Originating in the mid-1960s, the American New Wave was the much needed renaissance which saw the rise of younger filmmakers whose voices were bursting with creativity and originality. Instead of the studio-controlled productions, the American New Wave artists took on the role of the auteur and established their autonomy over their art. The works from this period have influenced foreign film movements like the Italian Poliziotteschi films and France’s Cinéma du look movement.
One of the pioneers of the American New Wave, Martin Scorsese confessed: “It’s ridiculous. I mean, I’ve made a few pictures, I have 60 movies to make, but the point is I don’t have the time now. I’ll really have to work until I’m 80 or something—if I live till then. I want to make 60, but I can’t do that. I’ll be lucky if I made another five or 10. What, I have to wait five or six years to shoot a picture because the script isn’t right? Why can’t I get in there and start moving away?”.
He added, “There’s a problem in the sense that the filmmaking school I came out of—not only NYU, but the style, which was nurtured on Kazan and Penn and Sam Fuller and Orson Welles and projected through Cassavetes and a touch of the New Wave—is very, very different from what you see UCLA grads doing. Directors come out of there and they are professional directors. Me, I tend to be a personal filmmaker. And it’s very hard for me.”
In yet another addition to our weekly column on world cinema, we try to get a better look at the immensely influential American New Wave by revisiting 20 important films from that era.
Let’s get to it.
20 essential films from the American New Wave:
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn – 1967)
Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Arthur Penn’s vastly influential crime drama chronicles the adventures of the infamous criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde. Often regarded as one of the first films from the American New Wave, Arthur Penn’s work revitalised the genre with modern techniques and a unique style.
In a 24 Aug 1997 LAT interview about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, David Newman and Robert Benton (the writers) revealed that the detailed, seventy-five-page treatment was heavily inspired by the works of French New Wave filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. They wrote it in late 1963 while working for Esquire magazine.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick – 1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus is undoubtedly one of the best science fiction films ever made. It transcends the cinematic medium and becomes a transformative experience. 2001’s meditations on evolution, civilisations and human existence are representative of the apotheosis of cinematic art.
“2001,” Kubrick explained, “Is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalisation and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.
“Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension.”
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper – 1969)
One of the most famous road films of all time, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider is representative of the counterculture spirit. It follows the adventures of two hippies who embark on a modern American Odyssey in order to break free from the confines of society.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Hopper commented: “The new generation doesn’t know anything about me except for what they saw in Easy Rider. Society loves to put bubbles up there and pop them, and I resent it. I’d rather expose myself. I’m really tired of Hollywood images — the big virile star who’s really a homosexual, the goody-two-shoes who fucks everybody in dark bedrooms at parties. I wanted to be vulnerable because I thought it would be something different. But I don’t sleep with cameras, so this film is not the real Dennis Hopper.”
Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger – 1969)
Based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel, Midnight Cowboy depicts an unusual friendship between a con man (played by Dustin Hoffman) and a simple-minded sex worker (Jon Voight). It is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture and was even voted as one of the greatest American films of all time by the AFI.
“When we started having screenings, people would get up and leave. They were so offended,” Hoffman recalled. “It’s a love story, and maybe a love story we hadn’t seen before. People just sat there [crying] when it was over. It worked on a narrative level, on the cinematography level, and it had music that was [its] soul. It’s a surprise when something hits you that strongly.”
Wanda (Barbara Loden – 1970)
Barbara Loden’s 1970 work is a criminally neglected masterpiece from the American New Wave. It captures the condition of a young woman from eastern Pennsylvania who runs away with a bank robber. It won the Best Foreign Film Award at the Venice Film Festival.
“I really hate slick pictures,” the filmmaker said. “They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music — everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.”
The French Connection (William Friedkin – 1971)
One of the most famous examples of the American New Wave, William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller follows a short-tempered detective and his partner as they navigate through the filth of New York City. The film won five Academy Awards, including wins for Best Picture and Best Director.
While talking about the works in his filmography that he was most satisfied with, Friedkin said: “I’m very happy with Jade, Rules of Engagement, Killer Joe, Bug, The Exorcist… I would have to say Sorcerer, and The French Connection. Those come immediately to mind. And To Live and Die in L.A. And it’s not that I achieved them, or realised them perfectly, but I did come very close to my vision of them in the execution.”
Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby – 1971)
Harold and Maude is arguably one of the finest coming-of-age films of all time. Infused with dark humour and philosophical investigations, Hal Ashby’s 1971 drama tells the story of a young man with an unhealthy obsession with death who falls for a 79-year-old woman.
Ashby once elaborated on his philosophy of cinema: “The great thing about film is, it really is communal. It really is the communal art, and you don’t lose anything—all you do is gain. Your film just gains and gains. The more input you get, the better it is.“
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman – 1971)
Based on Edmund Naughton’s novel, Robert Altman’s revisionist western features a partnership between a gambler (Warren Beatty) and a sex worker (Julie Christie). One of Altman’s finest works, the film is now listed among the greatest westerns ever made despite the fact that the filmmaker insisted that it was an “anti-western film”.
Altman revealed, “I started shooting with two cameras a long time ago. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot with two cameras. It was efficient. We were getting away from the idea that once you lit a scene you couldn’t move the camera. If you moved the camera, you had to move the light. If you moved the camera just this much you’d fuck it up. I said, ‘I can’t deal with that.’
Adding, “Suppose you come into a scene and you see a guy sitting at a desk. The audience knows the camera is on him alone. That’s the only thing you’re seeing. But suppose the camera is coming through the office and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody at their desk do something and you get sucked into that? That appeals to me more than the setup. Unless the setup is very specific and I’m using it as part of the storytelling.”
The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich – 1971)
A brilliant film adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Last Picture Show is set in a small town in Texas and revolves around the friendship of high school seniors. As they come closer to graduation, they are forced to confront the reality of their respective futures.
Bogdanovich recalled, “I was in a drugstore and saw a paperback called The Last Picture Show and I thought the title sounded like something I should make. Then I saw it was about teenagers growing up in Texas, and I put it back. About a week later, the actor Sal Mineo brought me the same paperback and said, ‘I always wanted to act in this, but I’m too old now to play the part. But I think you might be interested in it.’
“So I said to Polly — I was married to [production designer] Polly Platt at the time — ‘Will you read this?’ She said, ‘It’s a very good book, but I don’t know how you’d make a picture out of it.’ That interested me. The fact that it wasn’t easy to do. I read it and felt the only way to do it was to just do it — the sex and everything.”
Badlands (Terrence Malick – 1973)
Malick’s directorial debut is a work of pure cinematic genius. This 1973 neo-noir drama stars Martin Sheen as a disturbed young man who cruelly murders the father of his love interest. After destabilising her whole world, he takes her on an odyssey of crime through the Midwest.
“At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands,” Malick said. “My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.”
A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes – 1974)
There is no better example of the sensibilities of the American New Wave than John Cassavetes‘ A Woman Under the Influence. Thoroughly unconventional and underlined by a unique brand of realism, the film chronicles the struggles of a woman (played by Gena Rowlands) as she realises how fundamentally isolated she is.
“A script is a series of words strung together,” Cassavetes said. “When I first start writing there’s a sense of discovery. In some way it’s not working, it’s finding some romance in the lives of people. You get fascinated with their lives. If they stay with you then you want to do something—make it into a movie, put it on in some way. It was that which propelled us to keep on working at it. Making a film is a mystery.”
Chinatown (Roman Polanski – 1974)
Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is often touted as the greatest neo-noir film ever made and rightly so. Starring Jack Nicholson as a private detective, the film follows his descent into violence, political intrigue and conspiracies even though the case started out as a simple infidelity report.
Producer Robert Evans said, “It’s not like watching Jaws, which is a spectacular picture, and all the special effects and the audiences jump up and down. When the picture’s over with Chinatown, there’s not a sound in the theatre, people walk out [of the theatre] and you [don’t] know what they’re thinking.
“You can’t read it. I knew I had a success, though, with the picture when we previewed it in San Francisco, and, when the picture’s over, a woman walks over to me and pointed her finger at me [and said], ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’ Then I knew I had a hit!”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman – 1975)
Miloš Forman was one of the most influential filmmakers from the Czech New Wave and due to his undeniable talent, he managed to have a significant impact on the American consciousness as well. The film portrays life inside a psych ward where the human spirit flourishes despite the continuous efforts to dehumanise the subjects.
