September 22, 2005
In France in the early 1950s, film theorists founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinema¹; in it, they decried the current state of cinema and called for new types of film-making. Interestingly enough, many of the great films in the movement, which came to be known as Le Nouvelle Vague or "The New Wave", were film noirs. But they were different from Hollywood's version of the genre -- these were often moody, extremely character-driven pieces. They had the atmosphere in spades, but the stories they told and the characters they contained were extraordinary, and the film-making was a breath of fresh air.
Take Bob le Flambeur². Here you have a film about a small-time gambler and one-time crook who did a stretch in prison over a heist; but now he's well-known in certain circles (amongst criminals and policemen) because of his consummate style. He's old-school; there's a way you dress and comport yourself even when you're losing your last franc.
The key feature of the movement I want to take away at the moment is not, however, the films noir of the period nor the character-driven stories. What I want to examine a little further is the extraordinary devotion of the New Wave to mise-en-scene, which basically boils down to filming on location for every shot, no studios, no sound stages, using natural light and capturing long takes. Characters are placed in the very real locations that surround them, and events play out in these real locations.³
Jules Dassin's5 Night and the City is filled with such scenes, where Richard Widmark (playing an unsavory character we can't really like but nonetheless must see something of ourselves in) dashes through the streets of London, trying to save himself from his certain fate. Although both the movies I'm talking about are not classified as New Wave by the sites I read on the topic, I think they contain enough of the elements to be indicative, if not perfect examples of the form. I've also recently watched Jules and Jim, a classic of the movement, and much of what I have to say here could be extended to that film as well. And I also think that The Third Man has something to offer -- filmed on location in London, even though it was a Hollywood film, it also favored mise-en-scene and had a lot of resemblances to a film like Night and the City; I guess since The Third Man came out first, we have to assume that Dassin stole a little bit, but I suspect not given the short difference in time between the releases and the fact that Dassin was French, etc.
So, now that I've inundated you all with a bit of New Wave talk, I want to talk about another New Wave coming our way, this one rather literal.
In the last week or so, Nintendo unveiled its new controller -- finally, we get a look at something that really feels next gen to me, feels like a console I absolutely need to own. This is a New Wave I feel I can get behind.
No question, they could have shipped a controller like that as a peripheral for this generation, but then, of course, not everyone would have one (EyeToy, Jungle Beat bongos, PS2 network adapter...). They are essentially launching a new console entirely so that they can have an install base for their innovative control scheme. Remarkable.
What really encourages me about this is how, watching their promo videos, I felt that they were encouraging a new type of mise-en-scene. Watching a couple play tennis on the couch, hearing the Zelda sword swings and shield clangs as a guy swung his arm around, seeing the families playing party games and fishing together, reading about how intuitive Metroid Prime 2 felt with the new controls, I was just entranced. I must have watched that promo video 8 times in a row.
I felt like here was a great step forward in making me feel like I was part of the game, by making some of my physical movements replicated in the game -- call it me-en-scene. It's a new form of interaction. And while I'm sure some of the critics are right in that most of the games will be largely the same, I really don't even care; it's not like the other systems are offering anything radically different in terms of gameplay. Watching that teaser, I could see myself newly immersed in games like Eternal Darkness or Resident Evil n, imagine myself aiming the grappling hook in some new Zelda, swinging a virtual club in Toadstool Tour. All in one handy device.
I'm always reading about how Nintendo is for kids and all that, but honestly, it took quite a while for my kids to be able to play Mario Kart with me, and mostly because the controls were just a little too complex for them. We probably played six months before they could drive the karts all that well -- and they're still not really even close. I think this will be easier for them, and we'll be playing that many more games.
I'm completely looking forward to gaming's New Wave. It's the only console I can see picking up on the first day. I know that it won't have the library or the realism of the other consoles -- but it's the one that's going to offer me something really new on that first day, even if it's in the context of traditional genres. And that's just really great.
