.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Doctor recommended for optimal cerebral hygiene 

American New Wave Cinema

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

When I first discovered the French New Wave filmmakers, starting with Truffaut's wonderful Jules et Jim, and leading me to other Truffaut films, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, etc., it was a truly eye-opening experience. Previously, I had been feeding on a steady diet of glossy, Hollywood studio system fare, rarely moved by these movies to actually engage my brain. And while I will admit that I was going through a rather pretentious love affair with French culture, wearing a beret to my classes at Rutgers, day dreaming I was hanging out with Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald on the Left Bank, the New Wave films made it all the more real to me. The New Wave movement was known for having been inspired by the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre, among others, with themes and characters to which I either related or aspired. Steve Nottingham's essay, linked above, contains a summary that pretty much covers what I was so attracted to:
Existentialism stressed the individual, the experience of free choice, the absence of any rational understanding of the universe and a sense of the absurdity in human life. Faced with an indifferent world, an existentialist seeks to act authentically, using free will and taking responsibility for all their actions, instead of playing pre-ordained roles dictated by society. The characters in French New Wave films are often marginalized, young anti-heroes and loners, with no family ties, who behave spontaneously, often act immorally and are frequently seen as anti-authoritarian.
Yep, pretty cliche, English major stuff there, for sure.

Last weekend I saw David O. Russell's latest movie, I Heart Huckabees, and while thinking about the Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman characters, the Existential Detectives, I was reminded of the great French New Wave, was reminded that there are a number of contemporary American filmmakers who share a similar set of sensibilities, and whom I will now boldly refer to as American New Wave Cinema. (A quick Google search, and after 5 or so pages of hits not one mention of such a thing. Copywrite time? There was a hit for American New Wave music, but this was such a hideous period in musical history that I'm counting on no one feeling overly eager to claim the term as their intellectual property on that basis.)

So, here they are, the American New Wave filmmakers: David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson (no relation)....um....well, at least that's the short list. There is another list, a list of films that would fit the American New Wave description, but which come from directors whose other films don't quite fit, or they just haven't made enough films yet to determine if they fit. This list includes: various Richard Linklater films, Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, Zach Braff's Garden State.

Naturally, some filmmakers, some of the best, are constantly changing their styles and genres, making defining a movement in cinema very difficult. A classic example would be the grouping of Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese (enough links, you go look 'em up). They all came to prominence around the same time, but with the exception of the Coppola/Scorsese gangster film connection, they really are all three very different filmmakers. Likewise, sometimes influences reveal that there is nothing startlingly original going on here, possibly eroding the validity of defining a unique American New Wave movement. Just consider the direct link between this supposed group and the early films of Mike Nichols (Carnal Knowlege, The Graduate), and two of Hal Ashby's greats - Harold and Maude, Being There.

What I've enjoyed about the films listed above has been the existential crises of the characters, offbeat and unconventional narrative styles, the generous use of pop music, but perhaps most importantly, a very big heart and sympathy for the characters. There's a sweetness in the common underlying theme that just beneath their quirky exteriors can be found human beings with feelings and a deep desire for love and connection. Going into this any deeper, perhaps on a film-by-film basis, is the making of a serious essay, for which I have neither the time nor the energy. However, should I ever get around to expanding on this, I will be sure to share it here. In the meantime, if anyone coming across this post feels that I've missed a possible addition to the American New Wave filmmakers list, please drop me a comment.