The intention of the makers of this film was to create a situation whereby one might comply with James Agee’s tender request: “The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”
—Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie,
makers of Pull My Daisy, a movie.
There is an independent film movement in the United States today, and it goes by the name of the “New American Cinema.” The title is the invention of the movement’s prime publicist, Jonas Mekas, a movie critic, the editor of his own occasional journal (Film Culture), and himself one of the new film makers. The movies his designation refers to are a growing number of important and exciting documentaries, shorts, and features being made outside the aesthetic and monetary confines of Hollywood. The “New American Cinema,” in essence, is something in the way of a spontaneous cultural phenomenon.
The new films are usually financed with personal funds or on a syndicate basis (as plays are). As a result, most of the pictures have been produced with an absolute minimum of equipment. “Suffice to say,” explained Peter Kass, who directed the most remarkable of the new films, Time of the Heathens, “I do now believe in miracles.” Because union requirements can more than double their cost, these minimally budgeted films have generally been made without union labor. It is partly for this reason—and partly for others: none of the new pictures have stars, some have “provocative” content, several employ unusual techniques, and so forth—that their exhibition within the United States has been extremely limited.1 To stimulate interest, the new directors depend upon getting their films shown at the various international film festivals. It was in this way, for example, that John Cassavetes’ Shadows, the best-known though not the best of the new films, was picked up by a British distributor, became a popular success in England, and finally, some two years after the movie was made, received general exhibition in the United States.
Unfortunately, no film publication (or any other source) has maintained a listing of the new pictures. At a rough estimate, there are twenty-five to thirty of them, with fifteen to twenty more in various stages of completion—not to count, in both instances, the masterpiece or two that may be now sitting on someone’s kitchen table.
Until the past few years, independent film activity in the United States largely concentrated on movies which were both symbolist in technique and Freudian in content. Often these experimental films were marred by narcissism and a coterie snobbishness. To all this, the New American Cinema is in striking contrast—with techniques that are hyper-naturalistic and subjects that tend to be the most public troubles of contemporary America.
Exactly where the New American Cinema began is difficult to say, but probably its foremost pioneer is Morris Engel, whose first picture, The Little Fugitive, was completed in 1953. Two others have followed: Lovers and Lollipops in 1957, and, just last year, Weddings and Babies. Engel’s pictures are prominently set in New York City. Their almost plotless stories deal with ordinary people whose life-style places them somewhere between the middle and the lower classes. None of the films is very exciting, and none probes very far beneath the surface of its characters. Yet the total effect Engel achieves is somewhere between the semi-fictional documentary and the planned home movie.
The films’ settings, indoors and out, are as authentic as the igloos in Flaherty’s famous documentary, and as authentically photographed. More, Engel mixes nonprofessional and professional actors, with the result that the over-all act 7/7/2008ing has the unmannered, natural quality of the best child actors—like Jean-Pierre Léaud, the boy in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. (The example is not fortuitous: despite the fact that Engel is so little known in the United States, Truffaut has dubbed him one of the “fathers” of the “new wave.”) Engel’s deliberately undramatic stories become an integral part of the actuality which surrounds them. He is not the first director to wed documentary and fictional reality. But he is the first to do so using distinctly urban and American materials.
Engel’s style is the style essentially of all the new film makers, and the “catch-reality-in-the-process” techniques that distinguish his films distinguish those of the New American Cinema. Several of the new pictures even use scripts blocked out by scenes rather than detailed to the last line of dialogue. Part of the result, obviously, is a kind of artlessness which generally sets these films apart from most Hollywood movies. A typical difference is seen by comparing the Central Park that turns up in Shadows with the manicured, freshly planted Central Park photographed in Blake Edwards’s Hollywood production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Such differences add up to a fundamental contrast, of course. What it amounts to, loosely put, is that the new films provide no chalk marks telling an actor where to stand. The pictures use their cameras to record as natural a line of action as possible. The techniques in the new films are employed for the sake of hard reality, not the other way around.
And here there is a slight but important difference between Engel’s pictures and the other films of the New American Cinema. (I hope it is clear, this difference notwithstanding, that Engel is plainly a part of the movement.) Most of the films have captured something more complex than Engel’s essentially visual naturalism. The closest literary parallel that comes to mind for them is James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which, like the films, bursts with too much subtly delineated reality to be flatly naturalistic. Gestures, movements, shapes, textures, tones cram the pictures, creating rich, fluid images of life.
