Sunday, July 23, 2023

Film History #4 - New Wave (flashbacks of doubt)

The impact of World War II on filmmaking can be seen in Rashomon and Hiroshima Mon Amour through narrative, style, and storytelling techniques.

It’s important to remember that after dropping an atomic bomb and having the world on fire through fighting and war, conventional ways of storytelling would no longer satisfy filmmakers who saw the world as a place that was not always hopeful and optimistic. You can’t go back to the past because you are forever changed.

And when traditional methods fail to move the filmmaker then something else must take its place to fill the gap, to provide relief, to offer another way of understanding the contemporary world.

I liken this idea to William Blake’s poetry with his books Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. So, if old Hollywood films – not the silent ones – but those in the 30s and 40s represent a more innocent time, then everything after the war brings in the age of experience, cynicism, and doubt in humanity.

We can see this doubt in Rashomon where the story opens with multiple shots of rain pouring down in front of an ancient gate guarding an ancient city that has been partially destroyed – by another war? – and all is gray with the mood somber and hopeless. Then the first line of dialogue is spoken: “I just don’t understand” It begins a film that could also describe the world at that time. Why all the fighting? What has happened to humanity? And why are we here after all the destruction?


Kurosawa attempts to find out by telling a tale with not one but multiple unreliable narrators that retell the story of a rape and a death As one story is delivered out front to the camera with flashbacks introduced – a clever device that goes beyond just information but also provides doubt – the story becomes less and less clear.

More and more the viewer is left lost about what is the truth or as one critic wrote: “the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth”

So, in this new world after the war in this new wave of cinema, the key theme is wondering if we can ever know the truth. This was not new in the theatrical world and was explored by Luigi Pirandello during World Was I in his play Right You are if You Think You Are from 1917 in Italy

But in film where so much depended on reliability and a high level of professionalism in front of the camera, here we have just a few characters speaking as if they were messengers in a Greek tragedy, telling a story that deliberately complicates the truth without illuminating it. This is how the war impacted this story. It makes one feel like this bandit will not be brought to justice or that there will be more coming in his wake.

In Hiroshima Mon Amour the story is different but also looks back on the past to try to move forward in the present moment.  

At the start, it plays like a documentary of horrific post-atomic images mixed in with a prose poem voice over of two people tied into an embrace where a kind of gold dust falls out draping over their naked bodies as a the soundtrack of piano keys bangs out note after note

Its effect is numbing after a while until it finally breaks, and we meet the two one-night stand lovers.

Like Rashomon the characters try to recount images of the past, try to remember what they saw or thought they saw. The woman has a story to tell from her own past and has learned to forget but is emotionally awakened by this Japanese man. So, the story becomes about: “the anguish of past, present, and future: the need to understand exactly who and where we are in time, a need that goes perpetually unsatisfied”

This is the uncertainty war brings to a society after its destruction and that the story takes place in Hiroshima adds an extra layer of pathos and fear of the future.

This comes from the idea that the world changed for filmmakers, which created “New Wave filmmakers [who] were tired of a cinema that they felt represented an inaccurate picture of the world, especially after the horrors of World War II.” They focused on “disunity, discordance, and disruption”

The three d’s are evident in Hiroshima which can be challenging to watch as the characters seem to be stuck in a binary relationship of pushing and pulling. It doesn’t follow the standard Hollywood model of conflict which leads to resolution. These people are deeply unsettled. The film work emphasizes this with long pauses, closeup shots, and scenes featuring the demolished city during its aftermath.

Overall, the film does not follow a typical path, but instead seems to wade – like in the water – in the feelings of these two lovers whose connection appears to be fleeting and temporary even though they are drawn to each other.

This can frustrate a normal viewer of films looking for a satisfying ending to the film. But how can satisfaction come after a war of such destruction? People don’t just recover and move on. Like the scar tissue on the back of the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, it just becomes part of the skin – deformities and all – as life goes on into an uncertain world.



Brian Richard said...

The Blake comparison is a really good one! I think that's a nice way of thinking about the differences between films made before the war and the entire postwar environment that reshaped everyone's thinking.

Lane said...

Your blog for this week is very thorough and had great summaries and analysis for Hiroshima Mon Amour and Rashomon. I like how you described watching the films like wading in water instead of following specific paths. You talked a lot about the movies showing the effect of the past on the characters' lives. Good Job!