Edgar Morin 1961

The Conditions for the Appearance of the “New Wave”

Source: Communications, 1, 1961;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2012.

The New Wave is one of the consequences of the crisis of the cinema. Starting in the 1950’s there was a decrease in cinema attendance in the United States and Western Europe (England, France, and the Benelux nations; Italy and Germany would be affected later). Other leisure-time activities, improvements in housing conditions, the increase in suburban housing, motorized getaways and finally television competed with the cinema. The film industry entered a state of crisis.

In addition, the equilibrium among the different categories of the public changed slightly: it was the senior citizens and little children who were captured by television, and the dominance of young people among the film-going public became more marked. For young people, in fact, the cinema remains one of the great escapes from the family home.

The Hollywood film industry responded to this crisis by modifying the character of its productions. It attempted to find grounds upon which TV could not compete with it. From which came:

  1. Super-productions in color and in wide-screen; films that are costly but potentially very profitable.
  2. An increase in eroticism, an area in which TV, a family spectacle, is handicapped.
  3. Along with the expensive super-production the inexpensive “independent’ film got a new chance. “Marty” reconnects with the tradition of the independent film with no stars and critical content which had been interrupted for several years.
  4. A tendency to the emerging of films with new content on adolescence of which Marlon Brando, James Dean and Anthony Perkins are the stars.

The super-production and the independent film tend to wipe out the zone of the standard mid-level film the movie industry was built on. Neo-eroticism and the promotion of the theme of adolescence for their part contribute to this decadence. And this decadence accentuates the crisis of Hollywood, though this crisis is in part provoked by the antidotes developed to reduce it.

In France the same tendencies would make themselves felt but in a different form:

  1. The tendency towards super-productions took the form of multinational co-productions, but with mediocre results: the aggregating of stars and talents from different countries produces a poor syncretism. Nevertheless, co-productions allow the replacing the narrow national market by a bi- or multi-national market that allows for greater profitability.
  2. The tendency to eroticism fixes itself on new stars like Bardot who do well on the international market
  3. The tendency towards inexpensive independent films would allow young directors to express themselves: this would be the New Wave.

One film synthesizes these three nascent tendencies: “And God Created Woman,” by Roger Vadim. This is this young director’s first film. It is in color and Cinemascope and is the film that launched Brigitte Bardot. It reflects the “juvenile” or adolescent” attitudes that are spread by the novels of Francoise Sagan.

At the same time the “normal” film with established stars has run its course. While Louis Malle’s “Les Amants” and Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” are huge successes five “hit” films with Michel Morgan, Fernandel, and Jean Gabin, the surest things of the French star system, have not obtained the hoped for results.

What is more, the directors who revealed their personalities after the war, like Autant-Lara, Yves Allegret and René Clément, instead of taking the lead in the now-possible cinematographic renewal have become slaves of star-filled swashbuckling films (co-productions).

It was thus the critical growth of a generation of cinephiles trained at the Cinémathèque, most notably the team from the “Cahiers du Cinéma,” which would transform itself into a creative upsurge, thanks in addition to family capital. This upsurge would manifest itself in the renewal of themes dealing with the lived experience of a certain group of young people, notably in the realm of romantic relations and the general attitude towards life.

Finally, a system that placed a bonus on short films allowed these beginners to obtain a notoriety among producers which encouraged certain producers to allow them to take chances once Vadim, Malle, and Chabrol had made their breakthrough (Resnais, Kast, and Baratier, for example.)

Some small-scale producers bet heavily on the new tendencies (la Pléaide, Argos, Beauregard), and given the success at festivals or upon general release of films by the new directors other more traditional producers and distributors in their turn wager on the new formula for success.

The New Wave is becoming a publicity slogan. Despite its heterogeneity certain common tendencies can be detected, and the study by C. Bremond and E. Sullerand is interesting in this regard. But the essential tendency is this breach in a sclerotic system in crisis.

In any case, the New Wave will soon enter a crisis. There are an ever greater number of films, which is causing a logjam. The old hands of film are integrating the contents and stars of the New Wave into their films. Some of the new directors are running out of steam and are returning to the system (films of a normal cost with stars). Others are carrying out experiments that disorient the public. The New Wave, which seemed to resolve the crisis of the cinema, in fact generalizes it. The distributors no longer have sure things (directors and stars) the way they did a few years ago and no longer have a feel for their pubic. Nevertheless, with the New Wave two contradictory but complementary tendencies have manifested themselves: on the one hand a tendency towards life and more immediate truth (a kind of ne-Neo-Realism), and on the other hand a tendency towards more aestheticism, with an attraction to literature (in a kind of neo-formalism). And so a movement towards a less conventional cinema, beyond the cresting wave, is being pursued in these two sometimes combined guises.