There is also a second, and more basic, difference between Engel and the other new film makers. Engel takes society for granted; his films, like his characters, seem completely unaware of it as a problem. In the other films of the New American Cinema, however, society hovers like some malevolent ghost that must be exorcised. It is the object of the bitterest concern. The fact is, in short, that these are films—as Engel’s are not—from the underground.
The social order that looms up in the new pictures, however briefly, is always ominous. In John Cassavetes’ Shadows, the main characters are two brothers and a sister, growing up and living in New York City. They also happen to be Negroes, though the film makes little point of it. The older brother is a singer who finds himself playing the cheapest night clubs; the younger one is a beat, and he and his sister can pass for white. The freshness of Shadows comes from its lively portrayal of these people moving about within the authentic life of the city. Yet the movie often becomes too self-conscious of its plot, and undercuts itself.
Even so, there is a nice sense in Shadows, established without any big effects, that the main characters operate within the interstices of the larger white, middle-class society. Toward the close of the film, the emotional bond between the brothers and sister becomes most apparent when a white boy, the sister’s first lover, realizes she is Negro and makes clear to her and her older brother that he does not intend to see her again. Abruptly and even quite naturally, the interstices briefly snap shut. Soon, though, the main characters are back to their normal life—the girl finds another boyfriend, the beat brother decides to go “straight”—and their growing up continues.
In Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s half-hour frolic, Pull My Daisy, the tone is a good deal sharper, even though the boozy atmosphere of the film is simultaneously more tender and boisterous. With an ad-libbed narration by Jack Kerouac to take the place of dialogue, Pull My Daisy belongs to the grand tradition of épater les bourgeois.
“Early morning in the universe,” Kerouac begins. “The wife is getting up, opening up the windows, in this loft that’s in the bowrey in the lower east side, new york.”2 Two beat poets—played by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (friends in real life, both poets, and both members of the beat pantheon)—drop in to visit their friend, Milo (played by the artist Larry Rivers), a railroad man. He is still at work, but his wife is busily preparing for a visit from a street-corner bishop. The poets horse around, compose wacky poems, smoke marijuana, engage in maniacal Socratic-like exchanges. When Milo comes home, he brings another beat friend (Peter Orlovsky). The bishop arrives soon after, bringing with him his corseted mother and his spinster-cold sister. The poets are higher than ever, giggling, happy, friendly. More of Milo’s friends arrive. The poets begin to ask the bishop questions: “Is ignorance rippling up above the silver ladder of sherifian doves?” “Is alligators holy, bishop?” Bewildered, he leaves with his entourage. Milo’s wife, crying, throws everyone out—the poets, Milo, and all his friends. It means nothing to them. They bounce downstairs, lively saints of the natural man, natural adversaries of middle-class life. “Let’s go,” Kerouac says.“’sgo. ’sgo. . . . Off they go.”
This exuberance can be found in almost every one of the new pictures, for their emphasis is not so much on the Goliath of society as on the Davids who are willing to take society on. The New American Cinema has real heroes—or something very close to them.
They are present even in the documentaries. Dan Drasin’s sixteen-minute short, Sunday, covers a rally of folk singers gathered in Washington Square Park to protest a park commissioner’s decision to close off the Square for Sunday song fests. Drasin was eighteen when he made this energetic, good-humored film in 1961. “It was not shot objectively,” he has written. “I even found myself singing along with the kids and being attacked by the police at the same time.”
As the film catches the growing tension between the folk singers and the police, Sunday’s sound track supplies random comments from the milling crowd. “They just want to kill the Village.” “It’s all a plot of the real estate interests.” When the protesters start to sing and march about the Square, a voice explains: “Gandhi was always a big influence.” Then the rally explodes, and additional police pour into the crowd. There are several small incidents of physical violence, mainly some rough pushing and manhandling. And at this point in Sunday, the protesters are suddenly transformed. Together on one side of the emotional barricades, they become the film’s hero. And opposite them is the State and Bureaucracy gone berserk.
Order is restored, and the police ring the silent area in which most of the commotion occurred. A very young child circles around inside the empty space, propelling himself with an uncertain walk. The camera zooms in to read the sign hanging on his back: “I want to sing too.”
In Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa, one of the most brilliant of the new films, the subject matter is intrinsically more serious and tragic, the hero intrinsically more complex. Rogosin made the picture in South Africa, telling the government there he intended to film a musical. His real object was to make a documentary “concerned essentially with human conditions as they exist in the Union of South Africa under the ruthless policy of the present regime.” He had to smuggle out the daily takes.
Come Back, Africa uses all the techniques of the New American Cinema—nonprofessional actors, a script blocked out only by scenes, and so forth—and alone presents justification enough for any of them. The film ends when Zachariah, a Zulu tribesman working in Johannesburg, returns to his single room home in the African section of the city. He has spent a night in jail for having been found asleep with his wife in the servants’ quarters which belonged to her white employers. He returns to find his wife dead—killed, the audience knows, by another African.
Rogosin has explained how he located the man picked to play Zachariah:
I was convinced that I had to cast the hero by concentrating on faces, letting them pass before me by the hundreds until the single “perfect” one would somehow turn up and I would somehow recognize him. . . . I went on a search of Africans lined up at the bus queues. . . . I went . . . to the railroad station. . . . Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I saw the face of the man I wanted. . . . The man we later got to know as Zachariah . . . was certain we were the police.
Thus, in a sense, “Zachariah” brought his whole life to the role in Come Back, Africa.
Wailing and helplessly pounding a rickety wooden table in terror and outrage at the death of his wife, Zachariah conveys more than “human conditions as they exist in the Union of South Africa.” But his response speaks of them, too, and very clearly. This last scene touches a moment of the profoundest despair and frustration, yet there is something strangely triumphant in the complex image it presents. For Rogosin recognizes—he says it explicitly in his remarks above—that Zachariah is a hero. And in this last scene is the clear portent of a caged human will about to burst free.
For all the generally liberal or radical orientation of the New American Cinema, few of the pictures concern themselves with politics directly. One that does is a documentary by Michael and Philip Burton, Wasn’t That a Time, which deals with three people who chose to be uncooperative when called by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about their political associations. Intellectually, the film is not very persuasive: one cannot make a case against the Committee by simply accepting at face value the comments of the uncooperative. It is typical of the new films, though, that Wasn’t That a Time cares less about any political statement than it does about the several people whose liberties and freedom seem to have been restrained by a governmental agency. Using an unobtrusive and mobile camera, the film mainly shows its subjects in the intimacy of their family. (The directors have written that no scene was re-shot.) Wasn’t That a Time, like Sunday, needs no narration. Since both films are about people, they tell themselves.
The politics of anarchy run under the surface of practically all the new films, but they become explicit in only one, Jonas Mekas’ thoroughly apocalyptic Guns of the Trees. And in this case they become explicit with a vengeance. The most experimental of the new films, Guns of the Trees is put together on intuition rather than logic. To explain why a twenty-two-year-old girl intellectual committed suicide, its story contrasts two couples: the girl and her morose intellectual companion, and two beats (delightfully played by Ben Carruthers, the young brother in Shadows, and Argus Speare Juilliard) who are soon to have a baby. Surrounding these episodes are some scenes of mass protests (including one or two quick takes from Sunday), brief shots of urban America (junk yards and freeways), and several not entirely intelligible symbolic interludes. A variety of air raid sirens blare from the sound track, and occasionally, the screen just goes white. Sporadically—at times across the white “blanks”—Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry. Violently condemning all governments and celebrating poets and all other free men, he creates some of the picture’s best moments.
There is a large amount of foolishness in Guns of the Trees, as one might imagine, most notably the “poetic” sequences and the contrived characterization of the intellectuals. Yet the film has an overriding power, a generalized political anger which it expresses with a compelling mixture of honesty, humor, and violence. Ginsberg, for example, concludes a satiric, jazzrhythmed catalogue of many of 20th-century America’s sins against life with a sudden shift that effectively catches all the explosive scorn of the film: “I dreamed J. Edgar Hoover groped me in a long dark corridor in the capital.” The politics of Guns of the Trees, as of the New American Cinema in general, represents the politics of the nonpolitical. Its “argument” amounts to little more than anti-them and pro-us, the “us” being people and the “them” being everything else. But the emotion that the film puts behind this argument carries a great deal of meaning. “Chessman is killed in the gas chamber,” Carruthers angrily blurts out in dismay as he watches what will probably be (he says) the last rain pure of strontium-90. “A missile head goes off in New Jersey ! Eighty per cent of our national budget is spent for armaments! And Nixon is running for president. Nixon!” It is an absurd speech, of course, but a poignant one, expressing the bewilderment and sporadic outrage of an individual who finds himself living in a world where politics has gone mad—but where politics will not let him be.
