Saturday, September 08, 2007

Zabriskie Point—When Will New Wave Cinema Live Again?

Zabriskie Point
(1970, Michelangelo Antonioni, USA)

This is what it's all about. This is one of those rare trailers that captures the magic of the incredible film itself. It's unfortunate that this film isn't available on DVD yet. Very occasionally it has played on the big screen here in L.A., which is how I was fortunate enough to see it (twice). (Thank you to the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre and to the LACMA film department.) If you're desperate to see it, there is a VHS version, but it's panned & scanned, which is of course a horrible injustice to the widescreen 2.35 image, but hey, at least the amazing film can be seen.

When considering the gap in quality between filmmaking today and the filmmaking of other decades, this one film starkly illustrates the gaping chasm. I think you can tell even just by the trailer. It's firstly a work by one of the great European filmmakers, but, having been made in America, it also represents the era of late '60s, '70s American filmmaking—the belated New Wave that hit these shores long after the New Waves of France, Japan and other countries—that is conveniently summarized for the uninitiated in Peter Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (although start by watching the films themselves, many of which are listed at the back of the book).

American films of the '70s seemed to be elevated almost wholesale by the heady atmosphere of creativity and the freshness of these "New Wave" approaches, all tied to and amplified by the zeitgeist of the times. Even filmmakers with less than stunning talent glommed on to the movement and produced pretty interesting films, while the truly great filmmakers thrived (Robert Altman being perhaps the most prodigious example). The lesser filmmakers become easier to spot (if you couldn't tell that something was lacking in their '70s films) by their swift adoption of the conventions and tendencies of the subsequent decades.

It's already obvious why this blog is called Cahiers2Cinéma: it's a vain hope that something approaching what was started in the original Cahiers du Cinéma magazine (the breeding ground of the French New Wave) could ever occur again. Has anyone read Eisenstein's incredible Film Form? Since it won't do to attempt a filmic revolution by too specifically attempting to repeat the past, perhaps starting fresh with some of the deepest thinking on film will point a new way. Maybe the New Waves of the '60s and '70s didn't go far enough.

Of course, there are great films being made even now, and there are master filmmakers working, as always, but it is undeniable that a movement akin to these New Waves is not remotely in existence, nor is there a widespread awareness of and engagement with overtly artistic films by audiences. The arthouse film circuit (and the arthouse crowds themselves), which should be where this is all happening, especially at times when it doesn't ooze into the mainstream, is itself bereft, and with few exceptions wallows in an unambitious Sundance-poisoned mediocrity.

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