The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Seven
Cinema didn’t tell the story, it was the story.
Two episodes back I said how much I enjoyed the 1940s episode, especially since I love film noir so much. Well, my second favorite movement or faux genre might just be the French New Wave, so I’m definitely biased to enjoy Chapter 7 as well. If the 1950s were a cinematic pressure cooker bursting at the seams, constrained by the studio system and the mores of the time, then the ’60s were the explosion. The world had been in upheaval in the ’50s, but it became even more tumultuous in the ’60s, with the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, increasing nuclear fears, the hippie generation, free love, revolution, etc. Times were changing, and cinema, somewhat conservative in the ’50s, was now ready to change with them.
Before getting to the New Wave itself, though, Cousins looks at some of the highly individual directors who laid the groundwork for the more personal cinema that the New Wave celebrated. We’re in well-worn cinephile territory here (and really throughout this episode), with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Federico Fellini, but Cousins still manages to bring out insights into their films and relation to the larger Story of Film that I hadn’t really noticed. These are all directors who started their careers in the 1950s or earlier and thus were an inspiration to New Wave filmmakers, even as they continued their own careers throughout the 1960s and beyond.
Ingmar Bergman can be a tough one for me to watch, as I sometimes find his austerity difficult, but the more I watch the more I find the straining humanism underneath. Cousins emphasizes sensuality in Summer with Monika, which I haven’t seen and would definitely like to – it’s not something I tend to associate with Bergman, though as I think about it, there’s a lot of mention of sex in his later films, it’s just usually treated dispassionately. I’m curious to find this thread of bodily pleasure in Bergman that Cousins points out, seeing a connection between it and Bergman’s questioning of God throughout most of his career. Cousins also highlights the autobiographical and confessional nature of Bergman’s cinema. There are also formal ties to the New Wave, from the moment in Summer with Monika when the actress turns to face the camera (a technique Godard is famous for using) to the section in Persona when the film literally tears apart, as if cinema itself were experiencing a psychotic break. This cinema is not just telling a self-contained story safely up on a screen, it’s breaking the fourth wall and implicating us in what we’re watching. In its very form, cinema was the story.
Robert Bresson is formally very plain – Cousins takes pains to show how a scene from Pickpocket is shot very flat, with flat lighting, no noticeable composition, very little facial expressiveness. I also find Bresson a frustrating filmmaker, for exactly this reason. I like Pickpocket and A Man Escaped quite a lot, but other films of his that have less interesting stories (to me) don’t connect with me very easily. I did find Paul Schrader’s comment in this section very interesting, that by having a story told through a single character’s eyes and tying everything very closely to him, you can make the audience feel empathy for someone they don’t think deserves it. Schrader’s talking about Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and Cousins is applying it to the main character in Pickpocket – and it’s a really interesting observation.
Jacques Tati is Cousins’ third individual director, a near-silent comic genius who took some cues from Chaplin, but is very much his own character with his own concerns. Chief among those concerns is encroaching modernity, a big theme in Mon Oncle, which Cousins takes most of his examples from, but also in Playtime, Trafic, and others. Cousins brings attention to the way Tati uses space, which is one of my favorite things about his films. He shoots from far back, with often static shots, and allows the characters to move within the frame, and our eyes to follow them. You really notice this in Playtime, which is shot on giant 70mm film, but in a 4:3 aspect ratio, nearly square instead of the widescreen ratio usually associated with 70mm. The frame is gigantic, and he’s got so much depth and height to play with, and he uses it ALL.
Cousins finishes out this section with Federico Fellini, one of the most acclaimed and fascinating directors of all time. I tend to like Fellini’s earlier neo-realist-esque films more than his later, more surreal ones, so I was pleased that Cousins took a lot of his examples from Nights of Cabiria. Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina stars and I’m always blown away by her. She just has one of the best faces ever in cinema. It’s not glamorous or traditionally beautiful, but she can get so much emotion out of it without even seeming to try. Watch this and La Strada, and you’ll see what I mean.
According to Cousins, these four started opening up the form of cinema, showing that it could do more than just tell a story, but then it was “carpet-bombed” by French filmmakers. Other movements had shifted the Story of Film in varying directions – toward or away from realism, for example, but the New Wave exploded it. This generation of filmmakers had grown up on film, educated by Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise, seeing films from throughout Hollywood history and from European greats, and writing about them from the Cahiers du cinema. They were intellectual and self-aware, and their cinema would be as well.
It’s interesting that Cousins jumps into the New Wave with Agnès Varda. It’s true that she started making films in the ’50s, before most of the other directors associated with the New Wave (she’s called “the mother of the New Wave”), but he uses Cleo from 5 to 7 as his example, which is from 1962, three years after Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Also, though the elements in the film that Cousin points out (drifting through cities, having conversations, putting thought on film) are very common New Wave things, Cleo from 5 to 7 and Varda’s films in general have a very feminine perspective that isn’t found in the New Wave in general – most New Wave filmmakers are men who seem to harbor a secret fear of women. Cousins also throws Alain Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad in here, focusing on the film’s shifting reality, but also pointing out that Varda and Resnais are considered left-wing filmmakers, which puts them in a slightly different category from the set of former Cahiers du cinema critics who are most closely associated with the New Wave.
