This month marks the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 Paris Uprising. And it was last month when New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott wrote, "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." ("The Sprit of 68: What Godard and His Fellow Revolutionaries Still Have to Tell Us," April 27, NYT)
Serious Leftists think that the 1968 uprisings in France and the rest of the world have more to do with historical circumstance and the international context which made conditions ripe for rebellion—and even more so, with the active self conscious organizing efforts of countless individuals over many prior years and during those times, without which, nearly nothing would have happened—rather than with celluloid per se.
Indeed, the celluloid virtues of the era, like all the other tumultuous, virtuous features—were all both cause and effect in a diversely synergistic phenomenon rooted in everything from reaction to horrific war to outrage at domestic and campus repressiveness, ubiquitous hypocrisy, and daily life without daily liberation.
In October 1967 Che Guevara was captured and killed in Bolivia. On January 31, 1968, in the early morning of the lunar New Year holiday, The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and the People’s Army of Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. In France alone escalating student protests, worker strikes, and clashes with the police all together accelerated into a crescendo of uprising where more than 10 million people, took to the streets, turned society upside down, and then went back to their everyday lives.
As much as I like movies and the shared experience of a public cinema, I have to object to Scott’s premise. Not only that, but what is the point of considering revolutionary movements and Cinema from the 60s and 70s if there is no connection made for today? Are we voyeurs or are we active citizens facing immense contemporary problems looking back to move forward?
Scott’s "The Spirit of 68" does not mention this century’s anti-corporate globalization movement, current Left organizing in Latin America, the fluctuations of today’s international anti-war movement, nor even how these themes may be playing out in today’s movies or their consequences for today’s Left.
Scott suggests that the February 9th, 1968 demoting of Henri Langlois from his role as president of the National Cinémathèque Francaise in Paris was the initial detonator of the uprising. Scott is not alone in suggesting this as a causal event. The internationally acclaimed film director Bernardo Bertolucci used the Cinémathèque, the demoting of Langlois, and Paris Uprising as the backdrop for his film "The Dreamers" (2003). The film is a combination of great music from Hendrix, Joplin, Dylan, and others—a homage to film history, sensuous cinematography, and Bertolucci’s trade mark (bizarre and ultimately sexist) psycho-sexual relations. Bertolucci even cast French New Wave actor Jean-Pierre Léaud to re-enact his 1968 reading of a Godard communiqué to the crowd outside the Cinémathèque protesting Langlois’ removal, which is interspersed in the movie with original news reel footage of the event.
Of course pretty much anyone in any domain of life could look at the period, find uprising bearing on their concerns, art, film, sport, war and peace, income, gender, race, and claim—wrongly, it as the main detonator based solely on it in fact being real and important. The actual French uprising began with campus battles over controlling rules bearing on relations among students, and particularly men and women, most accounts report—but that is not the same as saying this was the cause. The cause was, of course, a multifaceted reaction to war and imperialism, repression, and capitalism, daily life as people experienced it, and ideas floating all through society arising from years of organizing, and even, with a long view, decades of oppositional organizing.
As founder of the Cinémathèque Francaise in the 1930s, Langlois was however, certainly a pioneer of film archiving and restoration who proved to be one of the most important figures in the history of film. During the Nazi occupation of France, Langlois helped save a number of films that the Nazi’s threatened to destroy including Charlie Chaplin’s satire "The Great Dictator" (1940), the classic silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), and numerous others. After the sacking of Langlois, but not as the lone, nor even casual event of the subsequent uprisings, clashes between students and police at Nanterre University, along with many other proximate and long term bases, erupted in March. The conflicts escalated and spread to other universities, workplaces, and across society. As an aspiring revolutionary born in 76, what I find most inspiring about 68 is the widespread spirit of revolutionary fervor that sought to transform society in its totality and that is the essence of revolution that needs to be resurrected today.
Watching many films of the 60s, pre-60s, and 70′s era today, one can trace the social commentary and transformation unfolding, not only on the screen, but outside the cinema, in the fabric of society’s defining relations.
In the U.S., films such as the romantic comedy "Adam’s Rib" (1949) cleverly exposed systemic sexism of the day, while Kubrick’s "Dr. Strange Love" (1964) played satire on Cold War politics and apocalyptic fear of the 50s; the following generations educated youth grappled with alienation and the shifting social and sexual relations portrayed in "The Graduate" (1967), and late 60s counter-culture and the search for ever-elusive American freedom was the narrative of "Easy Rider" (1969).
In the rest of the world, a new spirit in film emerged from the trauma of World War II breaking many social and culture taboos of the time, exemplified by Godard, and inspiring New Wave movements all through Europe, Japan, Korea, India, Latin America, and eventually the world. The content of many of these films paralleled the counter-culture and revolutionary movements of the times with themes of Black Power and Civil Rights, Feminist, and Third World national liberation struggles.
