Op-Ed: The American New Wave – A Filmmaking Manifesto

Shooting handheld is no way to start a revolution.

Certainly not now, 52 years after the French New Wave blasted into life with “The 400 Blows”, in which director Francois Truffaut introduced a new cinematic language that he subsequently developed, along with Jean-Luc Godard and other filmmakers, into a maze of mysterious roads, leading audiences seductively to some unknown, artistic conclusion that can only be arrived at after a lifetime of consuming exciting, fascinating, DEMANDING art.

In the ’60s, shooting handheld was a middle finger aimed at the studio system. Shooting in the streets with small budgets and small crews was telling the establishment, “We are no longer interested in this benign entertainment you have created for us. We wish to make something better, something exciting that touches, challenges, and twists your soul, something you can understand and also not understand, something you can’t explain easily but that makes you smile, something that leaves you melancholy but inspired—something better!

Today, in 2011, it is OUR turn to tell the establishment, “We are no longer interested in this benign entertainment you have created for us.”

I long for an American New Wave.

What is the American New Wave? When will it come? Who will ignite it?

To answer these questions, we must first understand what the French New Wave actually was. Was it about shooting handheld? Was that entire movement just a quirky new aesthetic? Let’s list other signatures of the French New Wave movies: long dialogues with the camera showing only one person; fast voice-overs; a sense of exuberance and life lust; New Wave Cool; moments of character-driven surrealism within realistic settings; A TOTAL BREAKDOWN OF THE TRADITIONAL STORY AND EXPLORATION OF NEW WAYS TO PORTRAY LIFE.

But none of these are the essence! Even the breakdown of traditional storytelling is not the heart of the French New Wave but still essentially an aesthetic.

The willingness, courage, and freedom to surrender to inspiration is, to me, the fire behind the movement. The culture of experimentation as an artistic force, the need to create something entirely new not because of some pompous desire to appear intelligent but out of a pure, unleashed love of cinema—that is at the heart of those groundbreaking movies that were made in France in the ’60s.

There hasn’t yet been an American New Wave. I believe that some of the American cinema of the ’70s, which is sometimes referred to as the American New Wave, is really an extension of the French movement, an inspired product of a European-led revolution. The American film industry, generally speaking, has always led in concise, streamlined storytelling but not in new approaches to the form. Occasionally a filmmaker emerges from the dust of the studio films’ CGI explosions, carrying the torch of the movement. But he is viewed as a quirky outsider. He is not the norm. He’s the one who got through and managed to do his own thing. The studio executives say: “From him we expect ‘weirdness’ because it’s what he does and that’s okay.” The spirit of experimentation does not exist as a culture of filmmaking in our society, but as an amusing, cute sideshow that sometimes makes it out to the mainstream for a quick breath before descending back into the deep, cold waters of the art house ocean.

What is the American New Wave?

What is it not?

It certainly is not the conveyor-belt slew of blockbusters we’re seeing in cinemas now. And after years of cheap cameras and cheaper editing systems, we are oversaturated with inexperienced filmmakers creating poor-quality products and calling themselves “indie filmmakers” while trying to imitate that very slew of big-studio storytelling norms with micro-budgets. The American New Wave is not those films either.

It also was not the independent movement of the ’90s, which, while inspiring many filmmakers, ultimately left a relatively minor mark on mainstream cinema, and not necessarily a positive one: the mark of “quirk.” A sad word representing a lazy aesthetic but that makes us feel indie-posh when spoken. It left such a small mark because everyone is searching for the high-concept reward, and the “quirky indie” is seen as a stepping-stone to the big game of obscenely expensive films instead of an end in its own right. Think about the “indie” successes of recent years. Manufactured, wall-to-wall cuteness packaged in sweet, whistling soundtracks. Quirk.

The call to action is as follows.

Talented, competent filmmakers—experienced within the mainstream industry—must revolt against the established mores if filmmaking is to have any sustainable future. The established mores say: “Huge movies with special effects, shiny breasts, and interesting deaths are what sell tickets. Artsy doesn’t.” The revolt’s tagline is: “Artsy is a dirty word. We just want great movies. Movies that stick in our heads, invade our dreams, challenge our thoughts, make us better. WE ARE NO LONGER INTERESTED IN YOUR BENIGN ENTERTAINMENT.

High paid stars must lead the revolt by producing and appearing in groundbreaking projects featuring unique storytelling voices, experimental spirits, and made by high-level professionals. Otherwise, as studios take less risks and spend more money on fewer films, annual output will shrink to maybe 10 giant-budget films and a thousand dreadfully made low-budget indies, mostly made by inexperienced filmmakers, that no one will ever see. It is a wise career move for successful performers to invest work and money in the American New Wave, developing a landscape in which more, smaller, better movies take over the mainstream. Today’s stars eventually fade, making way for new stars. If only a few big movies and a thousand small, bad ones are made per year, where will these stars get their creative satisfaction—and their paycheck?

Nicole Kidman, at the height of her career, took a cool creative risk and appeared in an insanely strange film called “Dogville” by Lars Von-Trier. Imagine: What if the norm was that excellent, famous actors spearheaded cutting-edge storytelling by appearing in and/or financing smaller, one- to three-million-dollar films that support experimentation, authorship, and real originality?

What is an American New Wave film like?

An American New Wave movie is one in which the conventions of storytelling are manipulated and experimented with freely, but while maintaining a certain rhythm, pace, and amount of crowd-pleasing aesthetics in order to not alienate the audience. It is crucial to communicate and not alienate. Challenge the viewers, but don’t break them. Make them enjoy the challenge. That is exactly why experienced filmmakers must partake in this movement. Because the novice independent filmmaker, aside from the rare magnificent exception, does not know how to control his work—how to create something very different yet communicate aesthetically to larger audiences. The revolution must begin inside the system.


Why is all this important?

Because as a culture we are becoming desensitized to art. We click on a blog that shows us 30 spectacular photos and we skim through them quickly, with dead eyes. Art has become so accessible that we see nothing special in it. Mainstream music has long ago become a parody of its own absurd lack of mystery and television is drowning in quickly edited, corporatized nothingness featuring lackluster “real people” living a network-induced pseudo drama that doesn’t even serve as genuine entertainment in our lives. We watch, and forget. Watch, and forget.

But we still love movies. And if they continue being as uniform and uninspiring as they often are in the current mainstream, we will become desensitized to those as well. And our industry will crumble, as theaters will screen nothing but reality TV in 3D. And maybe that’s just the natural progression of things. But I love great movies, and I want them to be made, and I want, dare I wish, to make them.

Having said that, allow me to be clear: I love and admire the great big-studio films, and have no desire for them to go away.

They just can’t be the only thing out there.

Filmmakers: we must all be courageous, ambitious, and wide-eyed, and we must start making legitimately interesting movies.

David Jakubovic
Used with permission from www.davidjakubovic.blogspot.com


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What a great essay! I've been recently thinking about this dilemma. Much like music, "indie" is used to describe a certain look, or the fact that it's low-budget. Yet it's not challenging. It doesn't take any risks. It follows the same tired screenwriting manuals and character arcs. I'm with you, David. Viva la revolucion! Steve, thanks for posting this!


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