The Spirit of ’68
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: April 27, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/movies/27scot.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1
AT least according to legend, the “events of May” — the strikes and disturbances that convulsed France in the spring of 1968 — began at the movies. On Feb. 9 Henri Langlois, president of the National Cinémathèque Française in Paris and a shambling, revered godfather of the French New Wave, was removed from his post by André Malraux, the minister of culture in Charles de Gaulle’s government. Young cinephiles reacted with outrage, and their angry protests flowed into a tide of political and social discontent that quickly reached the flood stage.
Three months later the country was engulfed in riots, work stoppages and mass demonstrations. Some of France’s most venerable traditions and institutions seemed to be under assault, and the Cannes Film Festival, the nation’s glamorous and exalted cinematic rite of spring, was hardly immune. The festival came to a halt on May 19, after a group of filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, professing solidarity with insurgent students and workers, rushed the stage at the Palais des Festivals and held down the curtain, preventing the scheduled screening from taking place.
Next month some of the entries from that aborted 21st Cannes festival will be shown, belatedly, at the 61st. This is just one of many film-world commemorations of the 40th anniversary of a singularly tumultuous year.
New Yorkers can mark the occasion with two rich and wide-ranging programs that aim to capture, on screen, the spirit of that bygone age. One, at Film Forum (Friday through June 5), is devoted to Mr. Godard in the 1960s, when he was at the height of his influence, productivity and creative power. The other, at Lincoln Center (Tuesday through May 14), stretches across geography, time and genre: from Paris and Chicago to Hungary, Japan and Brazil; from journalistic documentaries to agitprop and experimental theater; from defiant in-the-moment statements of revolutionary zeal to somber post-mortem contemplations of ideological exhaustion and political defeat.
Such commemorations offer an opportunity to brush up on history and revive perennial debates: about Western imperialism and third world resistance; about the counterculture and consumer capitalism; about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. But there is more going on than a global “Big Chill” moment. To rediscover 40 years later some of the cinematic experiments of 1968 is to be amazed at how raw, how urgent, how disarmingly alive these films are.
More than any other art form, cinema captured the energy, the truth, of the times. To an extent rarely matched before or since, filmmakers did not simply record the upheavals and crises of the time; they were participants and catalysts. None more so than Mr. Godard. It seems apt that the Film Forum and Lincoln Center programs share “La Chinoise,” one of a flurry of films he began, completed or released in 1968, and one in which he indulges his fondness for epigrams and proverbs. One of his slogans proclaims that with vague ideas, we need clear images.
Contemplating 1968 after 40 years, it seems we have plenty of both: an increasingly blurry and sentimental (if also sometimes cautionary) notion of “the ’60s” accompanied by sharp and dramatic images of exemplary events. Start with the Tet offensive at the end of January; segue into the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June. Between them, the French événements and the student uprising at Columbia University.
In the summer, a glimpse of the massacre of student demonstrators by Mexican soldiers at the Tlatelolco Plaza, a bloody prelude to the Mexico City Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos offered black power salutes from the medal stand. August brings the Democratic convention in Chicago, overwhelmed by anti-war demonstrations and a police riot.
In the fall, Soviet tanks arrive in Prague to smash the human face of Czech socialism. And in November, the “silent majority,” recoiling from the spectacle of anarchy and disorder in the streets, elects Richard M. Nixon president of the United States. Swirl it all together with a soundtrack of slogans and classic rock songs. The whole world is watching! Be realistic: Demand the impossible! There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.
And neither is “La Chinoise.” By turns heady, charming, infuriating and impenetrable — a Godard film, in other words — it represents its moment with an authenticity that is both undeniable and hard to specify. The political passions of the young characters contribute to this feeling, of course, but Mr. Godard is not simply dramatizing a chapter in the lives of good-looking people in the throes of militancy.
To the extent that a narrative can be discerned, it is fractured and oblique. The cast members — including the exquisitely pouty Juliet Berto, a fixture of Godard’s universe at the time, and Jean-Pierre Léaud, the perpetual male ingénue of the nouvelle vague — quote from literary texts and declaim didactic speeches, their exchanges interrupted by archival and contemporary documentary footage of war and disturbance. Moments of unvarnished, appropriated reality alternate with sequences of arch and self-conscious theater. (The same methods inform “Le Gai Savoir,” which also stars Mr. Léaud and Ms. Berto, and “Un Film Commes les Autres.”)
The series at Film Forum is called “Godard’s 60s,” and the possessive seems entirely appropriate. Mr. Godard, now 77, was surely the most widely imitated and ferociously debated filmmaker of the decade, and a strong case can be made that he was the era’s single most influential artist in any medium. From “Breathless” in 1960 to “Le Gai Savoir” in 1969, Mr. Godard was a cinematic perpetual-motion machine, completing 23 features and contributing to a number of omnibus and anthology films. This rate of production was not just a result of a uniquely accelerated artistic metabolism but also, and more decisively, the enactment of an aesthetic principle. Cinema, for Godard in the ’60s, was an art of the present tense, which meant that an individual film was not a framed and finished work but rather something more like an essay: provisional, disjunctive and almost by definition incomplete.