But the cause was in the movements—even if the films then also contributed in a mutual dance of influence—as with music of the times, too. Films like René Viénet’s cult classic "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?" (1973) may not have been popular entertainment, but they were explicitly anti-capitalist in their motif and agitational role. Gillo Pontecorvo’s "The Battle of Algiers" (1966) and "Queimada" (1969) remain powerful depictions of anti-colonial insurrection. And all this is to say nothing about the films, nor rural mobile cinema projects, of so-called "Actually Existing Socialist" countries of the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba; nor the many past and present documentary and dramatized films on the Spanish Civil War from the late 1930s and since.
If cinema of the 60s and 70s provides a window into the past and helps bridge our understanding of the present, how do we interpret some of today’s top grossing and mostly watched films?
The movie adaptation of Marvel Comic’s "Iron Man" has been a box office hit grossing over $222.5 million in the U.S. and $428.5 million worldwide. For those who don’t know the plot, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is heir to a leading U.S. weapons manufacturer who, through a few storyline twists and turns, becomes the Iron Man super hero on a mission to abolish weapons.
Yes, the hero is a man, nothing new there. And the film is also, unsurprisingly, guilty of re-producing stereotypically racist portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern terrorist characters. But the point that most Leftists would lose sight of, is that not only does this box office hit present a plot about the harm of weapons and war that most Left intellectuals and activist pour their days and nights over to expose, sacrificing themselves and their personal and material relations, but the movie goers are made to feel that Justice has been served when Iron Man combats military industry corporate espionage and the inhumanity of U.S. foreign policy.
There are near endless examples similar to this in mainstream media and pop-culture. Why can’t the Left convey information and analysis able to entertain, enlighten, and bring in $2-4 million to help fund our movements?! It’s not just that we don’t have control over the means to mass produce and distribute our product—although that is a serious obstacle. Most Leftists are not even interested in relating to people through the tastes in culture they already have.
To push the point, most Leftists would wrongly scoff at what would pass for U.S. working class taste in movies. For example, the latest Val Kilmer film "Conspiracy" (2008), where Kilmer plays Desert Storm vet and special ops Marine "William MacPherson." MacPhereson "discovers that a shady corporation known for harassing illegal aliens is intimately involved with the disappearance of his best friend." (Netflix) Much of the film’s acting is poor, as are the special effects, action scenes, and dialogue. However, even though Kilmer’s character is the stereotypical rugged individualist American taking apolitical action against the corporation for reasons of personal benevolence, the plot and much of the dialogue are overtly political, anti-war, and pro-immigrant.
Popular culture and opinion is often much further to the Left than Leftists give it credit for and consequentially our analysis comes off didactic or patronizing to most people’s cultural preferences. The issue of Left sensibility to class in economy, culture, and taste in the 21st Century is key for renewing the project of 68—for transforming the totality of oppressions afflicting society.
Movies have all kinds of purposes. People are entertained and get personal enjoyment from them. Those looking for a cultural understanding and assessment of popular consciousness can find academic stimulation. And, of course, movies are also relevant for film critics, film makers, and actors who produce movies for the purpose of entertainment or even, rarely, for social change—all of which are part of university courses, industries, and generate millions of jobs and billions of dollars.
All that money is going somewhere and it certainly isn’t to the underpaid projectionists or box office and concession stand staff who get meager workplace benefits, if any, but is instead one more way that poor and working class folks are having their money taken from them as profits trickle up to the corporate "Big Six": Fox, Paramount, Sony, NBC, Time Warner, and Disney. And as much as I love 60s cinema, I know that suggesting it has relevance to people dealing with housing foreclosures, paying high tuition fees, high medical and health expenses, low wages, debt or job loss is about as useful as asking people to eat mud pies to deal with malnutrition. Additionally, if people are made to spend between $7.00 and $12.00 per movie ticket, not to mention the overpriced soda and popcorn, the movie better be damn good and not like decoding a brick or reading a university text.
Most people, are not interested in 60s cinema and would instead prefer T.V. or Action/Adventure movies to escape from the miseries of everyday life than the near impenetrable films by someone widely considered one of the greatest film makers of all time, and who I personally appreciate, Godard. Moreover, not only does our inability as Leftists to appreciate mainstream and working class culture expose an obstacle to overcome, but it also tells us about the redundancy of our analysis when we continue telling people what is wrong with the world while box office hits (and flops) can do it better. It seems the vast majority of people already know deep down that everything is broken and are not surprised to hear what we have to say. If this is true, and yet we are still unable to organize them, than the solution to the problem is not to keep telling them what they already know, but to counter their cynical belief that there is no alternative by shifting more of our energies towards offering vision for real world transformation that is both feasible and desirable. Onward and forward with the project of 68!
Chris Spannos is staff with Z (named for the Costa-Gavras Film "Z") and is editor of the book Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century (AK Press, 2008), available this month.