corruption of the Shah’s regime led to the Iranian revolution at the end of the seventies and a strongly religious state thereafter, under Ayatollah Khomeini. Though Kiarostami had been making films since the seventies (and some people would date the Iranian New Wave from the sixties and include The House is Black from the beginning of that decade, and The Cow from the end of it), most of the other directors of new Iranian film were debuting under the Khomeini regime: Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira, Jafar Panahi and Majir Majidi, the Kurdish Bahman Ghobadi and Rafi Pitts. Some were more formally distinctive than others, if none more so than Kiarostami, but they were exploring Iran and its borders with great range. Where the city was vividly explored in The Circle and Crimson Gold by Panahi, Ghobadi looked at the Iran/Iraq border in A Time for Drunken Horses, and the Iraqi-Turkish border in Turtles Can Fly. Mohsen Makhmalbaf with Gabbeh originally planned to make a documentary about the Qashqa’i nomads and their rug making craft, but the film instead became an exploration of colour and movement in fictional form. The director’s The Cyclist shows an Afghan worker in Iran cycling solidly for a week in an attempt to raise money for his wife’s operation.
Again the emphasis is rural. Kiarostami’s ‘Road Bar Trilogy’ – Where is My Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees – are all set in the region of Koker. After making the first film there, he returned to the area when an earthquake devastated the region, making a semi-fictional work about a director going back with his son to look for the young boy who had been in the first film. In the third film in the trilogy, Kiarostami makes a film about the making of the second one. Here we can see how Iranian cinema (and Kiarostami in particular) manages to combine what we will call the mapping of geographical consciousness with formal investigation. It wouldn’t be enough to put one’s country on the cinematic map if the shape of it remained unchallenged. As Mohsen Mahmalbaf usefully suggested: “I see [this] whenever we use montage or a metaphor that denotes a single meaning. Then the [Iranian] spectator is capable of grasping the meaning of the image … but as soon as the representation carries a plurality of meaning … the spectator fails to understand…Sometimes the language of cinema is spoken by using shadows. … Sometimes the language of the image rests in the use of the [camera] lens. … It’s the effect of repetition and pedagogy and the becoming cliché [of a technique] that [allows] the majority [of the audience] to get it.” He says this in an article ‘Life is Color!’ by Negar Mottahedeh and adds: “But when the language of the cinema speaks through framing,” he says, “by way of broken [sight] lines or direct ones, or by using color or mise-en-scène, or through the relationship between objects within the frame, or by [the use of] light, or [by the use of visual] concept[s], not one person understands.”
Though Mottahedeh sees Kiarostami as a darling of the festival circuit, who can deny that he more than most Iranian filmmakers offers the challenges Makhmalbaf mentions? As Kiarostami says, “Every movie should have some kind of story. But the important thing is how the story is told—it should be poetic, and it should be possible to see it in different ways. I have seen movies that didn’t attract me or make a lot of sense while I was looking at them, but there were moments in them that opened a window for me and inspired my imagination.” He adds: “I have left many films in the middle because I felt I already had an ending. I felt quite complete and fulfilled with the movie, and if I stayed longer that feeling would be ruined, because it would keep telling me more and forcing me to judge who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and what’s going to happen to them. I prefer to finish it my own way!” (Film Comment)
That Kiarostami has written the scripts for a handful of other directors’ films, including Panahi’s The White Balloon and Crimson Gold, and Ali-Reza Raisian’s The Journey, suggests an influence wider than one generated by his own work. Where some movements indicate a group of filmmakers who are equally important in different ways (as in New German Cinema), Iranian film has other directors over the many years of the Wave of immense importance (including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Amir Naderi, Dariush Mehrjui) but Kiarostami is the key figure. He is the director whose work has been most acclaimed internationally yet he has always remained in Iran and never went into exile. He has been making feature films since before the mid-seventies and has been both influential and helpful in being involved in the work of others: a number of directors including Panahi and Hassan Yaktapanah have worked as his assistant.
