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New Wave, New Hollywood, New Morality

New Wave, New Hollywood, New Morality

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘A Man for All Seasons’ portray crime and holiness, respectively. The year the bank-robber drama was released, the true story of St. Thomas More dominated the Oscars. (photo: Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures)

COMMENTARY: How an obscure French film journal changed the course of U.S. history — and how a 1966 classic about St. Thomas More highlights what was lost.

It could be argued that an obscure French publication changed not just the way in which films would come to be made but also played a part in shaping American culture and social attitudes — and by extension the world we live in today.

In April 1951 a group of impoverished French cinephiles, unable to raise the capital to make films, were forced to write about cinema instead. To this end, they started a journal called Cahiers du Cinéma (“Notebooks on Cinema”).

During the decade following the launch of the publication, the likes of future film directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol would decry, debate and disagree about the existing film canon. Perhaps more importantly, they would also decide on the new directions cinema should take in both style and substance. In and through cinema, Cahiers du Cinéma would propose a new way of viewing reality, influenced by philosophical schools as different as Personalism and Marxism.

By the end of the 1950s, many of the young writers for Cahiers du Cinéma had started making films. By the late 1950s, many of these new filmmakers were winning prizes. Their so-called “art house” movies drew small audiences at first, but that was not the point. What these new directors had managed to do was to strike a chord with a new, young and educated audience. What had been captured on screen was something of the spirit then abroad: one that refused to accept traditional mores as fixed and at the same time proposed new alternative ways of living.

In contrast, by the 1960s, Hollywood was in steep decline. In the previous decade, its once staid, if effective, studio system had begun to fall apart. But perhaps more alarmingly for Hollywood executives, television had arrived across the United States and elsewhere, breaking cinema’s monopoly on visual entertainment for the masses.

Hollywood studios in the 1950s and early ’60s had tried to compete with this new technology by films becoming “bigger” (Cinemascope), “brighter” (Technicolor) and more epic than television. What these film producers had not factored in, however, was that size of screen was no substitute for the art of storytelling — that spectacle alone was never enough. As a result, at the start of the 1960s, many films were indeed bigger and brighter, but also bombastic.

The French New Wave began with filmmakers who had had to become journalists first. What would bring about a very different Hollywood began with two East Coast journalists who wanted to write screenplays.

Fittingly, David Newman and Robert Benton met while working in the early 1960s at Esquire at a time when that magazine would pioneer what would be termed New Journalism. While there, Benton and Newman began work on a screenplay about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, leaders of a Depression-era robbery gang. Remarkably, the first draft of the script was passed to one of the emerging elite of French Cinema, Godard. Initially, he agreed to direct the movie. Eventually, however, the Frenchman dropped it. As he did so, the film fell to a fledging Hollywood actor, not quite then a big name, Warren Beatty, who got Arthur Penn to direct his film.

The initial drafts of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were heavily influenced by the French New Wave in general and by one film in particular: Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961). Not surprisingly, therefore, the first draft of Bonnie and Clyde was as explicit in its violence and sexual content as European films had become. Too much so even for the new star and producer, Beatty, who had some of the elements toned down. Unusually for the time, Beatty not only wanted to star in the film but also to produce it.

By 1966, Bonnie and Clyde was in production on location in Texas. The following year, on Aug. 14, it was released to U.S. movie audiences. From the start, Bonnie and Clyde was to divide film critics. This difference of opinion was more than just about whether the film was any good. By those who lauded the film, those who decried it were seen as “reactionary,” blamed for not perceiving the subtle criticisms of contemporary society contained within it.

The film’s use of excessive violence, not seen before in mainstream Hollywood, was excused by its admirers as “realistic,” the sexual explicitness similarly admired. The critics who queried the folk-hero status granted to murderous bank robbers were told that they had missed the point. Soon it was becoming clear that Bonnie and Clyde and its reception were about more than simply artistic differences.

Simultaneously, another era was ending. The real “victim” of Bonnie and Clyde’s seemingly never-ending stream of on-screen bullets was Hollywood’s Production Code. Self-regulation had been with Hollywood since the 1920s. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, among others, this regulation was codified in the 1930s. A proscriptive list of what could and could not form on screen subject matter followed for movies desiring the seal of approval from what was to come to be known as the Production Code.

