A change was about to take place in Hollywood by the end of the 50s. The Paramount Antitrust case had broken up the film studios’ vertical integration. Before the ruling in 1948, studios controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of their movies and the ruling stated that they had to give one of these up. The studios decided to get rid of their movie chains and this caused the studios to take a massive financial hit.
Throughout the 50s, the studios struggled to compete with television and all sorts of technical innovations—like Technicolor and 3-D—to get the butts in the seats, but alas, it had little impact (Wiki).
They didn’t know it, but this hardship would pave the way for a Hollywood renaissance that would give youthful American artists an opportunity to redefine what American cinema is and share their passion with the world. This is how New Hollywood started…
The aim of the Paramount Antitrust decision was to provide small independent producers an opportunity to compete with the big studios and that’s just what happened. Cheaper and portable filmmaking equipment gave artists a chance to make a film without relying on the money and resources of the big studios (New Wave Film).
Independent filmmaking in America during the 40s and 50s had been almost exclusively used for avant-garde and art films. Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943, James and John Whitney’s Five Film Exercises in 1945, and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks in 1947 were some of the wider known of these films. Films like these were primarily short and often financed by the artists themselves (Martin 194).
Maya Deren even rented out theaters with her own money in order to showcase her work (Martin 194). Following Deren’s lead, Amos Vogel founded a film club in New York City called Cinema 16 in 1947 with his wife Marcia where they, too, used their own resources to exhibit films (Cinema 16). In Cinema 16, the Vogel’s showed experimental films and documentaries and eventually films from all around the world—primarily Italian comedies, Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese films, and French New Wave films (Wiki). These kinds of films would go on to inspire the aesthetics and practices of the New Hollywood films.
It was around this time that the Cahiers du Cinema magazine started and many of the writers—who would later go on to make films and found the French New Wave—had begun noticing a trend in the films of certain American directors. These films were unlike the others—they had a personal touch to them. These were the films of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Orson Welles. All of their films had a cohesive style and thematic quality to them that showed the Cahiers writers that the best cinematic masterpieces were a product of a single artist’s vision (New Wave Film).
In February of 1957, John Cassavetes started shooting his first feature film, Shadows. Cassavetes financed the film using money he had made as an actor. He would continue to act and would later appear in such classics as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. Shadows was a new kind of American film—it was stripped down and relied heavily on improvisation.
The dialogue in Shadows was mostly improvised and the cast was made up of students from an acting workshop that Cassavetes had taught a month earlier. After a lackluster first cut, Cassavetes reworked his film and it was met with great acclaim at the 1960 Cannes and Venice film festivals. To shoot the film, Cassavetes had borrowed a 16mm camera from a friend named Shirley Clarke who began directing films herself in the 60s. Arguably her most famous was a film titled The Connection in 1961 about jazz musicians waiting for their drug dealer to show up. Like Shadows, Clarke’s films were a type of filmmaking that hadn’t been seen before in American cinema—they had the feeling of spontaneity and reality that Hollywood had shied away from in the past (New Wave Film).
On the same bill as the final version of Shadows, a short film premiered titled Pull My Daisy narrated by Jack Keroac and starring Allen Ginsberg. The film was directed by famous American photographer Robert Frank and captures the essence of the Beatnik generation that Ginsberg and Keroac championed during the 50s and 60s.
A writer named Jonas Mekas and 23 independent filmmakers wrote a list of principles in Film Culture magazine titled the First Statement of the New American Cinema Group (New Wave Film). These principles stated that they would make personal films instead of “product film[s],” that they would not accept losing any creative control over their films to “producers, distributors, and investors” and that they wouldn’t adhere to any censorship of their voices as dictated by the current policy of the distribution and exhibition channels (New Wave Film).
At the end of this statement, Mekas famously wrote: “we are for art, but not at the expense of life. We don’t want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films – we want them the color of blood” (New Wave Film).
The revolution had already begun and the cinematic landscape was primed for a new type of filmmaker—the young film school generation who would shake things up yet again leading into the 70s. Stay tuned to find out how this man [picture of Roger Corman] is responsible for introducing some of American cinema’s greatest artists.