To Ponder – The New Wave, Modern or Postmodern?

I have pondered before whether the French New Wave was perhaps when Modernism hit film, after it hit literature in the 1920s…there still might be some things to support that, but having now seen a few more Jean-Luc Godard films, it’s clear he’s very much postmodern in his reappropriation of earlier film, hugely self-conscious techniques, etc. I’m working on a paper comparing Modernism to Postmodernism in the literary sphere, and the more I read about, the more I think that in a way, Modern vs. Postmodern is a mindset, almost…there were writers doing Postmodern things in the 1920s, and there were Modernist writers in the 1960s–certainly I’m having trouble believing that Postmodernism is as much a rejection of Modernism as Postmodernists would like us to think; it seems to me much more an extension and enlarging than a rejection. Anyway, here’s my new pondering: Is it possible that François Truffaut, with his detached yet subjective philosophical realism which owes more to the high art Italian Neorealism than it does to American B cinema, is the Modernist side of the New Wave and Godard, with his self-reflexivity and dependence on intertextual tropes from low-art crime film, is the Postmodern side? I’m not sure that wholly holds up, either…I’m about to rewatch Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, which is more heavily influenced by American genre film. This pondering is stemming from the differences between The 400 Blows (Truffaut’s first and arguably most important film) and Breathless (Godard’s equivalent masterpiece).

  • Very interesting. I’ve never fully questioned whether or not individual filmmakers in the Nouvelle Vague were in fact Post-Modern directors. JLG and Rivette for sure are Post-Modernists. Truffaut is hard to judge. His first three films are Modernist — in my opinion, of course — and while his later attempts to pay stylistic homage to Hitchcock might be considered Post-Modern, they aren’t actually any good, which in this case I think should be a qualifier.

    But you bring up an interesting point, that one’s interest in low-art crime or Hollywood B cinema makes him a Post-Modernist. I’m curious if you felt that someone like Godard’s fascination with the genre was a genuine one. I’ve had a hard time buying that his obsession with imitating low-art was no more than an attempt to appear less nerdy, and more cool among audiences — much like how Tarantino is today. There’s no doubt that Tarantino is a fan of Godard, yet clearly loving 1960s French art cinema is not the image Tarantino wants to have — hence his hammering down our throats how much he loves crap exploitation. With respect to Godard, I wonder if he too felt the need to hide his interest in Dreyer or Antonioni by constantly showing us how much he loved the “cool” American B films. So, it may just be a coincidence that the post-modern French filmmakers of the 60s also showed an interest in genre cinema, rather than this fascination being the pièce de résistance of what qualifies someone as Post-Modern.

    Though it’s funny that you’ve just posted on this, since I’ve recently been having this conversation with friends about French filmmakers as well. I’ve had a hard time trying to classify Tati, Melville, Resnais, Demy, and Bresson as either Modernist or Post-Modernist. I fear the line is hazier than I would like it to be.

    • Luis Fernando Imperator

      It’s surreal to respond to an 12-year-old comment, but you sparkled an amazing insight: “I’ve had a hard time buying that his obsession with imitating low-art was no more than an attempt to appear less nerdy, and more cool among audiences — much like how Tarantino is today.” Thank you

  • Very interesting. I’ve never fully questioned whether or not individual filmmakers in the Nouvelle Vague were in fact Post-Modern directors. JLG and Rivette for sure are Post-Modernists. Truffaut is hard to judge. His first three films are Modernist — in my opinion, of course — and while his later attempts to pay stylistic homage to Hitchcock might be considered Post-Modern, they aren’t actually any good, which in this case I think should be a qualifier.

    But you bring up an interesting point, that one’s interest in low-art crime or Hollywood B cinema makes him a Post-Modernist. I’m curious if you felt that someone like Godard’s fascination with the genre was a genuine one. I’ve had a hard time buying that his obsession with imitating low-art was no more than an attempt to appear less nerdy, and more cool among audiences — much like how Tarantino is today. There’s no doubt that Tarantino is a fan of Godard, yet clearly loving 1960s French art cinema is not the image Tarantino wants to have — hence his hammering down our throats how much he loves crap exploitation. With respect to Godard, I wonder if he too felt the need to hide his interest in Dreyer or Antonioni by constantly showing us how much he loved the “cool” American B films. So, it may just be a coincidence that the post-modern French filmmakers of the 60s also showed an interest in genre cinema, rather than this fascination being the pièce de résistance of what qualifies someone as Post-Modern.