For decades, without the Production Code’s approval, widespread distribution was all but impossible for Hollywood film producers. However, by the 1960s’ the code, which had been under pressure throughout the 1950s, was starting to look redundant. By the 1960s, more explicit European films were shown regularly in American movie theaters, with Hollywood studios involved in their distribution.

Given the content of many of these films, such distribution was without any code approval. More important to the studios than the code’s seal of approval, however, was that fact that many of these films were proving a huge draw at the box office. It could be argued that the code’s life-support systems were switched off when, at the end of 1967, Time ran a front page accompanied by images from Bonnie and Clyde proclaiming: “The New Cinema … Violence … Sex … Art.”

Bonnie and Clyde may have been set in the Depression of the 1930s, but the attitudes and politics on display were those of the then-emerging 1960s Counterculture. Tellingly, the film’s protagonists and those they enlist along the way to help them in their criminal enterprises are not merely outside society — they oppose society’s foundation: the rule of law and all it represents. In their opposition to society, this onscreen criminal gang create an alternate society to the mainstream one.

While not quite a commune, this alternate society is one where the gang decides their own morality, enjoying a creed of free living and free loving, seemingly at no cost to themselves — their victims do not count. As the film’s publicity stated: “They’re young, they’re in love … and they kill people.” In contrast, those they murder or rob on screen rarely speak in this movie. This is also the case of the authorities who set out to capture the criminal gang. These agents of law and order are portrayed as heavy-handed, lacking in humor, warmth and humanity, all of which is shown to the audience as residing within the gang.

Packaged in this way when rereleased, it was only a matter of time before Bonnie and Clyde found its audience. It was with the young and, inevitably, with those “opposed to the Establishment.” In 1967 this was a not inconsiderable constituency, and in the future it was one that would become influential. Warner Bros. had been so pessimistic about the film’s chances at the box office that it had offered its first-time producer Warren Beatty 40% of the gross, instead of a minimal fee. As it turned out, the movie went on to gross more than $70 million, becoming the third-most-popular film at the 1967 U.S. box office.

Ironically, it was in 1967 that the 39th Academy Awards would be dominated by one film: A Man for All Seasons (1966). It was nominated for ten Oscars; in the end, it won six. By any measure, that was a phenomenal haul, adding to its already-existing international awards and worldwide commercial success. And, yet, the film’s subject matter was the life of a saint: Thomas More. That the film dealt with issues of faith and conscience made its achievements at the box office and the Oscars all the more remarkable.

A Man for All Seasons was based upon the 1960 Robert Bolt play of the same name. The play was experimental in the staging devices used; the movie version was to employ no such experimentation, however. Instead, the source material became a well-acted, professionally directed film production that looked and sounded every bit the historical epic. As such, although made in the England of 1965, it could have been filmed at any time in the previous 30 years. It was traditional storytelling on screen that conformed — artistically and morally — to the industry standards that had existed for decades. It was a film for the sensibilities of all audiences.

In hindsight, this film was to be the last of its kind. Not that the historical drama ceased to be made, far from it, but, rather, that a different aesthetic was soon to prevail and dominate filmmaking, especially in America as Hollywood entered upon a new era. Thereafter, in this New Hollywood, motion pictures were increasingly to be perceived no longer as entertainment, but as statements, not reflecting society, but changing it.

At the time of the English Reformation, St. Thomas More had died knowing a different societal and religious order was being instituted. It was a new order that cloaked its lusts and greed in talk of “conscience” free of any external principle or constraint, while answerable to no one. The English break with Rome and the subsequent sack of Church lands and property were begun with talk of high principle but in reality carried out with much baser motives. Consequently, More’s death marked the end of Catholic England.

Centuries later, when the martyr-saint died on screen, it was a moment that symbolically marked a putting to death of what movies had been until then. Those who carried out that “execution” were henceforth to proclaim the birth of a new cinematic order: a New Hollywood. This New Hollywood, in all its various later guises, would produce a cultural legacy that is still in our midst today — and which one could argue is more pervasive than ever on screen and in the minds of those watching it.

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