New New Hollywood: From the Margins to the Mainstream
"There are no waves; there is only the ocean." So said Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who knew a thing or two about filmmaking waves, given that his 1958 debut, Le Beau Serge, became the first swell of the Nouvelle Vague. He’s correct of course, film movements are nothing more than historians and critics trying to crowbar theory and order on to chaotic systems of art, but, like Bodhi in Point Break, I can’t help but get excited for that next big wave.
While we wait for that to arrive, filmgoers can continue to ride the last great wave to hit American cinema, the New New Hollywood one, which looks in no danger of crashing into the surf. In all began in the mid-90s, when several Gen X upstarts started making idiosyncratic movies within the Hollywood dream factory. Filmmakers like David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, 1994; Flirting with Disaster, 1996), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, 1996), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, 1996; Boogie Nights, 1997) and Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, 1995) led the charge. Then, in 1999, the levees burst. The following were released within a heady twelve-month period: Rushmore (Wes Anderson), Magnolia (P.T. Anderson), Three Kings (David O. Russell), The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola), Election (Alexander Payne), Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze). That’s more gems than you’ll find on the Queen’s fanciest hat.
Like Primark underpants or Sugababes lineups, these types of filmmaking waves don’t last long – a decade seems to be a good innings. Nine years after Le Beau Serge and Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, Godard put a stake through its heart with 1967’s Weekend, the cinematic equivalent of having acid thrown in your face. The Hollywood Renaissance of the 70s was also destroyed from within thanks to a combination of Spielberg and Lucas inventing the summer blockbuster and the hubris of the movement’s golden boys, Coppola and Michael Cimino, who went from Oscar winning money-makers to ostentatious money-burners when their late-70s productions, Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate, spiralled out of control.
It would be a contrarian who tried to argue that the New Hollywood brat pack of Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola and De Palma have been able to better their masterworks of the 70s over the last three decades. It’s hard to see a decline in the New New Hollywood pranksters, however. Some have been making films for two decades now, but they’ve far from hit their peak.
Take this year’s efforts from the New New Hollywood gang. Moonrise Kingdom, from Wes Anderson, released in May, a candy-coloured geek-meets-freak romance following an orphaned Boy Scout over the weekend he spends with his emotionally wrought girlfriend on an idyllic New England island, is the dandy director's most critically and financially successful film to date. His namesake, Paul Thomas Anderson, meanwhile, releases The Master on 2 Nov, which is surely the most anticipated movie release of the autumn. And at the end of the month, David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, a loose-limbed romantic comedy that was awarded the people's choice prize at Toronto International Film Festival, hits UK screens.
Once the subversive elements of Hollywood, these young outsiders are now its establishment figures. This year’s Oscars – the very definition of conformity – will most likely see P.T. Anderson and Russell nominated for Best Director while The Master and Silver Linings Playbook are shoo-ins for Best Picture nods. What’s remarkable though is that these filmmakers have moved from the margins to the mainstream without succumbing to the artistic cowardice and conservatism that characterises most Hollywood productions.
Will either of them win? The Academy likes to invite wild cards like Russell and Anderson to the party but reserves its accolades for safer options. Just ask Martin Scorsese. His best post-70s films continually played bridesmaid to bland works by bland actors turned directors. At the 1980 ceremony Robert Redford’s Ordinary People knocked Raging Bull out for the count, while Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves made Goodfellas look like a mook in 1990. Scorsese eventually had to resort to a remake (The Departed) to get his mitts on a gold statuette. The Master and Silver Linings Playbook's biggest competition at next year’s ceremony is likely to be Argo (7 Nov). And who was behind its camera? Serviceable slab of hunk turned serviceable actor/director Ben Affleck. Russell and Anderson don't stand a chance.