Here at The Moviola, we will be covering Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the eighth installment, “New Waves – Sweep Around the World (1965-1969)” which premieres tonight, October 21st, at 10PM EST.
While last week’s installment focused on the cineastes gathering at cafes off the River Seine and the spark set off around Europe, this week’s episode explores the directors and film of New Waves around the world, specifically beyond Western Europe. Whereas last week tended to look more at auteurs, this week looks at various emerging national cinemas with directors “training their eyes on a new world.” The filmmakers were men and women who were raised (or born) in war time (or postwar austerity) and looked to cinema as an escape and/or an outlet for the atrocities and social incongruities that they had witnessed. From Poland to Japan, these were unhappy and unsettled creative types who used filmmaking to express their frustrations with the post-war status quo. Drawing inspiration from the films of the 1940s (Orson Welles, Italian neo-realism, and for Roman Polanski in particular, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet), the majority of the films springing up were dark, noir-like and either examined the current cultural issues at play, from race to class to national “social norms.” After enough postwar regrowth (remember, this chapter is a good 20 or more years later), new nations joined world cinema with a resurgence in national cultures finding and re-establishing their identities after World War 2.
Director and narrator Mark Cousins begins this chapter in Eastern Europe and makes his way through to Asia, Africa, Britain and ends on the New Wave in Hollywood (a precursor to New Hollywood). Cousins puts each cinema in brief albeit general context within their national culture. He starts with Eastern European cinema as a direct contrast for the French New Wave and Hollywood as these were “rebel[s] with a cause.” Generally in the 1960s, Eastern European governments were looking for overtly political films in their favor, so their filmmakers chose to examine insular social tensions (Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, see above for Polanski’s use of deep focus/Wellesian influence), criticize bureaucratic incompetence (Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball), anti-heroism in battle (Miklos Jancso’s The Red and White), and dramas laced in Soviet-deemed frivolity (Andrei Trakovsky’s films and Sergei Parajonov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors).
In Czechoslovakian cinema (this period being dubbed Czech New Wave), the filmmakers were influenced by their own cultural heritage of puppetry and used that in their filmmaking, with Jiri Trnka’s very influential, politically charged The Hand being a prime example. Even without technical puppets, the style reverberated in Czech cinema as seen in the innovative revolutionary example of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (which has a few scenes dubbed by Cousins as “the Lumiere brothers on LSD”), in which doll-like squeaking sound effects play whenever the two women (the two Mary’s) move.
Moving on from Europe into Asia, Cousins looks at the equally subversive subjects of 1960s Japanese cinema, many based off of real-life stories. Using nonfictional and/or seedier plots, films like Nagisa Oshima’s Boy, about a young boy involved in his stepmother’s scams, Shohei Imamura’s Insect Woman, about a lower class woman trying to make her way, and Imamura’s documentary History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, with a self-explanatory title, placed a harshly lit mirror on a postwar Japanese culture, in which propriety was felt to be false and it was every man, woman or child for him/herself. Drawing inspiration from Welles, (similarly seen in Polanski’s work), Japanese New Wave filmmakers used deep focus photography to fully utilize the screen with multiple plot threads, though not to the same effect as the Russian “1+1=3” (as Cousins puts it).
In Indian, Middle Eastern and African cinema, the filmmakers struggled against and with European colonization. Focusing on and speaking with Ritwik Ghatak, who was one of the seminal figures in India’s Parallel Cinema, Cousins explores the other side of Indian cinema, away from fanciful escapism and into the harsher realities of day-to-day life. Ghatak explored issues from refuges (Megha Dhaka Tara) to industrial decay (Ajantrik). In South American and African cinema, films like Glauber Rocha’s Black Devil, White God and Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl tackled race and colonialism head on, emphasizing the strength of the individuals in wrongfully dogmatic societies, criticizing the larger enforced social structures. As the founding mother of Iranian cinema, Forugh Farrokhzad focused on a leper colony as a way to explore humanity and inhumanity in The House Is Black.
Ending with the English-speaking cinemas of Britain and the United States, highlights include Cousins speaking with Ken Loach and Haskell Wexler. Both spoke about social realism onscreen, — Loach on the idea of British stories needing to be told in authentic voices (not just bringing Southern actors up North) and Wexler on the new filming concept of “fly-on-the-wall” lending to an even more in-depth, impartial storytelling in documentary. Cousins also explores the work of Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), John Cassavetes (Shadows), and Andy Warhol (Blowjob) as giving the seeds for New American Cinema, American Independent Cinema, and New Queer Cinema while mentioning the expressionist influence of the world’s general New Wave on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the impressionist on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Similar to our criticisms on the other chapters of Cousins’ Story of Film, this episode continues to feel like Cousins is trying to give us the Greatest Hits of various New Wave cinemas, speeding over certain national cinemas and lingering on others (America, in particular). He tends to focus on the headliners and their most direct influences, but without the depth of the very wide cultures or a discussion of the full dimensions of the filmmaking involved. One glaring example is the time in which Cousins took to explain Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and the Manson murders could have been used to showcase at least one more film from the Middle East, South America and South America, all woefully underrepresented (if you couldn’t tell by the above writing). What makes this all the more frustrating is that Cousins devotes the last quarter of the film to American and British cinema, which though influential should not be given longer treatment, especially considering that next week’s episode is fully devoted to “New American Cinema.”
In hopes of learning more about New Waves sweeping around the world, this episode left us with a few more films on our to-see list, but not a significant amount of insightful information about national cinemas in the 1960s that we couldn’t find in our Film 101 textbook. Considering that this week’s focus was on New Waves and national cinemas, Cousins gave us the highlights, but barely scraped the surface of international cinemas, opting to focus on the English-speaking West.