What appears much more often than politics in the new pictures are two other concerns. The first, and most common, Negro-white relations, no doubt symbolizes for the film makers (as politics does not) the barriers that stand in the way of direct personal freedom. One picture, Edward Bland’s documentary short, Cry of Jazz, treats the issue as a social problem, but from a rather unique perspective. The movie argues that white society is corrupt and decadent, and that Negro society is vital and dynamic. By far the most tendentious of the new pictures (and the dullest), Cry of Jazz is mainly interesting for what it reveals about a group of American Negro intellectuals.
The other films of the New American Cinema have their say about Negro-white relations usually by overlooking them. In Guns of the Trees, for example, the beat couple is interracial, but as far as the action of the picture is concerned, the girl might as well have been white—which, by implication, is exactly what Guns of the Trees means to say.
The second of these recurring concerns cannot be understood quite so easily; it is an interest in religion and personal salvation. In part, of course, the interest is a carry-over from beat writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and Snyder, whose quasi-religious quests ended in Zen Buddhism, or visions in Brooklyn. “Is alligators holy, bishop?”—Kerouac has the poets ask in Frank and Leslie’s Pull My Daisy. “Is all the white moonlight holy? . . . Come on, bishop, tell us. . . What is holy? . . . Is holy holy?” The bishop’s answer, which might be thought of as a moderately inadequate Zen reply, is not very satisfactory: “I think it’s best that I go now and make my holy offices.”
Frank’s second film, a mordant fantasy from a short story by Isaac Babel, takes its theological bent more seriously. The Sin of Jesus is a parable of dead-end pessimism. One feels the hand of the director working in it too often—putting rust on the door hinges, or collecting the character’s torn and wretched clothing. Still, the intent of the picture is clear. A pregnant woman (played by Julie Bovasso) has been deserted by her lover on a bleak and isolated egg farm. As recompense, Jesus allows her to wed a young angel, the sole condition being that she must remove his wings before he goes to bed, or the wings will break and the angel die. Drunk with happiness after their fantasy wedding feast, the woman forgets, and she pulls the angel to bed to make love. In the morning, she finds herself alone again. Jesus, who sees that her life now is as empty as the farm on which she lives, returns to ask the woman’s forgiveness. But she has no forgiveness left.
It is hard to know how much to make of this religious turn. In Guns of the Trees, the intellectuals repeatedly examine man and his future with—of all people—a monk unsure of his faith. In Time of the Heathens, the apparently simple-minded main character carries a Bible, and the dominant concern of the movie is defined by his two recitations of a passage from Isaiah (which also gives the film its title). But for all these pictures, it would seem as if only the appearance of some religious presentment has the capacity to suggest the full disaffection of contemporary man. As if only such a reference can signify how uneasily he and his world truly stand.
I have had to slight several pictures in this overview, and there are others I have not mentioned at all: Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief, Ricky Leacock’s impressive “newsreel”-documentary, Primary, Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (banned for the time being in New York), Lionel Rogosin’s first film, On the Bowery—and the cartoons and short films of Ernest Pintoff and Stan Vanderbeek. Yet by way of ending this survey, I want to return to a film that I have mentioned several times already, Peter Kass and Ed Emshwiller’s Time of the Heathens. More like a straightforward, “old-fashioned” movie than most of the new films (relatively speaking), Time of the Heathens manages to touch almost all their basic concerns. Its major defect, in fact, is that it tries for too much; it encompasses too much plot and has too many themes. One essential feature prevents the film from falling to pieces, and at the same time helps create its power: its unswerving focus on the moral agony of one man.
