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Making Waves

New Cinemas of the 1960s


Geoffrey Nowell-Smith


London: Bloomsbury, 2013

(Revised and expanded edition – first edition: New York: Continuum, 2008)

Paperback. xii+250 pages. ISBN 978-1623565084. £17.09


Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart

Chesterfield College


This revised and expanded edition of Making Waves : New Cinemas of the 1960s provided the renowned film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith with an opportunity to correct omissions from the first edition, and thus it now includes sections on Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese New Wave, and the ‘New American Cinema’. The author modestly claims that ‘This is not a learned book’ and that he is ‘dependent on what I know or have been able easily to find out’ [13]. Indeed, the book presents its learning lightly, and does, as Nowell-Smith intends, situate the reader ‘inside this cinema rather than outside or above it’ [2]. The author is someone who knows these films and filmic cultures intimately, and is able to transmit that knowledge clearly and with an enthusiasm that matches the dynamism of the various film-makers who so radically changed film in the heady heydays of the 1960s. In doing so Nowell-Smith is able to make these various new cinemas come ‘alive’ for new readers and audiences for whom the 1960s might, at first sight, appear as ancient history.

The book is organised with an introduction which sets the scene, followed by four distinct parts: ‘Part 1: Before the Revolution’; ‘Part 2: The New Cinemas’; ‘Part 3: Movements’; and, ‘Part 4: Four Auteurs’. A conclusion briefly sums up the book’s findings and it is followed by a chronological list of ‘Fifty Key Films of the New Cinemas, 1958-70’ which would allow interested readers and students to watch the films Nowell-Smith considers to be the most important made during this fertile period of film-making.

Making Waves covers a wide-ranging number of film cultures from around the world and so the introduction provides a most useful overview of what they held in common, in which it is argued that ‘almost without exception the new cinemas were a rebellion’, both aesthetic and economic, against ‘the “false perfection” of the studio film’ [3]. Thus, the economic constraints and creative approaches to these restrictions employed by the New Wave film-makers provided a concentrated polemical attack against the studio film and all it stood for, and helped to redefine the relationship between ‘the film-maker and the spectator’ [4].

Having provided some useful introductory remarks about the overall factors behind the new cinemas, Nowell-Smith then goes on in Part 1 to set the scene prior to the revolution by considering the state of world cinema in the 1950s in relation to the dominance of the Hollywood studio film. He skilfully picks out a number of key issues including that of sexual liberation, that came to the fore in the 1960s and refers to the differences in attitudes to sexual matters between the American film industry, which was subject to the Production Code imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America, and more liberal attitudes in European film censorship. He succinctly sums up these differences in approach by stating that ‘It tended to be assumed in European films that human beings were born with sexual organs and at a certain point in their lives began to use them, not always in socially-approved ways’ [23].

The importance of the 1959 success for the French Nouvelle Vague at the Cannes Film Festival is rightly highlighted as a significant starting point for these films to emerge on to the world stage. The various new cinemas were able to fill a gap in the market for exploring new modes of thinking and of experience and thus also provided a ‘revolution in the politics of representation’ [56], which lead to the ‘events’ of May 1968 in which ‘both cinema and political life were to take a giant leap into the unknown’ [56].

In the new section, chapter 6: ‘Documentary, Cinéma Vérité and the “New American Cinema”’ Nowell- Smith makes the claim that, ‘The revolution in documentary was more sudden and in many ways more radical than any other kind of cinema’ [82]. This new addition is useful in providing helpful information upon the range of factors that fed into the creativity of new film-making practices in America, as well as Santiago Alvarez’s importance in producing short, startling documentaries in Cuba.

The author also reflects usefully upon the impact of technological innovations in an era where black and white slowly (for aesthetic and economic reasons) gave way to colour, together with the impact of wide screens and new lenses. However, discussing the very important changes in storytelling during this period, he makes the point that ‘The new cinemas did not replace one form of storytelling with another, but with several’ [108], however ‘The convention of linearity was less often broken’ [112].

‘Part III: Movements’ reflects upon a wide range of new cinemas in Britain, France, Italy, the Polish school and the Czech New Wave and beyond, as well as Latin America.  Nowell-Smith is thus able to comment usefully upon what these new cinemas had in common, as well as their specific traits that set them apart from each other.

‘Part IV: Four Auteurs’ reflects upon the careers of four of the most important protagonists: Jean-Luc Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini, and Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese New Wave. In each case he picks out significant aspects of each auteur’s film-making. The claim is made that ‘Nagisa Oshima is, after Godard, the boldest and most radically innovative of the film-makers to have emerged from the new cinemas of the 1960s’ [218], thus setting right the omission of Oshima from the first edition of Making Waves.

The brief conclusion to the book deftly sums up the most significant aspects of the range of new cinemas considered, and their impact. As Nowell-Smith points out, their legacy is everywhere, including the mainstream. But, as he suggests, theirs is ‘a legacy of modernity and of modernity as liberation…it may no longer be widely available in cinemas, but it is there for the asking when you unwrap that DVD and place it in the player’ [229], or indeed when you stream it direct to your computer or television.

This book is a most suitable primer for those new to the notion of new wave cinemas, particularly students of film who may come to an understanding of just how revolutionary were the aesthetic and economic choices made by film-makers during this period, and thus reflect upon the impact this hugely important period of film-making has made upon the contemporary world.


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