A wave even more reliant on the sensibility of one director is the Danish movement of the late nineties clustered around Dogme 95 – a manifesto created by the major figure Lars von Trier, and also Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. The ten rules behind this millennial movement included the eschewal of genre films, that sound and image would not be presented separately, that all films should be in 35mm, and that the director must not be credited. Rarely has a set of rules been so obviously created; only to be promptly flouted or twisted. A number of the films were shot on digital and then transferred to 35mm, while the directors were very much behind the promotion of the material. Festen made the name of its director Thomas Vinterberg, and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots entirely deserves the use of the possessive. Yet the back to basics vow of chastity had a DIY dimension to it that both ushered in and coincided with a frustration being felt that films had become too big, bold and brashly effects driven. This was the late nineties where millennial anxiety was writ large and budgets larger, with Independence Day, Armageddon and Volcano just three of many quite literally explosive epics. Yet 1999 saw the release of the Blair Witch Project, a micro-budgeted film that made mega-bucks at the box-office. Viewers didn’t need 100m dollar movies to jump out of their seats; the startle could be achieved by directors making films on not that much more than the price of admission.
Dogme was nothing if not a reactive movement, with its rules countering Hollywood excess and expressing a sort of cinema povera. Most of the actors were not well-known but became so with the success of the wave. Paprika Steene was nicknamed the Deneuve of Dogme95 after appearing in Festen, The Idiots and Mifune. A different style of acting was required too. Talking about the tiny cameras used on Festen, Steene would say “I liked this idea of getting rid of everything. But then, I’m not technically grounded, so I couldn’t imagine what Dogme would mean until I was in it. Because once you start to work like that, it’s a very physical experience.” With von Trier it was still more gruelling: “He takes a lot more chances, Lars, with his actors: he makes them go further out there, where it’s really embarrassing…” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95)
Von Trier was the one director with an international reputation before the movement: with Element of the Crime, Europa and especially Breaking the Waves illustrating a director with a vision no matter how contrarily he chose to manifest it. The first two films were exercises in the precision of form; the latter an often handheld introduction to what would become Dogme. Consistency has never been von Trier’s thing, and recanting frequent. As he says of Europa in Trier On Von Trier: “I think it was too polished. It lacks what I would call ‘natural mistakes’, the sort of things that’s more obvious in Breaking the Waves. They’re very difficult to put together. Europa is far too insipid and vacuous in that respect.” Yet this isn’t at all to say that von Trier doesn’t have a perspective that makes him a very strong presence in film. Part of that very vision is a capricious need to break rules, both his own and those of aesthetic convention. He is also happy to create characters that hardly play along with norms either: his work is full of scenes where social conventions are disrupted. Think of the moments on the bus with Bess in Breaking the Waves, and the two girls seducing numerous passengers on the train in Nymphomania. His Dogme film, The Idiots, is a work of flamboyant disregard for the rules in form and narrative function. Breaking the hundred and eighty degree rule, jump cutting, offering continuity errors and showing the camera reflected off car windows, the film matches this with middle-class Danes pretending to be mentally impaired as they show up bourgeois hypocrisy.
The Idiots wasn’t the most acclaimed of the Dogme films (Festen was more enthusiastically received), but it looks better and better with the passing years, and fits ever so neatly into von Trier’s filmography, where Vinterberg’s has remained patchy. “Well, it [Festen]was a big success, but the whole Dogme thing was something I could take no further,” Vinterberg said in Time Out. “I had to start all over again and redefine myself, which left me very vulnerable and created many painful experiences…” Where for von Trier Dogme was a stepping stone in the fast moving rapids of a complex career, for Vinterberg it was a monolithic movement he had to find a way of getting round. Only with the recent The Hunt have critics talked about a return to form, and The Hunt and Festen feel like distant companion pieces: two sides of a paedophile-oriented coin. In Festen a father finally gets rightly accused by his son for the sexual abuse he and his recently, suicidally deceased sister suffered when they were children; in The Hunt a young girl accuses an older man of doing likewise when it is clear he is innocent. Vinterberg’s two films are powerful pieces of familial melodrama, and his other work, including It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy, is more intriguing than critics have often allowed. Von Trier, however, is the force behind contemporary Danish cinema, one feels, as he has continued experimenting far beyond the Dogme limits. Dogville and Manderlay are theatrical in their use of the sound stage, novelistic in their chapter headings and use of voice over: they are like audio-texts.