Forman revealed, “The producers, Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, couldn’t find any studio that would put up the money, so Zaentz decided to finance it himself, on a very, very small budget. Which meant—I’m sure they don’t like to hear this—they couldn’t afford an established great director.”
He added, “They were looking for somebody they could respect and who was cheap. That was me. The funny thing is that I had discussed Cuckoo’s Nest with Kirk Douglas years before in Prague, when he was on a goodwill tour of the Iron Curtain countries.”
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet – 1975)
Sidney Lumet’s biographical crime drama stars Al Pacino as a first-time criminal who decides to rob a bank in order to pay for his partner’s surgery. The film earned six Oscar nominations and ended up winning the Best Original Screenplay Award.
“In Dog Day Afternoon, here’s a real-life incident and the actors all portraying real people to whom this actually happened,” Lumet explained. “The picture was about ‘hey we’re not these outrageous characters.’ Like Pacino’s character, these people are not the freaks we think they are. We have much more in common with the freaks than we like to admit about ourselves. Now that immediately defined the way the movie was going to be done.”
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)
Martin Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver is regarded as the definitive study of urban isolation and existential paranoia. It stars Robert De Niro as a disturbed cab driver who engages in a quest for absolute self-destruction. The film won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader revealed, “I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, ‘Well, I can get a drink now.’ I’d get up and get a drink and take the bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer: I had not been eating, just drinking.”
He added: “When I got out of the hospital I realised I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver…The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.”
All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula – 1976)
The final part of Pakula’s influential Paranoia trilogy, All the President’s Men is a political thriller that follows journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they investigate the Watergate scandal. The film received widespread critical acclaim and several prestigious nominations.
Hoffman recalled, “The first word that comes to mind about Pakula, I guess, is thorough. I remember when I came to shoot the movie in L.A., I was struck dumb when I walked on the set. Alan re-created the Washington Post newsroom so literally that I could not tell difference [from the real newsroom]. I think he had a lot of the rubbish that was in the wastebaskets [at the Post] mailed to the set and he used it.”
Annie Hall (Woody Allen – 1977)
Annie Hall might just be one of the funniest romantic comedies ever made, especially because of its self-aware ramblings and Allen’s characteristic neurotic fits. Its exploration of love through lenses of psychoanalysis and modernism continues to delight newer generations of audiences.
While talking about Annie Hall, Allen said: “For some reason that film is very likeable. I’ve made better films than that. Match Point is a better film, Purple Rose of Cairo is a better film, the French one — Midnight in Paris — is a better film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is as good. I mean, I’ve made films that were as good, but for some reason that’s got some charismatic, inexplicable hold on people. That and Manhattan too.”
Eraserhead (David Lynch – 1977)
David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an iconic manifestation of surreal sensibilities that forever changed how the genre was perceived. It paints a haunting picture of an industrial wasteland where the anxiety of parenthood and existence, in general, turns everything into the nightmarish grotesque.
“My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning aeroplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees,” Lynch explained. “Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast.”
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic traces the psychological journey of a soldier (played by Martin Sheen) as he tracks down the mysterious and enigmatic Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now is now counted among the best war films ever made.
“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”
Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino – 1980)
The failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate marked the decline of the American New Wave. Cimino’s vision of a fictional conflict in Wyoming in the 1890s demanded a huge budget which resulted in production difficulties. Upon release, the film was panned by critics and became a catastrophic financial failure. Fortunately, the definitive cut of the film restored Cimino’s status as one of the finest American filmmakers.
While talking about the definitive cut of Heaven’s Gate, Cimino said: “(t just had…overwhelming responses. It was at Venice and it was just a half-hour standing ovation, and New York Film Festival, same thing. And just packed, I mean the minute they announced it, it was sold out in 10 minutes. And then of course at the Lumiere Festival in France, the biggest film theatre I know of in the world, 6,000 people, was filled from top to bottom. It was overwhelming. I got on the stage, I couldn’t speak. It was just, I mean, 6,000 people giving you a standing ovation is quite an experience.”