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Film History: A History of French Cinema - The Old Ones, the Good Ones (Part 1)

Film, Art, Culture, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

Anna Karina, starlet of many of Jean-Luc Godard's film appearing in Le Petit Soldat.

For the longest time I had a very strong opinions when it came to French cinema, I used to say “Oh boy, I hate today’s French movies. It might be very well filmed with textbook cinematography, however they are very dark and depressing. What happened to the French film industry that had influenced a generation of film makers? Why do modern French films pale in comparison to those our countrymen had produced in the sixties?”

François Truffaut stands outside of cinema showing Charbol's Le Beau Serge, one of the first New Wave films.

The 1960s is marked as possibly the greatest time in French cinema history. The new film movement, known French new wave, hit the scene and revolutionized the way people saw film, viewed color, and how they lived a story. It was an explosion of innovation and self-conscious films by young filmmakers living in a time of rejection, revolution, and renaissance. This movement was led by critics from Les Cahier du Cinema. Among them, the famous Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Demy, and Claude Chabrol. Their approach to film-making broke away from what French cinema was used to. Those young directors revolutionized the way of filming and producing. They rejected the traditional way of storytelling and created a new language. Leaving the film studios, New Wave directors began to film more outside, using the natural environment or city as their backdrop. New methods of editing and shooting films broke through limitations in the way in which narrative was created in the cinema. The invention of Nagra-brand tape recorders, of the 16mm movie camera, proclaimed a new aesthetics, much closer to real life.

Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel)  in Belle de Jour "Beauty of the Day" (1967)

In early 70s, cinema attendance was on the decline. On one hand, France was facing the birth of a movement that would influence generations of directors. On another hand, Frenchmen were disinterested and attendance at the theaters was sparse. With the rising popularity of TV and video cassettes, French cinema was beginning to experience the crisis that it still faces to this day.

Les Films 13: Claude Lelouch shooting with a Caméflex camera

The Nouvelle Vague was a major influence on the next generation of American directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. This style has continued to inspire many major figures in contemporary American cinema, including Steven Soderbergh, and Wes Anderson, professing admiration for the movement and employing many of its techniques.

The directors of the New Wave continue to have a profound influence on cinema and popular culture. Some, like Godard, still make films. And If you have time, go watch his latest film « Adieu au Language "Goodbye to Language" (2014) or one of his classics Une femme est une femme "A Woman is a Woman" (1961), both well worth a watch.

Suggested reading/Viewing:

Art: Oskar J.W. Hansen - The Art Deco Sculptures at the Hoover Dam

Art, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

"They died to make the desert bloom" a power inscription reads on the memorial for those who died building the Hoover Dam. Photo: Trey Takahashi

Between 1931 and 1936 Americans from around the country flocked to the Colorado river raging through the desert sands. Carving a deep path between stone and rock, the river that had made the Grand Canyon over millions of years was to be tamed. In an effort made by the governments of the United States, Nevada, and Arizona one of the largest and most significant engineering projects of the modern era was underway. A monumental task to provide water and energy in a baron wasteland while the country was deep in a great depression was realized in the construction of the Hoover Dam, a task so great that artist Oskar J.W. Hanson would cite as being as impressive and important as the great Pyramids of Egypt and something that would inspire him to create some of the most iconic features at the Hoover (Boulder) Dam.

WASH-No-2332: "The dam structure as seen from the control tower of the 150-ton cableway on the NV rim of Black Canyon. Top forms at Elev. 795. - USBR

Hason had a point, the dam itself cost $49 million dollars in the 1930s (equivalent to 700 million today) making it one of the most monumental public works projects in Americas history to that date. Spanning from wall to wall of the canyons the dam itself is 1,244 feet (379 meters) long and an astonishing 725 feet tall (221 meters). Itself the dam is made up  of three and a quarter million cubic yards (2,480,000 meters cubed) of concrete making it one of the largest concrete structures made by man, and the largest as the time it was built. In building such a monument with new techniques never tested, there were great risks involved, and in that there were a host of tragic deaths during construction. During her construction 112 people perished in building the dam, and upon its completion their lives needed to be honored.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversee the dam's operation commissioned Oskar J.W. Hanson to work on a memorial to honor the accomplishments and sacrifices made by those who worked and died in building the dam. For Oskar the sculptures represented "a monument to collective genius exerting itself in community efforts around a common need or ideals." Hanson in many ways adopted some of the core tenets that inspired many of the great Art Deco artists and architects, looking at the very power of humanity to achieve greatness in the face of adversity. When looking at the two large winged figures that stand tall next to the walls of Black Canyon, they "can be read as the characteristics of these men [who build the dam], and on a larger scale the community of which they are part. Thus, mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures..."

A side view of one of the two Winged Angels of the Republic standing tall next to the canyon walls. Photo: Trey Takahashi

Oskar J.W. Hansen was a a naturalized American after emigrating to the United States. He had served as a merchant marine, before enlisting in the United States Army, all before settling down and building his art studio outside of Charlottesville, VA. For the remaineder of his life he worked on writing and researching subjects of the humanities and sciences (such as astronomy) which may have inspired such work at the Hoover Dam containing astronomical elements, and such profound thoughts and representations of mankind in his sculpture work. Aside from his work at the Hoover Dam, it is quite interesting to know that Hanson was not a very prolific artists, having only done a few other well known commissions or works, leaving the work at the Hoover Dam as his most well known examples of work.

This narrative of "mankind" as featured in the Winged Angles is also represented in the text featured on the main memorial piece which reads, "They died to make the desert bloom" on a banner representing the curve of the dam itself. In the middle a man with strong defining features rises up from the lake waters with lighting showering down above his head and wheat blossoming along his arms.

There is no better place (well aside from the new Smith Center) in Southern Nevada to witness such powerful examples of Art Deco architecture and art. While the Hoover Dam is arguably one of the greatest accomplishments and engineering wonders of the 20th century, it is undeniable that Oskar J.W. Hanson's work at featured at the dam is a perfect representation of those very accomplishments.

Winged Figures of the Republic by Oskar J.W. Hansen stand tall on the Nevada side of the Hoover Dam. Photo: Trey Takahashi

-Trey Takahashi