Surprisingly, given its prominence in world cinema since the silent days, none of the major movements and developments in film theory and criticism has originated in the United States, though American academics have been quick to adopt the advances made in Europe (especially France) and Britain.
A brief overview might begin with the British magazines Sight and Sound (founded in 1934) and Sequence (a decade later). The two became intimately connected, with contributors moving from one to the other. The dominant figures were Gavin Lambert, Karel Reisz (1926–2002), Tony Richardson (1928–1991), and Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), the last three of whom developed into filmmakers of varying degrees of distinction and who were regarded for a time as "the British New Wave" (though without the scope or staying power of the French Nouvelle Vague ). The historic importance of these magazines lies in the communal effort to bring to criticism (and subsequently to British cinema) an overtly political dimension, their chief editors and critics having a strong commitment to the Left and consequently to the development of a cinema that would deal explicitly with social problems from a progressive viewpoint. British films were preferred and Hollywood films generally denigrated or treated with intellectual condescension as mere escapist entertainment, with the partial exceptions of Ford and Hitchcock; Anderson especially championed Ford, and Hitchcock was seen as a distinguished popular entertainer. As its more eminent and distinctive critics moved into filmmaking, Sight and Sound lost most of its political drive (under the editorship of Penelope Houston) but retained its patronizing attitude toward Hollywood.
Developments in France during the 1950s, through the 1960s and beyond, initially less political, have been both more influential and more durable. André Bazin remains one of the key figures in the evolution of film criticism, his work still alive and relevant today. Already active in the 1940s, he was co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, and acted as a kind of benevolent father figure to the New Wave filmmakers (and almost literally to François Truffaut [1932–1984]), as well as himself producing a number of highly distinguished "key" texts that continue to be reprinted in critical anthologies. Bazin's essays "The Evolution of Film Language"(1968) and "The Evolution of the Western" (1972) led, among other things, to the radical reappraisal of Hollywood, reopening its "popular entertainment" movies to a serious revaluation that still has repercussions. Even the most astringent deconstructionists of semiotics have not rendered obsolete his defense (indeed, celebration) of realism, which never falls into the trap of naively seeing it as the unmediated reproduction of reality. His work is a model of criticism firmly grounded in theory.
Bazin encouraged the "Young Turks" of French cinema throughout the 1950s and 1960s, first as critics on Cahiers (to which Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Truffaut were all contributors, with Rohmer as subsequent editor), then as filmmakers. Would the New Wave have existed without him as its modest and reticent centrifugal force? Possibly. But it would certainly have been quite different, more dispersed.
The Cahiers critics (already looking to their cinematic futures) set about revaluating the whole of cinema. Their first task was to downgrade most of the established, venerated "classics" of the older generation of French directors, partly to clear the ground for their very different, in some respects revolutionary, style and subject matter: such filmmakers as Marcel Carné, Julień Clément, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jean Delannoy found themselves grouped together as the "tradition de qualité" or the "cinéma de papa," their previously lauded films now seen largely as expensive studio-bound productions in which the screenwriter was more important than the director, whose job was to "realize" a screenplay rather than make his own personal movie. Some were spared: Robert Bresson, Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, and above all Jean Renoir (1894–1979), another New Wave father figure, all highly personal and idiosyncratic directors, were seen more as creators than "realizers."
It was a relatively minor figure, Alexandre Astruc, who invented the term camera-stylo , published in 1949 in L'Ecran Français (no. 144; reprinted in Peter Graham, The New Wave ), suggesting that a personal film is written with a camera rather than a pen. Most of the major New Wave directors improvised a great deal, especially Godard (who typically worked from a mere script outline that could be developed or jettisoned as filming progressed) and Rivette, who always collaborated on his screenplays, often with the actors. Partly inspired by Italian neorealism, and especially the highly idiosyncratic development of it by one of their idols, Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), the New Wave directors moved out of the studio and into the streets—or buildings, or cities, or countryside.
As critics, their interests were international. Would Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) be as (justly) famous in the West without their eulogies? Would Rossellini's films with Ingrid Bergman— Stromboli (1950), Europa 51 (1952), Viaggio in Italia [Voyage to Italy, 1953]—rejected with contempt by the Anglo-Saxon critical fraternity, ever have earned their reputations as masterpieces? Yet our greatest debt to the New Wave director-critics surely lies in their transformation of critical attitudes to classical Hollywood and the accompanying Duvivier, Rene formulation of the by turns abhorred and celebrated " auteur theory."
Anyone with eyes can see that films by Carl Dreyer (1889–1968), Renoir, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, and Welles are "personal" films that could never have been made by anyone else. On the other hand, one might view Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), Monkey Business (1952), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) without ever noticing that they were all directed by the same person, Howard Hawks. Before Cahiers , few people bothered to read the name of the director on the credits of Hollywood films, let alone connect the films' divergent yet compatible and mutually resonant thematics. Without Cahiers , would we today be seeing retrospectives in our Cinémathèques of films not only of Hitchcock and Ford, but also of Hawks, Anthony Mann, Leo McCarey, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Sam Fuller, and Budd Boetticher?
For some time the Cahiers excesses laid it open to Anglo-Saxon ridicule. What is one to make today of a (polemical) statement such as that of Godard: "The cinema is Nicholas Ray"? Why not "The cinema is Mizoguchi" or "The cinema is Carl Dreyer" or even, today, "The cinema is Jean-Luc Godard"? Many of the reviews are open to the objection that the readings of the films are too abstract, too philosophical or metaphysical, to do proper justice to such concrete and accessible works, and that the auteur theory (roughly granting the director complete control over every aspect of his films) could be applied without extreme modification to only a handful of directors (Hawks, McCarey, Preminger) who achieved the status of producers of their own works. And even they worked within the restrictions of the studio system, with its box-office concerns, the Production Code, and the availability of "stars." Nevertheless, Cahiers has had a lasting and positive effect on the degree of seriousness with which we view what used to be regarded as standard fare and transient entertainment.
Outside France, the Cahiers rediscovery of classical Hollywood provoked two opposite responses. In England, Sight and Sound predictably found it all slightly ridiculous; on the other hand, it was clearly the inspiration for the very existence of Movie , founded in 1962 by a group of young men in their final years at Oxford University. Ian Cameron, V. F. Perkins, and Mark Shivas initially attracted attention with a film column printed in Oxford Opinion . With Paul Mayersberg, they formed the editorial board of Movie ; they were subsequently joined, as contributors, by Robin Wood, Michael Walker, Richard Dyer, Charles Barr, Jim Hillier, Douglas Pye, and eventually Andrew Britton. Of the original group, Perkins has had the greatest longevity as
The British scene was complicated by developments within the more academic journal Screen , which, in its development of structural analysis by (among others) Alan Lovell and the introduction of concepts of iconography by Colin McArthur, in some ways anticipated the events to come. But all this was about to be blown apart by the events in France of May 1968 and the repercussions throughout the intellectual world.