As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the events of 1968, it is perhaps only appropriate that a new book has come out on the revolutionary cinema of that decade. As the author, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, puts it: "Politics in the 1960s was far too important to be left to the politicians. It was a decade of activism and mass movements, of civil-rights and anti-war demonstrations, beginning with the CND marches in Britain and culminating in the street festival of May 1968 in Paris and the rallies in Prague brought to a brutal end by Soviet troops. In such a period the cinema could not be a passive bystander."
Nowell-Smith then proceeds to examine just how far cinema was affected by and implicated in those events.
The book consists of four parts, examining in turn the period immediately before the Sixties; the new developments during that decade, including politics, sex and censorship, cinema verite, new documentary and technological expansion; and national movements, before focusing on three auteurs: Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In doing so, Nowell-Smith covers a range of new national cinemas, including, obviously, the French new wave or nouvelle vague, Brazil's cinema novo, the Czechoslovak new wave, Germany's young German and new German cinemas respectively, Britain's free cinema, post-neorealist Italian cinema and, to a lesser extent, those of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Japan and other Latin American countries such as Cuba. The author freely admits that the coverage is skewed in favour of Europe.
The first, perhaps surprising, thing to learn is that cinema in the Sixties, at least in the early part of the decade, wasn't even that political. Not all the new cinemas were radically left wing or even left wing at that.
The French new wave was politically ambivalent in its early stages, and while the new cinemas in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were oppositional and non-conformist, they tended to oppose the Soviet Union, the darling of the Western Left for whom the real enemy was American capitalism and imperialism.
Nowell-Smith argues, however, that the real radicalising change came with the Vietnam War and that by the middle of the decade there was a change of mood revealing a harder political edge. Nevertheless, it still could be argued that these developments, culminating in the evenements of 1968, came far too late to fully politicise the cinema of that decade or for it to have a major political impact.
Furthermore, these cinemas were always driven by some sort of business impulse; as Nowell-Smith points out, the "new cinemas of the 1960s were always more or less commercial", which meant a mainstream release in their country of origin and an "art-house" one in export markets.
As a result, any political edge may have been blunted by the fact that film-makers wanted their work to be seen in cinemas.
The interesting question, then, is how far did these "waves" impact on mainstream cinema and/or were absorbed by it? Witness the number of the directors that Nowell-Smith mentions here who went on to work in more mainstream contexts, such as Milo? Forman and Roman Polanski.
Indeed, Nowell-Smith concludes: "In a process that had already started in the 1960s the international art film became increasingly attractive to major releasing companies as a business proposition and more and more film-makers were tempted into the high-budget arena." Consequently, at some point during the early to mid-Seventies there was a gentle fade-out when the new cinemas' drives dissipated and, as Nowell-Smith observes, "New Hollywood emerges and the Empire Strikes Back".
The overall impression therefore is that - contrary to the title - new cinemas of the Sixties didn't make any waves at all.
Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s
By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
£40.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780826418197 and 18203
Published 15 January 2008