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Make Me "Breathless:" Cinematography and the French New Wave


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#1 Jeff Norman

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Posted 12 September 2012 - 02:42 AM

I have been a fanatic about film for years, in particular La Nouvelle Vague (Truffaut, Resnais, etc.) Yet tonight marked my first viewing of the film that arguably instigated the entire movement, A bout de souffle, or Breathless. The title says it all -- discussing the absolute gorgeousness of aesthetic and meaning in this film depletes my oxygen supply and gets me all choked up.

I'm a relatively new filmmaker who's just entered a long line of New Wave admirers; I can make out Tarantino and Scorsese's silhouettes at the top of the queue. Though loving this cinematic movement isn't new, it is extremely rare for young people today (born in 1985 or later) to even know what the New Wave was, let alone appreciate it. I guess i'm just a little different.

The films of Godard and company have shot happy juice through my veins (in spite of their bleaker themes of alienation and existential meaninglessness). I want to make films. I want to make my own "Breathless" and leave viewers just that -- gasping for air.

I have a series of questions that I SPECIFICALLY wanted to pose to you expert cinematographers, as a personal mastery of the visual image for emotional and intellectual purposes is what (at least to me) helps to describe the New Wave phenomenon. Please answer one or as many as you'd like. This budding filmmaker will be forever grateful!


- from a cinematographic standpoint, what truly pops about the New Wave? (beyond the basics: jump cuts, hand-held cam, etc. Something really in-depth!)
- Many people pooh-pooh film criticism as a sheer waste of time for filmmakers. Yet Truffaut and Godard were extraordinary film critics and attained great influence via Les Cahiers du Cinema BEFORE their films turned the world on it's ear. My question is: what is the relationship between criticism, cinematography, and beautiful films?
- is there ANY hope of a NEW New Wave launching in today's cinema landscape?
- Yes, film is dying and the DSLR's have democratized the moviemaking process. But those cameras are NOT film, no matter how many tricks are employed to make audiences feel otherwise! Besides just watching New Wave Films over and over again, what can the new generation of filmmakers do to push the art's boundaries and create new film grammar?
- What about the French New Wave should every filmmaker know by heart? (the cameras / lenses used, the delicacy of the camera work, character > plot, etc.)

I know these are some heady questions. But "Breathless" is a heady film. And I KNOW that you outstanding film artists reading this can relate to the burst of passion and excitement that emerges from the experience of a great movie.

Excuse me while I find an oxygen tank and come back down to Earth!
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#2 Pat Murray

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Posted 13 September 2012 - 06:53 AM

The biggest aspect of Nouvelle Vague for me is the deconstruction of convetional American film narratives.

The beauty is the location. Visit Paris and the French countryside and you'll see what I mean.

Edited by Pat Murray, 13 September 2012 - 06:54 AM.

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#3 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 14 September 2012 - 05:04 AM

I'll give it a try, although I'm not sure how long and thorough these replies will be.

Re: The New Wave cinematography - It's impossible to determine a "New Wave method", at least as far as cinematography is concerned. That is because The New Wave is not defined by a set of specific rules and guidelines, but rather by the absence of them. The New Wave was more groundbreaking in how it approached producing, than cinematography or sound.

It's about breaking all the rules, that were considered boring and outdated.

So basically, if you go out and shoot some guy walking on a street with very little equipment, use actual by-standers as extras, and don't really care about who's going to stare straight into your lens and what's going to happen, break all the rules in the book, you're doing New Wave cinematography.

Some common traits can be identified, but more about the subject (young people craving freedom, in contemporary, urban areas) then the technique (although hand-held shots were very common in New Wave films, I think that it was just another consequence of wanting to shoot with little to no equipment).

The choice in cameras, lenses, etc. was entirely up to every single filmmaker and depended on what was available at the time. Godard's films don't look like Chabrol's films. There was no method. Only the will to be freed from all rules and distance themselves from the past.



Re: Criticism / cinematography and beautiful films. I'm not really sure what you were getting at with this question, because I think it's obvious that there is no rule here. Film critics are supposed to be film lovers (for their sake, I hope they are). I guess watching thousands of films gave them a larger perspective on what exactly were the medium's limitations at the time, and examples of how they could perhaps break through those limitations.


Re: Any hope of a new New Wave : Clearly, no. The ambition of the New Wave was to deconstruct filmmaking to its bare essence. It's been done. And we've reached a point in filmmaking history where the medium's possibilities are so advanced, so endless, that the chances of seeing a group of filmmakers coming up with a radically different approach to anything that's ever been done before are close to none. I would say the American Mumblecore is as close as we'll ever get to a second New Wave, and it's not nearly as new or thought-provoking as the New Wave was.


Re: What can today's filmmakers do to push the medium's boundaries - That's a tough question, because of what I just mentioned. With the arrival of digital technologies and our thorough knowledge of the medium, we are close to ultimate freedom. How do you go beyond that? It's safe to say that everything that could be done with the medium has been done. To move past it, the medium itself has to evolve. But is it really important to push the boundaries? I have a big gripe with the New Wave mentalities, especially Godard's. They sometimes sounded an awful lot like what is commonly referred to as "hipsters" today. And they made certain things for the sake of making them differently, rather than making them interesting. And look at Godard's films today. He too has become a slave to his own principles.

The real question could be : Do you really feel limited as an artist by today's techniques? Do you really feel that the medium is pulling you back in any way?


Re: What about the New Wave should every filmmaker know? - In short, the auteur mentality. The value of the filmmaker's vision. That's what the New Wave really brought to the table. Before that, it was felt that cinema had reached its potential, and more and more films were becoming a cool way to shoot theatre plays. Filmmakers were getting entangled in their rules and codes.

What the New Wave taught us - I think - is that we should not be slaves to the medium. You don't have to shoot a certain scene in a certain way just because it's what is considered appropriate. Value your identity as an original filmmaker. The story, cameras, lenses, equipment that you are using are not what matters at the end of the day. Only your vision, what you want to accomplish as an artist through your film matters. How you do that is entirely up to you, and there are no rules or limitations you should comply to.

Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 14 September 2012 - 05:07 AM.

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