¹I am indebted to a very excellent article on GreenCine which helped me to collect some information about the French New Wave. Although I've picked up this information in bits and pieces over the years from film reviews and DVD commentaries, this two page article covered the subject in great detail.²Although usually translated as Bob the Gambler, I think a more literal translation would be something like Bob the Flamboyant One -- and this better captures the essence of his character, in a way. Bob gambles, to be sure, and it's an essential element of his character, but he manages to preserve an ever-present style at the same time, and this is lost when you merely consider him as a gambler. Note that Nick Nolte's version of the character doesn't carry nearly the same flair (nor carry the gambling to its natural conclusion) in the recent Hollywood remake "The Good Thief". Neil Jordan's remake is somewhat limited by its need for a happy ending; I'd rather a single Bob le Flambeur to a hundred Good Thieves.
³There are at least a couple of things to remark upon here: one is that the long take is still being practiced, almost effortlessly, by Quentin Tarantino -- the dialog between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction about foot massages in the hallway before they encounter Brett and his hapless posse stretches out beyond belief, but feels completely unforced. There's a similar long take following Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill vol 1 down to the ladies' room where Beatrice lies in wait -- it doesn't feel quite as smooth but it really sets up the following moment well, when Beatrice calls out O-ren. (I've seen that movie four times now and writing this I'd love to watch that scene again.) Anyway, the other thing is that a similar practice made it into the manifesto of the Dogma 95 gang, though they took it even further to require that ambient audio be similarly recorded. I can recommend The Celebration, one of the early Dogma 95 films -- I was completely surprised by that movie, which is so remarkably rare as to be treasured. Strong stuff, though, be warned -- not graphic in terms of imagery, just strong themes.4
4It's probably worth noting at this point that in my text editor, the footnotes already are longer than the text at this point in the post. Ugh. My thinking on this topic isn't probably as clear as I'd like. But get me talking about Quentin Tarantino and I'm bound to go on for a while.
5At the time that I watched Topkapi, I had no idea that Dassin had made it -- nor should I have -- but I really loved the movie, and had known even that it included an homage to Rififi, which Dassin had also made (hrm, is it homage if you are making homage to yourself?). In any case, I searched it out on IMDB and it appears that there may be a Topkapi update in the form of a Thomas Crown sequel featuring Pierce Brosnan. For those of you who can read my more-than-latent snobbery into the films I watch, yes, I am in fact appalled.
Posted by Brett Douville at September 22, 2005 07:25 PM
Your definition of mise-en-scene is misleading. Mise-en-scene is not "which basically boils down to filming on location for every shot, no studios, no sound stages, using natural light and capturing long takes" specifically. There's a name for that which I don't remember off the top of my head. Mise-en-scene refers to using the props, location, lighting and actor blocking to convey emotions or ideas. Basically anything that could be used in theatre.
Otherwise excellent post, and I apologize for nitpicking.
Posted by: Chill at September 23, 2005 07:14 PM
Yes, someone else pointed out that privately -- that the definition was a little different than what he had learned in film school. In my defense, I didn't go to film school, and I guess I kind of read into mise-en-scene what I wanted to a little bit to make my point.
So no worries on the nit-pick; besides, being able to play off mise-en-scene with me-en-scene was too good to pass up.
Posted by: Brett Douville at September 23, 2005 08:38 PM
Tarantino! *sigh* But I'm with you; I just can't talk him 'up' enough. Admittedly I was hesitant about Kill Bill thinking "He's been too good for too long. He has to jump the shark eventually." So, I pirated it on a Wednesday. By that Friday I had handed the disc off to two pals who then accompanied me to see it in the theater. There's something wrong with him. It's just not right.
Also, glad to see you're so excited about the Revolution. Not being online when it came out, I eventually saw it on a PSP and thought 'Oh Lord... The revolution is real.' I'm definitely buying it first day. Of course the fact that I don't have a GameCube also plays into that. There's quite a few GC games that I want to go back and get on the cheap. (Zeldas, Pikmin, Animal Crossing, etc.)
The only thing that really worries me about it is developers/publishers not wanting to bother with attachments to the controller, which I hope I'm wrong to worry about. I still haven't had a chance to study it closely, but if there's the possibility to daisy-chain attachments? My God. The light-gun mock-up attached to the analog stick/nunchaku for FPS' is just too good to pass up.
Wait a second... Talking about seeing the Revolution on a PSP reminds me that my Dreamcast has a web browser... I'm (somewhat) surfing in style when I get back home! Woohoo!
Posted by: Jeffool at October 1, 2005 09:34 PM