Levring and Kragh-Jakobsen remain best known for their Dogme entry: Levring with The King is Alive and Kragh-Jacobson with Mifune. Though Levring says that for him Dogme was “from the beginning…to get back to the auteur thinking. I believe that film is the director’s medium” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95), he hasn’t escaped from under its influence and produced an auteurist vision of his own. Kragh-Jakobsen says Dogme also gave freedom to his actors, reckoning that “normally Danish directors are not a hundred per cent when they’re behind the camera. If they’re not ‘on’, they’re never very good. But this way, they knew they had to give one hundred per cent, all the time” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95). Nevertheless the actors have not become especially well-known either. Much of the movements’ innovations coincided with developments elsewhere, more than that Dogme simply generated them. Where the French New Wave produced numerous stars (Belmondo, Leaud, Karina and Audran for example), directors with very singular sensibilities, and techniques that were being absorbed many years later, Dogme’s influence has been small. And if we compare it to the Australian New Wave we don’t get the sense of a movement exploring the landscape and national consciousness. Levring is right to insist Dogme wasn’t simply a publicity stunt, saying that if the film weren’t any good there wouldn’t have been a stir around them, yet we could also insist that if they had been better they would be more memorable today than they are. The major works are The Idiots and Festen, and Julien Donkey Boy by the American Harmony Korine. (Though Dogme was a Danish inspired film movement, international directors could apply for its certificate.) Others, from Italian for Beginners to The Lovers, Mifune to The King is Alive remain minor films.
Romanian cinema like Dogme also has its ‘intensifier’: a director who imprints their vision very strongly on the other directors within the movement. As Monica Filimon says in a Cineaste article Beyond New Romanian Cinema: “stylistically, the NRC is profoundly indebted to [Cristi] Puiu. Long takes, frugal yet expressive camerawork, conscientious framing, minute attention to mise-en-scene…” It was Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu winning Un Certain Regard at Cannes that announced a new movement coming out of the oven, and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, Cornelia Poromboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, and Puiu’s marvelously intransigent Aurora, confirmed that this was a movement capable of producing more than a baker’s dozen. These were the main films from the wave’s major filmmakers, but it nevertheless seems that Puiu is the director most inclined to push through on the characteristics of the NRC with the maximum amount of ambiguity. It isn’t only that Puiu utilises arduous takes that play up cinematic dead time to the detriment of narrative development; it is also that he wants to leave within the dead time characters that are dead weights – while utilising stories that are lop-sidedly uneventful. In The Death of Mr Lazarescu, the eponymous character dies slowly over the film’s two and half hour running time through a combination of his own hopeless inability to look after his health and the Romanian ambulance service’s incompetence. The outcome is pretty clear from the beginning and evidenced in the title, thus containing within it a deliberate lack of narrative suspense. Foreknowledge here doesn’t create story tension; it deliberately obliterates it. In Aurora it is the opposite – there is no foreknowledge – but again the suspense is all but absent. Here we follow a man of about forty around Bucharest as he accomplishes various small tasks and occasionally bigger ones (several murders), but it isn’t till the end of the film that we know why, and for much of it we see him going from one place to another with little point or purpose. Puiu asks us to look at what is in the image, and not what will force us to anticipate the next one, as he slows cinema down in a very interesting way.
This is about dead time certainly, but not as the joke Warhol would offer when he would give us images of people sitting around on screen that would then be watched by people sitting around in the audience, and thus offering a blasé attitude to the epistemologically eager and the narrative junkies who expected things to be shown in the frame and a story to develop out of it. No, Puiu, and other directors of the wave, want often very active observation: they expect us to try to work out the relations between characters and situations without giving us too much to work with but much to work on. It is in this sense a reversal of the mainstream model of narrative filmmaking which gives us much to work with and little to work on. When we see someone entering an apartment with a shaved head, love and hate on their knuckles and a cigarette they stub out on the rug, we are reading metonyms of thuggery. Each cut to another part of the narrative jigsaw adds to our unequivocal sense of mastering the image structure. This is what we mean by having much to work with but little to work on. In New Romanian Cinema part of its brilliance resides in creating something quite different. Aurora from this point of view is its masterpiece, but we see it in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Police, Adjective, Beyond the Hills, Child’s Pose, The Other Irene and others.