Time of the Heathens is a film about modern violence. Its protagonist, unbalanced by a wartime experience, has fallen from the world of other men into a world of his own private torment. The man’s face wears the stunned look of someone who has caused or witnessed an inhumanity so gross that neither his mind nor his emotions could absorb it. Brilliantly played by John Heffernan, he is a stranger everywhere, and as Time of the Heathens opens, he is wandering through the rural countryside of the South. There are two strands in the movie’s development: the man’s gradual reconstruction of the event that castrated his feeling and made him simple; and the concomitant growth of mutual love between him and a mute, eight-year-old Negro boy. The great achievement of Time of the Heathens is that while it stays close to actual experience and refuses to make symbolic counters of its characters, it also gives witness to a world that has been unbalanced by thirty years of cumulative violence.
Forced to flee through the countryside because of an accidental murder they did not commit, the man and the boy come upon one of those caved-in single-room shacks that seem almost to sprout like weeds. Its windows are smashed, and one wall is completely demolished. In a scene of poignance and terror, the man rests in the shack, his hands and feet awkward and seemingly oversized, while the boy watches and waits. The man slowly remembers pieces of his past—a hospital, a psychiatrist, a cage—and his memory takes a leap backward to his father. With muted recognition, he says aloud: “My father wept when a window was broken.” And with this awesome conceit—that there was a time when a broken window could pain a man to tears—Time of the Heathens evokes the whole horror of the nuclear age. The resonance that flows from the screen is not so much a matter of having come so far, or of the distance a single generation has traveled; it is a matter of how life, after all, might be lived.
Later the man is shot, and the film depicts his delirium in a truly remarkable sequence by Ed Emshwiller. Everything becomes insane now. The movie’s black-and-white gives way to garish, livid technicolor; the straightforward images to surrealistic juxtapositions, to drawings, maps, superimpositions. What the man finally brings himself to recall is the fact of Hiroshima. It never becomes clear whether he specifically helped pilot the first atom bomb (though one knows he was in the air force), but the issue is not important. To this lacerated man, the violence and the misery which the bomb caused are sufficient unto themselves. By raising their specter, Time of the Heathens does not mean to evoke guilt. Instead, through the anguish of its main character, it succeeds in giving to the bomb and its effects a fully human significance and the reality not of a nightmare but of life.
At the end of the film, the stranger and the boy, parting, begin to weep. Their tears rise up from somewhere below ordinary human anguish and fear. In this painful release, the man returns to the world that had shattered him. With this renewal, Time of the Heathens illuminates the humane conviction from which all the films of the New American Cinema draw so much of their strength: the proud belief that though society may have failed, life and men have not.
As one hight expect, there are any number of resemblances between the New American Cinema and France’s new wave. They share, as I have indicated, certain cinematic forebears; they have many stylistic techniques in common; and both are the expression of individuals who have experienced some of the same rootlessness and revolt.
The American films are vastly different in many ways, of course. For one thing, their energetic optimism seems quite alien to pictures such as The Lovers, Frantic, Breathless, The Cousins, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Leda. The most basic difference, though, pertains to subject matter and perspective. The focus in almost every American film is on concrete social and political situations. In contrast to this, the pictures of the new wave dramatize abstract, primarily cultural situations. In The Lovers, for example, the issue is apathy and the death of love among the leisured upper classes; in Breathless, it is the nihilistic affectlessness of modern youth. The shorthand way of putting this is: the subject of the New American Cinema is usually America; the subject of the new wave is usually the whole Western world.
A great deal about the milieu of the French films is revealed as soon as one points to their fascination with other films—and mainly, it so happens, with American ones. Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless might almost be a home movie spliced together out of every Humphrey Bogart picture ever made. Among other things, the film satirizes and pays homage to the distinctly American genre of gangster movies. Goddard’s newest movie, Une femme est une femme (not released yet in the United States), according to Cynthia Grenier (in Film Quarterly), “pays a long, detailed, and sometimes quite entertaining tribute to Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli,” two American musical comedy directors. Again, Louis Malle’s Zazie is shot through with scenes based on American silent comedies, while Claude Chabrol’s Leda is that director’s conception of an Alfred Hitchcock picture (the pinwheel spinning under Leda’s titles spun under the titles of Vertigo).
