Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's “Making Waves”
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is a British film scholar who has written books on Luchino Visconti (1968) and Antonioni's L'Avventura (1997), and is the editor of The Oxford History of World Cinema (1999). His new book Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s is an overview primer and a breezy, easy read. Quite a bit of the ground covered here might be familiar to the serious cinephile, but I nevertheless found many details and observations that were new to me and helpful. Let me reproduce a few interesting passages.
All his films represent a turning away from modernity into the past, from technology to nature, from the industrial west to the Third World, from the bourgeoisie to the peasantry and subproletariat, from the patriarchal to the maternal, from repression and heterosexism to the polymorphous sexuality of childhood — in short, to a world before the Fall. This prelapsarian world, of course, does not exist, but it is evoked as the negation, piece by piece, of a world which all too emphatically does exist, and which Pasolini hated. There is no coherence to the universe the films portray except in the form of this negation. And the only recoverable part of the lost world would appear to lie in sexual revolution, which might — just — restore to the modern world some sense of the freedom it had foregone. Such, at least, would appear to be the lesson of Theorem (1968) […]
How the world lost its innocence is explored in the films set in mythic prehistory (Oedipus Rex, Medea, and half of Pigsty) and in their present-day counterparts (Theorem and the modern sections of Pigsty). The so-called ‘trilogy of life’ which follows [The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights] can be seen as an enactment of how the lost innocence might be recreated. But by the time Pasolini came to the end of the trilogy he had ceased to believe even in the liberatory potential of sex. The sexual ‘revolution’ of the 1960s was no such thing but just a new form of embourgeoisement which normalized adolescent heterosexuality, while the gay movement (or what little he saw of it, which was not much) was just a way of channeling homosexuality into another bourgeois ghetto.
On Italian cinema and its relationship to the Italian left:
This observational vein [in his early films, Time Stood Still, Il Posto and I Fidanzati] was the one in which Olmi was most at home, but he had also grander ambitions to challenge the hegemony of the left in Italian cinema. In 1965 he made a film about the life of Pope John XXIII, E venne un uomo, starring Rod Steiger, which seemed purposely designed to rebut the eccentric portrayal of Christianity by Pasolini in his 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew. Some years later, the film for which he is most famous, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), was an explicit response to the leftist interpretation of Italian history in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 which had been released two years earlier and had become instantly canonical.
Olmi was certainly right in noticing the way the Italian film scene in the early 1960s, even more than at the height of neo-realism just after the war, seemed to be dominated by the left. The left’s cultural hegemony, originally constructed by and around the Italian Communist Party under its brilliant leader Palmiro Togliatti in the 1940s, had been fiercely contested by a resurgent right in the 1950s but was now reasserting itself in a new form, altogether more eclectic and diverse […]
One part of the old left strategy had been the perpetuation of the neo-realist aesthetic well past the time when it had any grip on contemporary reality. The result of this had been that the aesthetic innovators of the 1950s — principally, in their different ways, Antonioni, Fellini, and Rossellini — had been excluded from the orthodox left-wing ‘church’. […]
The leftward swing in the cinema of the early 1960s was a mixture of old and new and its first symptom was a revived interest in the ‘Southern Question’, that is to say the much debated issue of the deep-seated inequality between the industrial north of the country and the mainly agrarian south. For the old, Visconti returned in 1960 to the social concerns of his neo-realist period, forging the grandiose melodrama Rocco and His Brothers out of the problem of south to north migration. In between old and new, Francesco Rosi, who had been Visconti’s assistant on La Terra Trema in 1948, investigated the Mafioso character of Sicily in Salvatore Guiliano (1962) and the endemic corruption of his native city of Naples in Hands over the City (1963). And among the new, Vittorio De Seta set his debut feature Banditi a Orgosolo (1961) in what was probably the most backward part of Italy, the mountainous interior of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
On the Nouvelle Vague and actors:
[Resnais] tended to use theatrically trained actors, rehearse them thoroughly, and encourage the use of theatrical gesture and delivery, though never to the point when it looked false on screen. (Delphine Seyrig in Last Year in Marienbad and Muriel is a perfect example: poised, seeming to wear a mask, but always a mask that fits her naturally.) By contrast the Cahiers group were more inclined to improvise on set and hated working with actors in the French theatrical tradition, much preferring the more natural style that they found in their favourite American films. […] If actors coming from theatre, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Piccoli, were used they were expected to be flexible and adapt to the prevailing naturalistic style.
On homosexuality and film narrative:
For the first time since the 1920s, homosexual relationships were allowed to take place between characters and be shown on screen in a moderately matter-of-fact way, even if not always with complete explicitness. Restrictions on explicitness had their compensations, since the less explicit a film the more it can engage the play of spectatorial fantasy in the face of uncertain events and, behind the events, uncertain desires. Some of the best films in this vein are those (Chabrol’s 1968 lesbian romance Les Biches would be an example) in which characters are shown as hesitating in face of a newly discovered or half-discovered desire and the spectator is invited to share this hesitancy — and with it a slight oscillation of gender identity.
-- Adrian's new column at De Filmkrant is on "the eternal debate between 'enthusiasts' and 'contrarians'. Certain magazines at particular times - such as 'Cahiers du cinéma' in the 1950s - have adopted the enthusiast's principle: you should only write at length about films you love. But, in the day-to-day practice of film criticism, that is an impossible ideal. At other moments, the need for heated polemics - speaking up against some overrated film or director - overrides the enthusiasm principle. That is when contrarianism - going against the consensus opinion - asserts itself in all its violent glory..."
The piece goes on to use as examples French-language blogger Charles de Zohiloff, Kimberly Lindbergs, and Miguel Marías (in Dan's comment section).
-- Keith Uhlich's "Links of the Day" post at The House Next Door points to: Paul Schrader's site with his writings; news about Ray Carney's site being temporarily suspended due to a dispute with Boston University; and two clips of Jonathan Rosenbaum speaking, among other things, about his retirement.
-- An 80th birthday tribute to Jacques Rivette by David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
-- At YouTube: A Star Wars trailer as it might have been designed by Saul Bass.
-- At My Gleanings: "Cahiers, the 'young turks' and William Wyler".
-- Recent film blog discovery: Andrew Schenker's The Cine File.
pics: Jacques Rivette's L'Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).