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Pondering the Jean-Luc Godard Question

Can filmmakers be dogmatic? Can a filmmaker release a manifesto and demand cinema shape up? Well, a couple have tried but we have to ask, where has it gotten them? The first manifesto came from the New Wave directors in France. Originally, writers for the “Cahiers du Cinema” magazine Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy, grew tired of the previous generations’ efforts, sumptuous period pieces and literary efforts that didn’t represent what was going on in France at the time. They wanted cinema to be more personal. Influenced by the  neo-realism of Italian cinema of the 40s and 50s, some of the New Wave directors wanted to raise the social consciousness of the film-going public. It wasn’t just any director who could achieve this conscious awakening. And the auteur was born. What aided the perpetuation of the auteur idea was the fact that technology was catching up with the filmmakers’ desire for new techniques. Using portable equipment and requiring little set-up time, the New Wave presented a documentary style of filmmaking. The films exhibited direct sound on film stock that required less light. Filming techniques included fragmented, discontinuous editing, and long takes.

The auteur theory holds that the director is the “author” of his movies, that there is a personal signature visible from film to film. They made what were then-radical cases for the artistic distinction and greatness of Hollywood studio directors, such as Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. However, naivety provides more causation than the truth. All four directors surrounded themselves with a stable of collaborators who aided in creating their signature look as much as the directors themselves. Thus, in reality, Welles, Ford, Hitchcock and Ray were more collaborators than auteurs.  

Once they attained power, like many Communists dictators, the New Wave directors largely jettisoned the ideals that swept them into power. Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut were influenced by old Hollywood, Chabrol becoming the French master of suspense and probably the most consummate of the new wave directors. Truffaut was the celebrity of the group, but never had the edge that the others did. His films would never be more than bland, even 400 Blows was average at best. Jacques Demy produced some interesting works, but nothing you would ever be at a loss for having missed. Rohmer and Resnais were the poets of the group, if you were ever in a pretentious mood, and Goddard probably the least palatable.

Goddard largely jettisoned narrative, for what reason I don’t know. His films became esoteric rhetoric about everything that was only important to him. Breathless was Goddard at his best, but even that would have never been produced without the golden boy of the New Wave, Francois Truffaut.

Then came Dogme 95.

Dogme 95 was a filmmaking movement started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who had their own ideas about how films should be made. They placed value on the traditional ideas of story, acting, and theme, and shunned elaborate special effects or technology. Below is a list from Wikipedia of the Dogme rules-

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

While admirable, rarely were Dogme films actually any good, the best probably being Kristian Levring’s The King is Alive. Once the Dogme directors were entrenched, the rules they created to get noticed suddenly became less important.

I guess my main gripe is that you don’t need rules or manifestos in cinema. The New Wave and Dogme contingents never really produced art, save for maybe Claude Chabrol. Instead, they worried more about their style, which they quickly abandoned, over their substance. Thus, they fell away from being truly important.

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Tags: Dogme 95 Francois Truffaut French New Wave Jean-Luc Goddard Retrospective

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