Smashing time (1967), a satire film on ‘swinging london’

How New Waves of cinema kicked the ‘classic’ narrative style.

Mainly focused on the British New Wave, partially on French New Wave cinema.

The ‘New Wave’ cinema, a term coined by critics of French filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a movement influenced by Italian Realist Cinema and Classical Hollywood Cinema, who, although never a formally official gathering, they all had one thing in common; they believed the tradition needed to be undermined in order to create a new contemporary.

Francois Truffaut (centre) experimenting with style.

It was derived from documentaries of the 1950s, inspired by the 1940s work of American auteurs as well as 1849s Italian Realism and especially from the French New Wave filmmakers (such like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol) who used certain techniques to convey realism; location shots for a documentary feel, handheld cameras and with ‘real people’. Most commonly known to be a European art cinema, we must not forget other continents have their own New Wave cinema; Japanese New Wave, Serbian New Wave, Romanian New Wave, to name but a few.

The British New Wave (also known as kitchen sink dramas) filled the gap between the stiff upeer lip cinema of the 1950s and the swinging 60s which followed. It was the first time that the ordinary people live in ordinary “two up, two down”[1] houses, speaking in local accents had an oppurtunity to see their lives refelected on the big screen. The big films in Hollywood at the time were Ben-Hur (1959), William Wyler, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Otto Preminger. We were emerging from a period of rationing, there was still very much a climate of austerity. They weren’t bland adveristments for British way of life — they were rough edged, and unpolished.

Fans chasing The Beatles. Opening scene of “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

The cultural context is very particular. The development of popular culture (pop culture), teenagers, youth riots. Politics was in the air, and certainly in filmmaking. Even students, who often don’t have much of a political say, were very politicised.

Continuing on with the techniques of new wave cinema; the signifiers of locations signifty pivotal action repeated to become a truth. Place, space and location are given an importance. Namely Coronation Street (1960) which was known and characterised by it’s location — rooftops and the back of chimneys. As John Hill argued; “Place rather than action assumes importance.”[2] However V.F. Perkins doesn’t agree when he talks about locations and the use of space. He says that these can have a negative effect to keeping the authenticity of the subject matter;

“Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger and Clayton.. are constantly obliged to ‘establish’ place with inserted shots which serve only to strengthen our conviction that the setting.. has no organic connection with the characters.”[3]

I can see Perkins’ point as the locations’ details have no direct effect to the characters’ experiences in it, it’s ultimately the director’s love for the surroundings. The stories could essentially be told from within a studio environment. However, I think this argument is a little less fruitful.

‘Free Cinema’ was a film movement that progressed into the new wave. Filmmakers Karel Reisz, Lindsey Anderson and Tony Richarson made and screened short films in the hope of chaning the status quo. Alike the term ‘Swinging 60s’ or ‘Swinging Britian’, the term Free Cinema ‘was a way of grouping disparate forces’.[4] This mainly came from plays of John Osbourne notably ‘Look Back in Anger’ and ‘The Entertainer’ which were mainly produced from the Royal Court Theatre. Free Cinema’s intent was to show working class lives as they actually were, and rebel against stiff upper lip films which were the dominant. They created films that dealt with social situations, that before has not been visualised. The documentaries which are considered to be part of this movement include; Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Richardson’s The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Anderson’s The Sporting Life (1963). These films all showing, for the first time the working class of Britian and more specifically ‘swinging London’. In London, as opposed to rural England, characters were more affluent and confident, yet still had the same problems as before; unhappy marraiges, excessive drinking, secret affairs, unplanned pregnancies, and barroom brawls. These filmmakers were interested in real issues; cultural issues and in particular the human values of the social issues and how these could be mediated through the camera. Also, they were strong advocates of the filmmaker’s freedom to express his/her personal views through a film, “no film can be too personal”, insisted the first manifesto — of the commitment of the filmmakers as a vocal social commentator. [5]

These films were explosive. The plots candidly dealt with the problems facing it’s working class anti-heroes; unhappy marraiges, excessive drinking, secret affairs, unplanned pregnancies, barroom brawls, generation gap. It must be said that these films have a distinction between documentary and journalism. These films could do something journalism couldn’t do.

Fishtank (2009)

This can be seen in Fishtank (2009), Andrea Arnold, which tells the story of a 15 year old teenager, Mia and how everything changes for her when her mother brings home a new boyfriend. Set in Essex housing estate, Mia lives with her mother and prematurely developed little sister Tyler. Thrown out of school and spending her days aimlessly as she waits for admission to a referral unit. She engages in a disturbed friendship with her mother, Joanne’s boyfriend, Connor. Connor, however, helps Mia follow her dream, dancing.

The way in which the director had fed the script to the actors was an interesting one. I attended a talk with the producer of Fishtank, Kees Kasander[6], and in it he spoke about the way in which the script was given to the actors. The film was shot chronologically, and so the actors were only shown the part of the script they would be filming the later weeks. None of them knew what the future held for their characters. This technique is one quite different to that of ‘classic’ filmmaking; allowing the actors to read the entire script, sometimes even before they’re cast for roles. To relay, further the notion of reality some actors were encouraged to compromise lines although most stuck to the script since the films are known for provocative dialogue. Filmmaking today, mainly adopts the ‘classic’ method of letting the actors read the entire script, however the method used by Arnold in Fishtank is also used, somewhat, in filmmaking today.

Directed by Karel Reisz and produced by Tony Richardson, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was nothing short of a revelation when it was first shown. Not only because of it’s realistic elements, but for it’s portrayal of sex, extra- marital affairs, strong language, and, most contentious of all, abortion.

On the success of Fish Tank, Kasander said;

“You never know who your audience is before you start. Was it the right film at the right time? Nobody knows.”

This quote essentially sums up the brunt challenge that faced British New Wave filmmakers. Was the topic of the film suited to viewing on the big screen? Was the story that these filmmakers were telling valid? The filmmakers certainly had courage and determination.

For mainstream classic cinema, it’s usually ‘natural causes’ (floods earthquakes) or societal causes (wars, economic depression etc.) may cause as the determinant or preconditions for the actions. However in these films in Britian, the catalyst of the story is almost always the individual, and their consqeunces and/or rewards of their actions, rather than social groups or collectives.

The French New Wave broke down cinematic conventions with just as much vigor but in a very different style. In his film ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ Jean Luc Godard set out to assault film making itself. The way in which he would introduce and drop a character with such ease, the way in which his films were edited with wrenching jump cuts (not just to advance the storyline, but to save film stock), essentially chucking in flashes of primary colours and having actors talk directly to the camera. Which all contrubuted to highly stylized pieces of groundbreaking art.

Pierrot Le Fou, Jean Luc Godard (1965)

Overall, the New Wave cinema movement rejected the idea of the traditional story in the sense of ‘Classic Hollywood’, which were mainly narrative based with structures from earlier books and theatre. The new wave filmmakers did not hold your hand through the film. They wanted to break up the narrative with a jolting experience to make it youthful and stimulating. To make viewers think, not only about what exactly it is that they are watching, but their own lives, and their own emotions. The object was not just to entertain, but mainly to communicate.

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