Mr. Godard was hardly the only filmmaker of the era who embraced an open-ended, experimental conception of the medium. A speech at the end of “Le Gai Savoir” suggests that he saw himself as part of a loose international fraternity of iconoclastic filmmakers, including Bernardo Bertolucci in Italy and Glauber Rocha, the father of Latin American cinema novo, in Brazil. A strong cumulative impression left by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “1968: An International Perspective” is that the political and cultural paroxysms of the time were accompanied by and refracted through a revolution in cinematic form and technique, one that leapt over boundaries of language and nation and fed on similar impulses in the other arts.
In the avant-garde theater, for instance, the distinctions between spectacle and audience, between ritual and performance, were coming under sustained and lively assault. In the world of letters, books like Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” trampled conventional distinctions between fiction and reportage, as well as those between subjective exploration and the objective analysis of events.
American movies, partly because of the conservatism of the Hollywood studios, lagged behind their counterparts in other countries. Perhaps the most famous collision between life and art in an American film is Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” in which the unscripted violence of Chicago during the convention erupts into the fictional tale of a journalist chasing down breaking news. As the billy clubs and tear-gas canisters start to fly, the microphone picks up a warning from off camera: “Watch out, Haskell. It’s real.”
But in Chicago and elsewhere, real events frequently contained elements of spectacle and performance. Some organizers of the antiwar protests, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in particular, explicitly conceived of their actions as a kind of self-conscious improvisational theater. This traffic between politics and theatrical performance is explored from the other direction in “Dionysus in 69,” Brian De Palma’s split-screen filmed record of the Performance Group’s production of “The Bacchae” by Euripides. Some of the audience is pulled into a mock orgy with members of the cast, who periodically shed their roles along with their clothes. At the end everyone bursts out of the theater into the street in a travesty of political ardor, proclaiming Dionysus, god of wine and mischief (played by William Finley, Mr. De Palma’s future Phantom of the Paradise), to be their standard-bearer in the 1968 presidential election. (In Chicago, the Yippies would try to nominate a pig.)
What is most striking in retrospect — what seems oddest and in a way most touching about these evocations of revelry and riot — is the spirit of asceticism, of earnest and passionate seriousness, driving the wanton experimentation. To return to Mr. Godard for a moment: His ’68-vintage films are playful, to be sure (“Weekend” in particular is full of barbed jokes and apocalyptic satire), but they are also a lot of work to watch. And the same can be said of many other films in the Lincoln Center program, from “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” Dusan Makavejev’s anarchic sexual-political tour de force (inspired by the maverick psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich), to “Antonio das Mortes,” Glauber Rocha’s ferocious populist folk epic, to “It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but the Society in Which He Lives,” Rosa von Praunheim’s deliriously campy, painfully serious critique of gay life in bourgeois society.
To watch these films requires a kind of focused, self-denying, active attention that might best be described as revolutionary discipline. The experience is a rigorous and sometimes punishing one that seems meant to put the viewer in the position of sharing, rather than merely witnessing, what is happening on the screen. Watching “La Chinoise,’’ “Un Film Commes les Autres” and “Le Gai Savoir” in sequence is like sitting through an endless series of cell meetings whose agendas are as inscrutable as they are pressing.
A lot of the action in these movies turns out to be talk. Mr. von Praunheim’s movie, an educational documentary in the guise of a sexploitation picture (or vice versa), ends with a scene that seems at once to celebrate and to parody the radical politics of the time. A bunch of men sit around naked, chain-smoking and patiently criticizing both traditional morality and homosexual behavior, proposing alliances between gay activists and factory workers as a substitute for the pursuit of pleasure and declaring an ideal of being “erotically free and socially engaged.”
A laudable goal, and one that, it might be argued, its proponents achieved since the ’60s to some degree in spite of themselves. Many of the idealistic impulses of the time, that is, bore fruit even though the larger utopian schemes to which they attached themselves failed. And some of the most moving films in the Lincoln Center series (as well as some of Mr. Godard’s recent work, which falls outside the purview of the current Film Forum retrospective) reckon with that failure, with the letdown that followed the stillborn revolutions of 1968.
One of these is Alain Tanner’s “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000” (1976), which captures a pastoral moment in the lives of former radicals. In Geneva and the surrounding countryside, they teach school, work the land, make love, drink wine and argue, all the while clinging to the conviction that another way of life is possible. And the characters in “Milestones” (1975), made by Robert Kramer and John Douglas at around the same time, find themselves in similar situations, trying to navigate between political commitments and personal desires and to figure out which is which.
Being European, the characters in “Jonah” express their subjective longings in a Marxist (or at least Hegelian) language of impersonal historical forces and dialectical movements. The Americans in “Milestones,” by contrast, use the Emersonian idiom of the self to give voice to their understanding of history. And both films demand, from present-day audiences, a degree of indulgence. They are long, slow and full of heavy conversation. “Milestones” in particular, with nonprofessional actors alternating between scripted scenes and real-life moments (including a long scene of natural childbirth), can feel endless and sometimes pointless.
But that is what history can feel like too, and I have the sense that any attempt to grasp the essence of the ’60s will have to pass through “Milestones,” as sad and compassionate a movie as I have ever seen. And also as difficult, because it doesn’t seem to want to be a movie at all, but rather an attempt to keep alive one of the noble, impossible promises of its time, which was to abolish the distinction between art and life.