Only one film of the New American Cinema takes the time to tip its camera to indicate “influences” of this sort, Barry K. Brown’s exercise-as-short, A Sky Full of People. In it, a teen-age couple gingerly explore sex atop the roof of a New York apartment. Heavily influenced by the new wave in its lighting and camera work—and even its subject matter—the picture opens with a shot of a movie marquee carrying, like a heraldic banner, the title Breathless, which the couple has just seen. Brown’s short thus has the distinction of portraying the New American Cinema’s only two movie-goers.
But these differences and similarities to one side, the most important item to note about the new wave is that, in a very short time, and rather unexpectedly, it significantly affected French film making. The point is not to be made by analogy, but so, similarly, may the New American Cinema come to affect Holly-wood, and perhaps sooner than might be supposed.
The American movie industry, which once was such a colossus, has been fragmented by a combination of economics, television, and a changed audience. Production has fallen drastically, and independent companies have become as typical as “adult” movies. Last year, in fact, it was two Hollywood independents who made The Hustler and The Guns of Navarone, each of which has come to symbolize one of the two types of films which now seem most viable under changing conditions: the relatively low-budget, seriously intended movie which usually has an urban setting, and the blockbuster spectacle which may have a contemporary background but is mainly a Herculean-size Western for all the world to see.
Several thin skeins already serve to connect Hollywood with the New American Cinema. A minor example is Paramount’s hiring of John Cassavetes on the basis of Shadows. The single movie Cassavetes directed for the studio, Too Late Blues (which neatly displays the style of the New American Cinema side by side with what might be called “standard Orson Welles”) has been released as a co-feature on the neighborhood circuits. Cassavetes is now working for Stanley Kramer, directing a film about retarded children.
The most relevant thread, though, is to be found in the work of several of Hollywood’s newest and youngest independents. I am thinking, in particular, of Denis and Terry Sanders and of Irvin Kershner, whose films are very similar to those of the New American Cinema.
In 1954, while the Sanders brothers were still students, they made a quiet, effective short, A Time Out of War, which dealt with an afternoon “break” arranged by two Yankees and a rebel at some very minor outpost of the Civil War; the film, quite deservedly, has received international fame. The first Hollywood feature of the two brothers, Crime and Punishment, U.S.A., tried to transfer events which originated in dark and muted St. Petersburg to the frenetic, sun-charged atmosphere of California. The attempt may have been impossible to begin with. But however much the picture was bound up in the knots of its story, it tried hard to be honest about its real subject—American youth. The latest film of the two brothers, War Hunt, has just been released, and it comes very close to being a remarkable picture. Taking place in Korea during the last days before the cease-fire, it is two films in one, really, and the trouble is that the halves don’t quite cohere. But each creates its own frightening reality: the portrayal of a soldier’s introduction to the life of war, and the macabre story of another soldier who every night blackens his face and goes out alone to kill the enemy.
Irvin Kershner’s career has been somewhat different. The director of several exciting crime films (Stake-Out on Dope Street, The Young Captives), he seems only recently to have had the opportunity to work with more personal material. Last year, with an intelligence and tenderness that matched his verve, he directed The Hoodlum Priest, a film based on slightly fictionalized fact. The story concerned the St. Louis Catholic priest who built a home (Dismas House) where delinquents and criminals coming out of prison might stay while easing themselves by stages back into society. (Different news items have reported that Kershner now holds an option on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, The Magician of Lublin, and also that he is working on a screenplay, again to be based on fact, about an analyst’s unique treatment of schizophrenics.)
It is Valuable to compare The Hoodlum Priest with Breathless. Both films are about young men whose criminality is meant to be an act of defiance against society; and in both films, society kills the men (by significantly different means): in Breathless, with a policeman’s bullet in the back; in The Hoodlum Priest, with the electric chair. These films rehearse between themselves all the differences that distinguish the New American Cinema from France’s new wave. What Breathless offers is a symbol—a man fathered by images of Humphrey Bogart in the dark womb of movie theaters; and the symbol represents an ambiance, the bottomless cynicism and sentimentality of the youth of the Western world. The Hoodlum Priest offers a boy, a pained and suffering delinquent, who commits murder not out of coolness but in rage and bewilderment. In Breathless, the conditions of modern life, assumed and accepted, shapeless and impalpable, engulf everyone. In The Hoodlum Priest, they become social institutions against which individuals struggle. Thus, in a brief sequence, a lone opponent of capital punishment pickets the governor’s mansion, and when a friendly guard explains to him he cannot change the world, the man replies he only hopes to prevent the world from changing him.
