The New Wave: Afterword

The book The New Wave was first published by Oxford University Press in 1976, a year before the first edition of How To Read a Film. It was in print for 16 years. Although we tried, no translation rights were sold. Not until last year, that is, when a publisher in Prague purchased Czech rights! The Czech edition appeared early in 2002. I promised them an update. After all, a lot can happen in 25 years! Here is the English version of the Afterword.

Twenty-five years ago, when The New Wave was first published, the spirit of our culture was quite different from what it is today. The previous fifteen years—from the late 1950s to the early 1970s—had been a period of heady innovation in film (as well as music, politics, culture, and thought).

We naturally assumed at the time that this trend would continue. This was the "modern" spirit, after all. Well, it didn't. With the singular exception of the revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (as remarkable and unexpected as that was), our culture and politics are pretty much the same as they were a quarter of a century ago. And our film and music are less interesting and involving now than they were then. More professional, more powerful, more lucrative, more technically sophisticated. But less interesting.

By 1975 la Nouvelle Vague was beginning to mellow, and to lose influence in world film culture. The hip critics were writing more about new German directors like Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders, and about third-world film. But, whatever their virtues, Das Neue Kino, African, and South American cinema didn't have the same intellectual focus or polemical force as the French cinema of the sixties that we called the New Wave.

With hindsight we can see that the films of Godard, Truffaut, and their colleagues in the 1960s were at once the last wave of Modernism and the first wave of Postmodernism. What an exciting position to be in! As Modernists, they were the last of the iconoclasts, inventing new forms (cinema-vérité, personal essay cinema, long-form cinema, contes moraux, anti-image movies). As Postmodernists, they defined themselves against early twentieth-century Modernism.

Having begun their careers as critics, Godard, Truffaut, and the other filmmakers invented the self-referential Postmodernist pose that became the norm for the remainder of the century. There work was original (Modern) at the same time that it was self-aware (Postmodern). The mix of fiction and nonfiction, narrative and essay, na´vetÚ and cynicism is unique.

After the book The New Wave was first published it never occurred to me to revise or update it. I haven't done the arithmetic, but it is likely that the five filmmakers covered in the book have made more films in the years since the book appeared than they did before. But the important work was done before 1975. After that the filmmakers of the New Wave—like everyone else!—repeated themselves. This isn't a criticism: it was the times.

François Truffaut, the heart of the New Wave, made a half a dozen films after 1975 before his abrupt and untimely death in 1984 at the age of 52. L'Argent de Poche (1976) took him back to the world of children. With L'Amour en fuite (1979) he completed the Antoine Doinel cycle. Le Dernier Metro (1980) explored a new territory for him: history. In Vivement Dimanche (1983) he returned to genre films with a romantic mystery.

Truffaut died suddenly of a brain tumor at the American Hospital in Neuilly in October, 1984. I would like to think that he would have been pleased with this ending: it is right out of one of his films: sudden, arbitrary, poignant, and symbolic.

Jean-Luc Godard, the mind of the New Wave, has been almost as prolific since 1975 as he was before. After his Karina, Wiazemsky, and Dziga-Vertov periods he entered into a long-lasting relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville. This fourth "period" is likely to be his last. The collaboration has resulted in numerous interesting films and videos including the trilogy of Passion (1982), Prénom: Carmen (1983), and Hail, Mary! (1983). The Pope cited this last as "blasphemous," marking it as one of the last rebellious acts of the twentieth century.

After numerous other films, ranging from genre studies (Détective, 1985) to Shakespeare (King Lear, 1987), Godard and his collaborator Miéville spent the 1990s concentrating on Histoire(s) du Cinéma, a study of the legacy of French film. At 70, Godard is still going strong.

Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette were equally prolific in the 1980s and 1990s. But while their work drew occasional critical attention, they never reached the heights they had in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beginning with Violette Nozière (1978) Chabrol entered into a productive collaboration with actress Isabelle Huppert. Une Affaire des femmes (1988), Madame Bovary (1991), and La Cérémonie (1995) were critical successes.

Rivette never again received the attention that he had attracted with Out One (1974), but he continued for more than twenty years to experiment with narrative time and improvisational dialogue: Le Pont du nord (1981), La bande des quatre (1988), La Belle noiseuse (1991), Secret Défense (1998).

Perhaps the most surprising performance during the last 25 years has come from the most marginal character of the New Wave, Eric Rohmer. A decade older than the others, Rohmer was also the last of the group to receive critical acclaim: it was only in the late sixties that his Contes Moraux ("moral tales") drew international attention. After that series four years passed before Percival le gallois (1978). In 1981, he launched a new series of moral tales dubbed "Comedies and Proverbs." Le rayon vert won the Silver Lion at Venice in 1986. In 1989 he began a third series, "Tales of the Four Seasons." All this time he continued to make films outside the series.

In May of 1999, at the age of 79, Rohmer set a technological landmark with a screening of his short, "Cambrure," at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was projected digitally: the first public use of this technology. No one would have been surprised if Godard had done something like this, but it was remarkable coming from Rohmer, the most traditional artist of the New Wave.

Consider it an emblem of the continuing influence of this remarkable group of filmmakers nearly half a century after they first sounded the clarion in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma.

There were many "new waves" after La Nouvelle Vague. The phrase became one of the most abused critical terms of the era. As with so much of our language in this age of newspeak, there was little that was new about those successor "new waves." The appellation was reduced to a marketing tool: they weren't waves, they were at best ripples.

Indeed, the intellectual movement forged by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and their colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s is looking more and more like the "Last Wave." The idea of an avant-garde—the concept of progress in the arts, born in the Romantic period 200 years ago—did not survive much past 1970. As a result, the films and ideas of the Last Wave will remain cogent and relevant for a long time to come.

As Godard put it in Weekend:


James Monaco
Sag Harbor NY
January 2001