In 4 Months… there is the lengthy sequence where the central character has helped her friend get an abortion, and leaves her on the other side of town to recover while she rushes over to her boyfriend’s place for the mother’s birthday. The suspense of the sequence is based on off screen space: in the situation of the friend on the other side of the city who after a dangerous abortion could conceivably be bleeding to death, and our central character being very worried. But the observational tension in the sequence lies in the onscreen space: in the working class heroine meeting her boyfriend’s middle-class family and feeling that she doesn’t fit in. This is an awkwardness of course exacerbated by her friend at risk elsewhere, but the sequence isn’t offered as an empty suspense device but if you like a full one: it has its own complex interpersonal relationships that we have to work with. Watching the sequence on its own, we would see a complicated social drama being played out; yet Mungiu contains it completely within a still bigger problem elsewhere. While initially it can seem like not much is happening (surely a film’s purpose is to follow the line of most narrative pertinence) the NRC often instead says that there are things happening that might not seem of immediate point, but often contain deeper ones.
In Calin Peter Netzer Child’s Pose, a middle-class man runs over a working class boy, and the man’s suffocating mother will do everything she can to get him off. Another film might set it up as a thriller, with the man all but innocent and the victim’s family working the boy, creating accidents to extract money from the victims. (The very story of even fine, serious films like Nagisa Oshima’s Boy.) But the accident is very much the man’s fault, the boy is decidedly dead, and the film concentrates on the man’s mother’s refusal to let him fend for himself in any area of his life and even more so in this crisis situation that opens the film. Numerous scenes that in another work would be seen as irrelevant gain credence here from the enquiry into the mother/son relationship, and those who suffer because of it (the father and the daughter-in-law) rather than focusing exclusively on the premised story of a hit and run. The same sense of ‘false emphasis’ is to be seen in Andrei Gruzsniczki’s The Other Irene. Here Aurel is told that his wife is dead after a work trip to Cairo, and he determines to find out the circumstances behind her demise. As Alina Popescu says, “the narrative has the appearance of a detective movie and maintains a level of suspense throughout the film. But the plot does not resolve in this fashion. It is more like a pretext to scrutinize human reactions in borderline situations.” (East European Film Bulletin)
What we notice in many recent Romanian films is that they focus on monumental events but often refuse to focus on the dramatic. Murders, abortions, missing deaths, possession (Beyond the Hills), a stakeout (Police, Adjective), revolution (12:08 East of Bucharest) are all contained within a perspective that asks us to meditate on the image rather than anticipate with excitement the next one. It can give to the movement a cinematic air of indifference, but contained within this lies the need for an immense scrutiny of the frame. As Puiu says of Aurora, “what does it mean to observe a character for 36 hours? There had be things that didn’t make sense but which are there because we do things that are not important or spectacular.” (Sight and Sound)
Puiu adds the importance of documentary, the sense that a film is observing reality and like many films in the various waves there is in Romanian cinema the interest in the mapping of a nation’s consciousness as documentative exploration. Romanian cinema is a post-Ceaucescu movement, with the directors investigating occasionally the late years of the dictator’s power (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Tales from the Golden Age), but often looking at the here and now of Romanian society. The form is deliberate and distinctive, but it can still serve an observational function; indeed perhaps the very style allows for this scrutiny all the more. Yet unlike the Australian wave it resides in the form rather than in the geographical content. Australian cinema was often visually spectacular; Romanian film is frequently focused on the drab: on cramped apartments, car parks, rundown hotels.
To varying degrees the movements we have analysed have been exploring a national sensibility in geography, culture and society, and have frequently found a distinctive means by which to do so. Some of the new waves have a particularly strong directorial presence (Kiarostami, Von Trier, Puiu), other waves have been rich in having several (Godard, Resnais, Rivette; Antonioni, Pasolini, Fellini; Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog), and occasionally there has been no distinctive presence at all (the Australian cinema). Yet all of them have earned with justification the idea that cinematic history has been mildly or greatly altered. They have all been events in the Alan Badiou sense of the term when he explores the nature of what an event might be in the arena of art. As Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens say in their introduction to Badiou’s Infinite Thought: “For example, within the situation of art in the early twentieth century, certain artists launched an enquiry into the nature of sculpture once Picasso’s cubist paintings had been recognised as ‘art’. The procedure made up of such enquiries is termed a ‘truth procedure’ because it unfolds a new multiple.” It becomes an event. In our analysis a new wave is thus ‘evental’: it will either transform the perception of one’s country/and or the history of the art form. There are films getting made all the time, and many of them masterpieces, but are they part of a more general event that constitutes a new wave? The films we have explored here seem, to varying degrees, to be pertinent to such an exploration.