There are other Hollywood independents who might be mentioned along with Kershner and the Sanders brothers: Jerome Hill (The Sand Castle), Alexander Singer (A Cold Wind in August), Curtis Harrington (Night Tide—for many years Harrington was considered one of the most talented of the experimentalists). The fact remains, of course—two directors or five (or ten)—that Hollywood is far from being an outpost of the New American Cinema. The Sanders brothers wanted to film The Cool World, Warren Miller’s excellent novel about a Harlem gang; but they could not get any major distribution or financing for the picture “because it is all about Negroes, and everybody thinks we’ve had it with gangs.” Shirley Clarke is now filming The Cool World in New York, financing it like a play, just as she did with her first film, The Connection.
The distance between Hollywood and the New American Cinema primarily exists because the latter, commercially speaking, is hardly more than a shadow. But there can be little doubt that it will soon take on solidity. The new films are being shown, and are winning recognition and awards at festivals throughout Europe. Time of the Heathens won the $5,000 Grand Prix Bergamo International Film Festival, and has been picked up for general release by the British company which distributed Shadows. Last year at Gian Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds, a special program was devoted to screening the new American films. More recently, Sunday shared first prize at Germany’s Oberhausen International Short Film Festival; previously it had won first prize at a similar festival in France. It is inevitable that the new films will soon find the public screenings they deserve, if not through the talent and energy that created them, then through the international acclaim they are now receiving.
What of Hollywood and the New American Cinema then? One can only speculate. Each might take from the other what is weakest and most superficial. But in the best of all possible worlds, the outcome would be something new and vital. The great triumph of the American film so far has been the creation of enormously plastic and fruitful genres. The future of the New American Cinema, in contrast, will most obviously depend upon the growth of individual film makers (the phrase to describe this kind of movement is “a director’s cinema”). Who can say, then, what exciting inventions might flow from genres and directors together? Between these two extremes, needless to add, stretches a wide middle ground; and beyond them, another set of possibilities.
Meanwhile, the New American Cinema will continue to grow. Indeed, there are hints that it may be part of a larger cultural development. For example, why do so many young men and women choose to make a movie when they can get paper and pencil so much less expensively? Mekas’ Guns of the Trees cost $10,000, which is bargain basement, rock bottom for the new film makers. Pull My Daisy cost $15,000, as did Shadows; and part of the sum for Cassavetes’ film was collected from the audience of a New York “underground” radio program. Time of the Heathens cost something over $20,000, The Connection something under $100,000.
The age of several of the movie makers is also suggestive: Barry K. Brown is twenty-seven, but he has been making films commercially for six years; Michael and Philip Burton, who made at least one film before Wasn’t That a Time, are twenty-three and twenty-six respectively; Dan Drasin is now all of nineteen. Even many of the latest little magazines, enthusiastically insulting the accepted and violently championing the new, turn out these days to be film magazines: Film Culture, The New York Film Bulletin, Filmwise. Behind these films seems to be the sound of a new generation.
But these speculations should not be allowed to detract from the films themselves. I know that not every film of the New American Cinema is a “good film.” Yet there is not one of them which did not intrigue or absorb me. With regard to many, it is as if they represent some weird boiling point in the cold war—of our psyches no less than of our politics—and the exciting result is there to be seen in movies like Sunday or Come Back, Africa or Guns of the Trees or Time of the Heathens. Nor do I doubt that Sunday and Pull My Daisy, as minor in their way as they are, and that Come Back, Africa are as good as any films being made today; and, further, that Time of the Heathens has as much to say about the condition of modern man as any movie I know. But such specific judgments, of necessity quite personal, do not matter all that much. The films of the New American Cinema exude vitality and passion, and their most profound desire is to see things as they are. There is hardly one of them which is not turned to record and explore the contemporary world with honesty and anger, and with tender concern.
1 In New York City, most of the movies get shown at a few “art” theaters or at screenings arranged by the film makers or their friends; and more often than anywhere else, they are shown at the large New York film society, Cinema 16.
2 The text of Pull My Daisy has been published by Grove Press as an Evergreen paperback.
Scroll Down For the Next Article