Not Waving... Just Drowning! Vertigo, The Bastards and the Grandchildren of Marx & Coca-Cola

By James Leahy

bande-a-part-jean-luc-godard.jpgArthur (Claude Brasseur), Odile (Anna Karina) and Franz (Sami Frey) in Bande à Part

Most of Vertigo’s editorial board cut their aesthetic teeth in the ‘60s, when Hollywood was restructuring and its sources of finance rethinking, for a time even investing abroad. Godard, Buñuel, Resnais, Rivette and others outside France were charting new potentials for narrative cinema. It seemed as if the conventions of filmic construction had been overturned, and everything become possible.

As we looked around in the mid-90s, we realized that a new generation of filmgoers was hailing certain new filmmakers with an enthusiasm comparable to that with which we had greeted the New Wave. Obviously, we could have shrugged our shoulders and said: “Sorry, kids, it’s all been done before. Forget what’s going on now... take a look at some real filmmakers... the ones around when we were young!”

The implication of Laurence Remila’s contribution to the debate (‘Godard’s Sons: Why are they all Bastards?’ Vertigo 7) is that such a response would have been desirable.

Instead, however, we chose to give space to discussions of examples of this new work. In my short introduction to the articles on Chungking Express and La Haine we had solicited from a group of younger cinéastes, I attempted to sketch in some connections between current cinema and that of the past.

Remila misreads this whole section as one extended article by a single writer pretending to the monolithic critical authority that is the antithesis of Vertigo’s multiple-review policy.

Surprisingly, in my enforced absence from the editorial and production processes which generated Issue 7, none of my colleagues saw fit to correct this error. (For the record, in the forty years I’ve been writing film criticism, I have still to deploy the adjective ‘incredible’ as a term of analytic evaluation; I did, however, use ‘extraordinary’ ironically).

Remila is obviously right to respond to the bathos of the section’s title: ‘The Children of Godard and ‘90s TV’. In Godard’s much snappier epithet (Masculin/Féminin, 1966) Coca-Cola does seem a bit of a comedown after Marx; so is cult TV is after Godard. Nevertheless billions of people drink the former and watch the latter!

I clearly rate Amateur much more highly than does Remila. My comparison here, however, was designed to be historically and stylistically precise: Bande à part (1964), not one of Godard’s more radically innovative and celebrated films. It is a personal favourite on account of its tone and atmosphere.

Robin Wood (The Films of Jean-Luc Godard) suggests their dance offers: ‘at once the illusion of togetherness and the reality of apartness’, a quality I find in Amateur and sometimes in Chungking Express.

Such memories and evocations are, of course, subjective. Obviously Remila believes they reveal that, deluded in my search for signs of artistic renewal, I’ve ended up clutching at straws.

Admittedly the ‘90s seem closer to the ‘50s than the ‘60s. However it was at the end of the ‘50s that the first green shoots of the new cinemas started to sprout through the heavy clay of traditional practice.  

Back then, it was impossible to predict how these cinemas would grow and develop, just as it is now impossible to predict how the work of such diverse talents as Wong Kar-Wai, Hal Hartly and Mathieu Kassovitz will develop, whether it will drown in the floods, or wither back into the wasteland of conformity.

Personally, I’ve found some of this new work more exciting than I’d initially expected.

I’m also comforted by the fact that a quick trawl through the archives (see quiz) demonstrates that the contemptuous tones of Remila uses to dismiss Chungking Express and Amateur often echo those used thirty or forty years ago to attack Godard and the New Wave.