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Making waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s. New York: Continuum, 2008. x + 230 pp.

The 1960s is one of those periods to which die-hard cinephiles return over and over again with a deep feeling of nostalgia. Indeed, many of the "cinema is dead" pronouncements that appeared around the cinema's centenary celebration in 1995 referenced this Golden Age of the 1960s, with its various international "new waves," as the marker against which contemporary world cinema was being measured. Even those who believe that there are still many outstanding films being produced around the world each year understood the feeling.

The art cinema of these years is the counterpart to classical Hollywood. On the one hand, Hollywood is the norm from which these films deviate. Instead of plot driven, invisible style, escapist storytelling, these films challenged--and thus expanded--conventions of cinematic realism, character subjectivity, and film form. But what is remarkable is that so many films from this period remain just as compelling and mysterious as the finest Hollywood had to offer.

In his new book, Making Waves, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith reviews the crests of these cinematic new waves. In sharp, clearly written prose, Nowell-Smith provides a broad context, considering not just films and filmmakers, but also the politics and culture of the era, changes in film technology, industry economics, new "mature" subject matter, and so on. In addition to this historical information, Nowell-Smith is also able to communicate vividly the ways in which so many films of this period "felt" new.

The book is divided into four sections: "Before the Revolution," which reviews the cultural context that set the stage for the shifts of the 60s; "The New Cinemas," which outlines the various features that distinguish the many national new waves; "Movements," which features brief profiles of five important nations and regions (Britain, France, Italy, Poland and eastern Europe, and Latin America); and "Three Auteurs," a chapter focusing on a trio of key figures of the era (Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini).

For those seeking a primer in these new waves, one couldn't do better than this volume. But even for those who know the films of the era well, Nowell-Smith offers many fresh insights. For example, in comparing the acting styles in the two strains of the French New Wave--the Cahiers du Cinema group of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and the Left Bank group of Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy--Nowell-Smith writes:
  [Resnais] tended to use theatrically trained actors, rehearse them
  thoroughly, and encourage the use of theatrical gesture and delivery,
  though never to the point whon 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.

The book's final section--"Three Auteurs"--is disappointing only in its focus on two filmmakers from Italy, Antonioni and Pasolini. Given the breadth that the volume has otherwise tried to insist upon, the emphasis on two figures from the same country seems odd. Godard and Antonioni are obvious choices, but to round things out, why not Lindsay Anderson from Britain, Roman Polanski from Poland, or Glauber Rocha from Brazil--filmmakers the book acknowledges elsewhere as crucial for key national new wave movements? Nowell-Smith has been writing about film, especially Italian cinema, since the 1960s. He penned a book on Luchino Visconti, as well as a superb monograph on Antonioni's L'Avventura. His personal affection for Italian cinema may be the reason for this choice, or it may be that Nowell-Smith is attempting to elevate the rank of Pasolini, a filmmaker who, though highly regarded, is not generally thought of as the equal of Godard and Antonioni. Similarly, in the early chapter on "Criticism and Culture," Nowell-Smith locates the first stirrings of a post-War shift in critical sensibility not with the auteurists of the French Cahiers du Cinema, but with the Italian film journal Cinema.

Overall, in addition to being a fine review, the book is filled with insights that transform received wisdom into a subtle and textured history.

Christian Keathley

Middlebury College
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Author:Keathley, Christian
Publication:French Forum
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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