It’s Time for “The American New Wave”

Jean-Luc Godard once brought unparalleled innovation to movie-making in the midst of traditional mindsets. In 2020, the world is primed for a new cinematic revolution.

The Coronavirus has shifted nearly all aspects of public life to a projected “New Normal”. The film industry is not free of these unfortunate projections. The 2020s will likely defined by an increase in the home-theater model, a monopolization of current theaters by the “roller coaster movie” genre of Superhero and Sci-Fi movies, and an exponential increase of TV being the new mainstay in screen entertainment. What I see being discussed about less is the future content of movies in the coming decade. I am positing a massive shift in the way stories are told, as America should embrace existentialism and self-awareness in trends that haven’t been profoundly seen in over 60 years.

This is one of those scenes that every film school student is shown, from the movie Breathless (Godard, 1960). This movie is regarded as a definitive establishing work in The French New Wave. Note the hand-held cinematography, the semblance of a dutch angle and the glaring use of jump cuts to increase pacing.

Although my fellow film super-nerds probably know what I’m talking about, let me explain. At the tail end of the 1950s, France’s post-War flourishing began to experience a cultural shift away from standardized norms of “high culture”, much of which was influenced by less-conventional filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock. A number of young, ambitious directors, namely Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Cabral, and Francoise Truffault, began creating films who’s subject matter and narrative formats completely spat in the face of film standards that were deemed doctrinal by directors and studios of the time (a characteristically French attitude, I may add). What followed was quite literally revolutionary: long-take shots as if shot on a stage were completely absent. Hand-held camera work was common. Jump cuts made their first appearances. Out-of-the blue, non-sequitur humor, and breaking the fourth wall became mainstay. Existential themes, fueled intensely by the emerging works of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, trounced pre-existing tropes. Moreover, because many of these films were created on low-budgets, they were released rapidly in succession, and the theaters were fire-hosed with these films. Once these New Wave attributes made their first notable appearance in the American film Bonnie and Clyde, the entire course of cinema changed for good.

Masculin-Feminin (Godard, 1966) is regarded as a quintessential film in the French New Wave. It epitomized the yet-uncommon practice of using the shot, set, and other nonverbal cues to tell the audience its story.

Does this history sound fairly relevant to the modern state of movies? It certainly does for me. Society is primed for a resurgence in a similar trend from a production standpoint, if we aren’t already there. With theaters in collapse, Disney’s big-budget “roller-coaster movies” (a-la Martin Scorsese) will likely monopolize whatever screens are still available for public film consumption. The expedited move to streaming services will likely provide a more lucrative opportunity for aspiring young filmmakers to create smaller-scaled movies for mass consumption. While this has already occurred fairly visibly via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (etc.) originals, I think the gap between “YouTuber” and “Filmmaker” will be bridged far more notably, as the demand for home entertainment will necessitate more financially-lucrative film-making opportunities through streaming services. This is a prime (pun intended) environment to create experimental works that shy away from giant explosions and excessive CGI. Widely praised “art-house” works such as Twin Peaks: The Return and The Lighthouse, as well as self-awareness in big productions such as Thor: Ragnarok are subtle but predominant indicators that audiences are ready and craving for the unique and bizarre.

While a shift in methods of film consumption and variety in stylistics is important, the most indicative changes will likely result from states of mind during this Coronavirus pandemic. This is where my theories become entirely speculative as our current societal conditions are unknown territory. One thing is certain: with all of Hollywood forced to stay home and 36 million Americans jobless, there is certainly a lot of thinking to be done. Absent of work, I am certain that intense self-reflection will lead to existential crisis en masse, if it isn’t prevalent enough already. Audiences, now being told they are “non-essential”, or realizing that the thousands they’ve payed in tuition is worthless, or having lost family members to the disease, or being unable to control any aspects of their lives, will be starving for escapism that doesn’t shy away from commiserating with their woes. Directors, producers, and actors are probably dealing with their own mode of self-induced crisis. With financial issues being less likely an issue for many big names, I can easily see these people reflecting upon their own fame, their own quality of work, and whether or not what they contribute to society matters. At the very least, they are all undoubtedly becoming very open and aware to the issues that matter most outside of their niche spheres. This understanding must be communicated with studio executives, many of whom could easily be fairly indifferent to the problems that working class citizens face.

Also from Masculin Feminin is this perfect example of self-conscious humor that is characteristically French. I expect we’ll see more dialogue such as this in future Hollywood productions.

Hollywood can continue making their popcorn flicks as the pedestal of American entertainment. It is, after all, the most considerable form of escapism that has hit the screen. This isn’t the best that the industry can give. At the very least, I believe these films should capitalize more on the few moments where they’ve commiserated with real modern issues, or showed moments of humanism. What I hope will happen instead is a proper reflection on how The French New Wave changed film forever, the greatest message from this movement being “screw the status quo”. Along with experimentation in narrative style should be a great sense in depth on an existential level. This doesn’t have to necessitate strictly dark content, as I’m sure comedy and levity can be derived from this content. The demand, however, is there, and the sooner filmmakers, actors, and studios realize this, the better the entire industry is able to evolve. Combined with heightened creativity in storytelling my optimizing visual and audio cues, I think large-scale cinema and TV can experience revolutionary storytelling innovation that hasn’t been seen in decades.

Big budget action is nearly devoid of humanism, but not entirely neglectful of it. More moments of commiseration with love, death, and sense of worth are in high demand. It’s time we make this kind of content the standard for cinema.