    Though it’s funny that you’ve just posted on this, since I’ve recently been having this conversation with friends about French filmmakers as well. I’ve had a hard time trying to classify Tati, Melville, Resnais, Demy, and Bresson as either Modernist or Post-Modernist. I fear the line is hazier than I would like it to be.

  • filmbo, thanks for the comment. I must admit that I’m not as familiar with most of the New Wave directors as yourself (I just flipped over and read through some of your entries), so I can’t really judge whether Godard’s interest in “low-art” American films was genuine. My reason for thinking that the New Wave in general was fascinated with American genre film is the amount of time that the Cahier du Cinema writers who became New Wave directors spent showing its value. I always find it fascinating that the writers who championed what most critics thought to be throw-away B movies ended up making, essentially, art films…perhaps Tarantino is merely reversing the tendency? (Also, I tend to think Tarantino is pretty nerdy, but I also don’t consider that a bad thing.)

    As far as seeing it as specifically Postmodern, I tend to find more connections than dissonances between Modernism and Postmodernism (for example, Godard’s play with audio and soundtrack in Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman could be considered an extension of Modernist experimentation with language), but the high-art/low-art divide is a definite difference, as is the appropriation of other disparate works from all sorts of sources (filmic, literary, musical, artistic). One book I skimmed the other day suggested that if the slogan of Modernism was “Make it new,” the slogan of Postmodernism is “Make it used.” I think that’s too simple, but it’s at least easy to remember.

    What would you say are the elements that make Godard (and Rivette, but I haven’t seen any Rivette films) Postmodern? I think I would categorize Resnais as Postmodern, but I’d need to rewatch his films with the question in mind. The others, yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure that every filmmaker (or every writer) can be classified as either Modernist or Postmodernist; somehow the labels are more than just artistic schools, but they’re also not all-encompassing. And as you’ve said, the line is hazy, because the definitions are hazy–which I hope is going to make the paper I’m writing interesting rather than muddled. ;)

  • filmbo, thanks for the comment. I must admit that I’m not as familiar with most of the New Wave directors as yourself (I just flipped over and read through some of your entries), so I can’t really judge whether Godard’s interest in “low-art” American films was genuine. My reason for thinking that the New Wave in general was fascinated with American genre film is the amount of time that the Cahier du Cinema writers who became New Wave directors spent showing its value. I always find it fascinating that the writers who championed what most critics thought to be throw-away B movies ended up making, essentially, art films…perhaps Tarantino is merely reversing the tendency? (Also, I tend to think Tarantino is pretty nerdy, but I also don’t consider that a bad thing.)

    As far as seeing it as specifically Postmodern, I tend to find more connections than dissonances between Modernism and Postmodernism (for example, Godard’s play with audio and soundtrack in Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman could be considered an extension of Modernist experimentation with language), but the high-art/low-art divide is a definite difference, as is the appropriation of other disparate works from all sorts of sources (filmic, literary, musical, artistic). One book I skimmed the other day suggested that if the slogan of Modernism was “Make it new,” the slogan of Postmodernism is “Make it used.” I think that’s too simple, but it’s at least easy to remember.

    What would you say are the elements that make Godard (and Rivette, but I haven’t seen any Rivette films) Postmodern? I think I would categorize Resnais as Postmodern, but I’d need to rewatch his films with the question in mind. The others, yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure that every filmmaker (or every writer) can be classified as either Modernist or Postmodernist; somehow the labels are more than just artistic schools, but they’re also not all-encompassing. And as you’ve said, the line is hazy, because the definitions are hazy–which I hope is going to make the paper I’m writing interesting rather than muddled. ;)

  • You may be right, but I tend to look at Godard’s play with audio as Postmodern. If Modernism shows that reality is subjective, then Postmodernism shows us how it is so. In the case of A Woman is a Woman, Godard seems to be calling attention to the artist’s process at creating his/her reality, which in this case is the use of sound. Of course, this all assumes that this distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism is correct. Do you also find that the definitions for these change each year?

