Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fisking Adam Thirlwell

Where to start? At the beginning. Or not quite: the first sentence just about holds up. 'In 1967, André Labarthe filmed a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang.' The second is trickier but passable. 'It was called The Dinosaur and the Baby.' Labarthe's film was called that, not the conversation. 'Godard, along with François Truffaut, was then at the head of the new tendency in French film, the Nouvelle Vague.' No. Eight years before Truffaut and Godard had part of what had been a new tendency. By 1967 it was all over.

This is pendantry, of course, but Thirlwell's style calls for that. His erudition, such as it is in these matters, seems to be lightly worn, and if occasionally he makes weird (kind of Martin Amis-y?) interjections -- 'But youth is elusive. Youth is complicated.' -- we can count them as stylistic flourishes, a form of phatic speech. Everything is transparent, everything clicks together. Except, as above, it doesn't.

The style, which he shows no sign of giving up on, is 'deceptively simple'. The more confidently and simply something is stated, the greater, or at least more annoying, the deception. 'The Nouvelle Vague put cinema into the street'; 'Bazin's two heroes were Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini'; the protests around the sacking of Langlois 'culminated in the May évènements' (someone's been watching The Dreamers); 'The essayistic tendency was patented by Godard'.

It's the last quotation that's perhaps most damaging, since the whole essay is based on the misconception that the nouvelle vague comprised only the filmmakers who started out at Cahiers. In that respect and others it's a very old-fashioned piece: in other quarters, 2009 seems to be the year the 'Left Bank Group', which included the real pioneers of the essay-film, finally gets its due. Thirlwell instead tells us the story about Godard not directing Bonnie and Clyde for the umpteenth time.

The simplicity is misleading in other ways too, simply because reality is elusive. Reality is complicated. So when Thirlwell says 'The Nouvelle Vague, so canonical, so assured of its own history, was really the joyful experiment of a few excitable friends,' we have to be prepared to be told later that it 'believed in a utopian politics, constantly trying to invent new means of cinematic production.' Neither assertion is true, though at least the second acknowledges that the nouvelle vague depended on harnessing the 'means of cinematic production' and that this was not always joyful. (I don't know what 'so canonical' is meant to signify here.)

For the Nouvelle Vague was truly young - the directors' experiments remain contemporary. They are still a shock. And their lesson is delight.


How 'young' are Rohmer's films, how 'delightful' Chabrol's? Nonsense. How, after all this memorialization and hero-worship, its mythology accreted over decades, is the nouvelle vague a shock to anyone?

1 comment:

Raw Patrick said...

c/u more articles w/the Eva Green tag rlly.