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The Mid-Atlantic: Fantasmatic Genealogies of the French and American New Waves

  • Author(s): Haynes, Jonathan Everett
  • Advisor(s): Silverman, Kaja;
  • Whissel, Kristen
  • et al.


The Mid-Atlantic: Fantasmatic Genealogies of the French and American New Waves


Jonathan E. Haynes

Doctor of Philosophy in Film & Media

University of California, Berkeley

Professors Kaja Silverman and Kristen Whissel, Co-Chairs

This dissertation re-imagines the contexts for the paradigmatic film movement of the sixties. The French New Wave, I argue, was made and remade in translation, as texts circulated among French and American scholars, critics, and filmmakers. Subtending this circulation was a genealogical fantasy, with deep roots in the 19th century of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. The Baudelaire-Poe liaison has become the defining symbol of la rencontre franco-américaine and is often invoked to characterize the transformative effects of Truffaut's and Godard's politique des auteurs on the reputations of key American filmmakers, like Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray. Ambiguously connected to official traffic between the two nations, and manifest in a decades-long labor of translation that Baudelaire himself compared to prayer, l'affaire Baudelaire-Poe illuminates the degree to which French-American exchange was transferential. In Poe, Baudelaire saw the reflection of his own desire, and he spent the last years of his life making Poe's work his own.

In so far as the Nouvelle Vague belongs to this lineage, the film movement cannot be confined to France and the early sixties; nor are the texts of the Nouvelle Vague (the films and the criticism) fully answerable to the exigencies of post-War phenomena, such as the Marshall Plan and generation gaps. Rather, these designators of historical specificity mediate a more complex, even subversive, family drama, in which French authors write themselves into the history of American art, while American authors re-invent French works in their own image. To capture the Oceanic qualities of a cultural exchange in which transnational logics are subordinate to intersubjective ones, I produce a new term - The Mid-Atlantic. The Mid-Atlantic refers to the actual space between France and America, where planes and boats crossed, transferring materials between the two nations. But the Mid-Atlantic has its own history, independent of its status as a shipping route. In the dissertation's introduction, I examine how the Mid-Atlantic has been figured by authors like Herman Melville, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Luc Godard, in order to make the case that the Mid-Atlantic constitutes a fantasmatic origin for the Nouvelle Vague.

In Chapter One ("Beyond the Zero: Jacques Rivette on Fritz Lang") I argue that la politique des auteurs re-tailored film history in the image of desire. Through a close reading of Jacques Rivette's 1957 review of Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), the German emigré's last Hollywood film, I attempt to show the devious ways in which Rivette assumes "authorship" of Fritz Lang through an act of critical exegesis that re-doubles and sublates the film it describes. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and its author dissolve into Rivette's poetic description (which is also a depiction, the "stylo" transformed into the "caméra"). For the contemporary reader, who can only read this article in the foreknowledge of the legendary Nouvelle Vague films soon to appear, the article is doubly prophetic. It augurs the author Rivette - Paris nous appartient (1961) - as well as the future history of the Auteur "Lang," who ever-after would belong to the past of the Nouvelle Vague.

Chapter Two, "Corresponding Vessels: Truffaut-Hitchcock" develops the larger argument about Franco-American transference through a close analysis of François Truffaut's legendary book of interviews with the master of suspense. In Truffaut's "Hitchbook," each auteur plays a part in the other's film: Hitchcock becomes a character in Baiser volés(Stolen Kisses 1968), while Truffaut, his merciless interlocutor, adopts the prosecutorial features of the detectives from The Wrong Man (1956). Like its literary ancestor, Baudelaire's Histoires Extraordinaires, which spawned a great deal of 20th century modernist art (from Symbolist poetry to le policier), I argue that the "Hitchbook" was the Big Bang of modern film studies in France and America. Published almost simultaneously (in 1967) on both sides of the Atlantic, this classic text was the root of New Hollywood, as well as gaze theory - here, Hitchcock becomes an Absolute Cinematic Value.

In "Downtown Godard," my third chapter, I examine Amos Poe's 1976 "No Wave" film, Unmade Beds. Poe's film restages Godard's A bout de souffle (1959) on the bombed-out streets of New York's Lower East Side, and discloses unexpected affinities between the American Underground of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith and the Nouvelle Vague of Godard and Truffaut. I argue that the eponymonous "unmade beds" refer to one unmade bed - the ransacked hotel mattress in Godard's first feature, around which Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg orbited, like twin galaxies of French-American connotation. A Mid-Atlantic figure par excellence, the unmade bed stands for the primal scene of sixties and seventies experimental film.

My fourth and final chapter ("The Resurrection and the Life") examines the preponderance of the "death of the cinema" metaphor in current film and media discourse, in order to bring into focus how this crucial Nouvelle Vague concept (la fin de cinéma) operates in Mid-Atlantic terms. I read two "post-cinematic" films - Luc Moullet's 1971 "western," A Girl is a Gun: Une aventure de billy le kid and Alexandre Aja's shocking 2003 horror film, Haute tension - in parallel. Both films occupy the modality of le cinéma mort, as emblematized by important films like Godard's Weekend (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò (1975), which put "revolt" under the sign of revulsion. Yet, both also demonstrate the degree to which the "death of the cinema," however taken - as a militant call (Death to Cinema!) or as a simple fact of the mediatic society (the totemistic "cinema" of digital culture) - necessitates the appearance of a new kind of image, which will form the mythological basis for a New Cinema.

In the dissertation's conclusion ("The Embryonic Image"), I extrapolate the consequences of this "new image" for film historiography and theory. Here I turn to Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), in particular a sequence from that work in which a portrait of a young woman overlays a scene from Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955). Godard's image, I argue, brings Mid-Atlantic figuration to a late-20th century apotheosis. It invokes the prayerful mood of Baudelaire's Poe translations ("Le voyage" is read on the soundtrack), and it postulates that the Cinema Itself was born in a single spasm of recognition: a French poet seeing his own features reflected in the words of an American poet.

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