    Elements that make Godard Postmodern? Like you said, he makes things used such as certain genres (musical, crime, science-fiction) or a director’s style (Rossellini in Breathless, Antonioni in Contempt, Tati in Keep Your Right Up). He also calls attention to his own process to show their subjectivity, either by making each element of cinema the subject (editing, sound, color, narrative) or through metaphors (watching the Stones’ decisions in One Plus One, watching Lang’s and Piccoli’s decisions in Contempt) or maybe even both at the same time (orchestral rehearsals in Prenom: Carmen). Though be forewarned that I am far from a scholar and these theories may not be correct.

    As for Rivette, he’s just as interested in a process instead of an outcome, though he’s a bit more subtle. His films are about reading into things, at times literally about the meaning behind the used objects of secret societies or the subtext of a work of art — and these often become one and the same. His films also are about the process of creation and imagination where characters create their own reality, sometimes to the point where their subjective world becomes reality. But unlike Godard, Rivette never really calls attention to the camera or the editing in the same deconstructive manner, but I think they are both equally playful. If you haven’t found Celine and Julie Go Boating yet, it’s worth every penny you’ll need to spend for a used VHS copy online.

    Resnais is hard to classify. I haven’t seen too many of his films, but of the ones I have seen, I think Hiroshima and Muriel would be Modern, while Marienbad would be Postmodern, but this is simply based on the level of experimentation for each film, and they may not even be valid classifications. The two Moderns have a distinct political agenda, which seems to define the “subjective reality” perfectly (or at least how I have defined it). Whereas Marienbad, both a reshaping of a sci-fi novel and an essay on hyperreality, feels just too playful to be simply Modern. I’ll need to see this again when Rialto rereleases it theatrically later this year. My only viewing of it was on the out-of-print Fox Lorber disc, and it was before I had really trekked into 1960s French cinema.

  • You may be right, but I tend to look at Godard’s play with audio as Postmodern. If Modernism shows that reality is subjective, then Postmodernism shows us how it is so. In the case of A Woman is a Woman, Godard seems to be calling attention to the artist’s process at creating his/her reality, which in this case is the use of sound. Of course, this all assumes that this distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism is correct. Do you also find that the definitions for these change each year?

    Elements that make Godard Postmodern? Like you said, he makes things used such as certain genres (musical, crime, science-fiction) or a director’s style (Rossellini in Breathless, Antonioni in Contempt, Tati in Keep Your Right Up). He also calls attention to his own process to show their subjectivity, either by making each element of cinema the subject (editing, sound, color, narrative) or through metaphors (watching the Stones’ decisions in One Plus One, watching Lang’s and Piccoli’s decisions in Contempt) or maybe even both at the same time (orchestral rehearsals in Prenom: Carmen). Though be forewarned that I am far from a scholar and these theories may not be correct.

    As for Rivette, he’s just as interested in a process instead of an outcome, though he’s a bit more subtle. His films are about reading into things, at times literally about the meaning behind the used objects of secret societies or the subtext of a work of art — and these often become one and the same. His films also are about the process of creation and imagination where characters create their own reality, sometimes to the point where their subjective world becomes reality. But unlike Godard, Rivette never really calls attention to the camera or the editing in the same deconstructive manner, but I think they are both equally playful. If you haven’t found Celine and Julie Go Boating yet, it’s worth every penny you’ll need to spend for a used VHS copy online.

    Resnais is hard to classify. I haven’t seen too many of his films, but of the ones I have seen, I think Hiroshima and Muriel would be Modern, while Marienbad would be Postmodern, but this is simply based on the level of experimentation for each film, and they may not even be valid classifications. The two Moderns have a distinct political agenda, which seems to define the “subjective reality” perfectly (or at least how I have defined it). Whereas Marienbad, both a reshaping of a sci-fi novel and an essay on hyperreality, feels just too playful to be simply Modern. I’ll need to see this again when Rialto rereleases it theatrically later this year. My only viewing of it was on the out-of-print Fox Lorber disc, and it was before I had really trekked into 1960s French cinema.

  • april

    Alright I got you all fixed up…the British accent really moved me.

  • april

    Alright I got you all fixed up…the British accent really moved me.