François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is largely considered the first real film of the New Wave, its simple story of a young troublemaker (the title is an idiom for “acting out”) made fresh by the use of real locations, lived moments outside the narrative, and naturalistic performances. Rather than these things, though, Cousins highlights the scene where young Antoine visits an amusement park and rides in a centrifugal force spinner ride that resembles a zootrope, one of the early persistence-of-vision toys that prefigured cinema. Truffaut, along with Godard and other New Wave filmmakers, especially those from Cahiers, wanted cinema to be about cinema. It was what they loved, it was their world, and their films reflect this.
That’s true of no one more than Jean-Luc Godard, whose films of the 1960s blatantly display his attempts to break cinema apart at the seams, poke at it, and put it back together in new ways. Cousins calls him the “greatest movie terrorist,” and spends a great deal of time exploring the iconoclastic jump cuts in Breathless, showing how they don’t show anything different, nor depict inner turmoil, but are simply there, and are, to Cousins at least, beautiful. The jump cuts in Breathless are hotly contested to this day, but they are part and parcel of Godard’s approach to cinema. Cuts have always had a purpose in cinema; what if we cut with no purpose? This is what he does.
In the intro interview with Robert Osborne, Cousins talks about the jump cuts a little more, saying they’re also part of the by-product of shooting quickly and freely, that spontaneous quality that gives Breathless its vitality and freshness. Shooting like that, you wouldn’t get a lot of retakes or coverage, so when you get to the editing room, you might have to jump cut. I don’t know if this is really what happened with Breathless, but I would believe it. Rather than go do retakes and come out looking too polished or produced (the things the New Wave was trying to get away from), just jump cut. Why not? Osborne mentioned an interview he’d done with Jean-Paul Belmondo at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where Belmondo had said they felt free to do anything when filming Breathless because they didn’t really think it had any chance at being released.
Though Cousins (regrettably) leaves the French New Wave with Truffaut and Godard without mentioning Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, or any more of the primary or secondary filmmakers associated with it, he does devote some time to how the New Wave mindset spread across the globe, particularly (in this episode) in Italy. He discusses Pier Paolo Pasolini and his subversive interest in religious films – he was Marxist, Catholic, and homosexual. He looks at Leone, who made a signature style out of deep focus widescreen in his westerns. And at Visconti and Bunuel, who infused their films with their politics, using cinematic means to get their points across. And Antonioni, one of the most modern of filmmakers, his films infused with abstraction, loss, alienation, emptiness.
Cousins characterizes this period if cinema as filmmakers dreaming of making more cinema more personal, self-aware, ambiguous, enraged, and ironic, something they achieved, influencing global cinema. The end of the era is marked by Jean Eustache’s epic-length The Mother and the Whore, which stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows‘ Antoine Doinel), whose character addresses the camera in despair: “I don’t think life can be like these strange worlds.” I missed a chance to see The Mother and the Whore a couple of years ago, because my schedule couldn’t handle a 4-hour film. I wish I had managed, because it’s a difficult one to get in the United States.
The episode ends with a shot of rural Africa and Cousins declaring that elsewhere in the world, cinema was just beginning. The tease is a little bit disingenuous, since the next episode will continue dealing with the New Waves moving around the world, but Africa is only one small part of it. That said, the next episode does introduce several new countries to the Story of Film, from Czechoslovakia to Senegal to Iran, while also returning to Japan and Russia along the way. The Story of Film is unequivocally global now, as Cousins promised in his prologue that it would be.
TCM’s programming draws from all over, with Roman Polanski’s debut Knife in the Water and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds representing Poland, Vera Chytilová’s Daisies standing in for the Czechoslovak New Wave (which is highly varied and great), Andrei Rublev bringing Andrei Tarkovsky into the story, plus films from Iran, Cuba, Japan, the UK, and Senegal. As may be expected, lots of these films are TCM premieres, as they’re not really in TCM’s usual programming wheelhouse, and I’d expect they’re unlikely to play again. So check them out now or you may be out of luck.
Where Else to See These Films
HuluPlus subscribers are in pretty good shape for the next few weeks – we’re smack in the middle of Criterion’s mother lode, mid-century foreign classics, and they’ve got a lot of them streaming on HuluPlus. Netflix streaming users are mostly out of luck, but most of these are available on disc.
Nights of Cabiria: Amazon Prime ($1.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental)
Winter Light: HuluPlus, YouTube
Cleo from 5 to 7: HuluPlus
The 400 Blows: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Rocco and His Brothers: YouTube (in 16 parts)
A Fistful of Dollars: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental), YouTube
Accatone: Not available for streaming; Amazon has on DVD
Breathless: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
I Am Curious (Yellow): HuluPlus
Knife in the Water: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Andrei Rublev: HuluPlus
Ashes and Diamonds: HuluPlus
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: not streaming; available on DVD from Amazon and probably Netflix
The Insect Woman: HuluPlus, YouTube
The House is Black: YouTube (it’s a short film)
I Am Cuba: not streaming; available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon
Black Girl: Netflix Instant, YouTube