In yesterdays New York Times there was a fascinating article about a year of global unrest. It was the year 1968 and as the article points out, in France social unrest began at the Cinémathèque Française, specifically with the ousting of its chief; the godfather of the French New Wave, Henri Langlois. Truffaut would later dub this event the “trailer for the feature film coming soon”. And he was right. Not three weeks later did French students take to the streets creating a series of protests that began the downfall of Charles de Gaulle’s government.
Just one of many national tales of ’68, the thrilling thing about that year was that it was a time when significant segments of population all over the globe refused to be silent about the many things that were wrong with the world.
In the U.S., there were the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the antiwar protests, the Chicago riot at the Democratic National Convention, and the Apollo 8 mission around the moon. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive was underway. Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to quell the rebellion there. Mexico City police opened fire on university protesters.
For filmmakers the weapon of choice was celluloid. American cinema had several groups taking to the streets including Newsreel and Third World Newsreel. In France there was the Dziga Vertov group founded by Godard, which encouraged workers and protesters to record events themselves.
It is interesting that the Times article makes note of LA CHINOISE, (a title that predates his Vertov period, but not by much) in its discussion of two series going on in New York dealing with 68. What seems important in that film, in terms of pinning down the ethos of the era, particularly in regards to the politics of its filmmakers, can be found in the film’s most prominent prop, Mao’s little Red Book. Filmmakers saw themselves as cultural revolutionaries and the camera was in-fact the weapon of choice ; the use of this tool could change the hearts and minds of those enslaved by popular cinema. But proponents from this era believed that caution must be used when utilizing the camera. These films so aggressively sought to expose the medium through the medium. Their creators wanted the audience to understand the apparatus of cinema, and become critical of it. Serge Daney summed up the sentiment that moved cinema to the streets when he wrote,
“One thing is certain in 1968: one must learn how to leave the movie theater (to leave behind cinephilia and obscurantism) or at least to attach it to something else. And to learn, you have to go to school. Less to the “school of life” than to the cinema as school. This is how Godard and Gorin transformed the scenographic cube into a classroom, the dialogue of the film into a recitation, the voiceover into a required course, the shooting of the film into a tutorial, the subject of the film into course headings from the University of Vincennes (“revisionism,” “ideology”) and the filmmaker into a schoolmaster, a drill-master or a monitor. School thus becomes the good place which removes us from cinema and reconciles us with “reality” (a reality to be transformed, naturally.) This is where the films of the Dziga Vertov Group came to us from (and earlier, La Chinoise.) In Tout va bien, Numéro deux and Ici et ailleurs, the family apartment has replaced the movie theater (and television has taken the place of cinema), but the essentials remain: people learning a lesson.”
The urgency of this attraction was that this argument made any non-politicized form of filmmaking untenable, or in otherwords a form of complicity. If you believe the NYT, the aspiration of these filmmakers was,
“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.”
This year, Daney’s quote might as well have been used by Amy Taubin when she took Joe Swanberg to task about his crop of Mumblecore films.
So the question is posed, outside of the overcrowded documentary marketplace, and the static generated in the universe of youtube, are there films being made politically about politics? There’s certainly no shortage of topics to tackle. The growing food, credit, housing, and oil crises.
For contemporary examples of works tackling our times one could turn to last week’s CHOP SHOP, or the forthcoming SHOTGUN STORIES. But do either of these films, or any others being made today, fully take the medium to task the way that Godard et co. did in ’68? I have my own answers, but we are a forum after all so I hope you’ll contribute your own opinions in the comments section below.
In the meantime, I suggest the following sources for other discussions of the period.
And for series currently dealing with ’68 check out:
1968: An International Perspective at Lincoln Center in New York
May 68 at The Tate Modern in London
Pop Goes The Revolution at the BFI Southbank in London
Cinema ’68: The Whole World Is Watching at the Melbourne Cinematheque
Godard’s 60′s at Film Forum New York
1968/2008 at Arsenal in Berlin
The Clash of ’68 at PFA in Berkley
Cinema Rises at le peuple qui manque in Nantes
Northwest Film Forum tackles the Democratic Convention of that year in late August, on the eve on of the 2008 convention, with a series called Summer ’68 Revisited.