Forty years on, 1968 seems like an historical impossibility.
“The terrible thing is that the people who wish to destroy the world have nothing to put in its place. This is what I mean by nihilism.”—V.S. Naipaul, discussing the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, April 20, 2008.
Forty years on, 1968 seems like an historical impossibility. In the cold light of our times, the momentary flowering of an international youth movement built on the idea of expanding human freedom (pro-academic freedom, pro-free speech, pro-labor rights, pro-choice and decidedly anti-war) seems at once charming and, for someone like me who has only been alive for 37 of the intervening 40 years, spectral, a flickering light against a rapidly expanding void. In celebration of that historic moment and all it has meant to the cinema, The Film Society of Lincoln Center has assembled an expansive program of films called 1968: An International Perspective and, great minds thinking somewhat alike, the Film Forum is featuring a Godard’s 60’s retrospective. In preparation for this monumental trip down "received memory" lane, I have been re-visiting my own feelings about 1968, a series of events that hovers just beyond the grasp of my personal experience but which has had a profound effect on the world as I have known it.
I have always respected and admired the moment of '68; The hope of May in Paris to the bloody battle in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in the late summer to the resistance to the terrible fall of Prague in the fall. But I am a child of its historical residue, left floating in the polluted wake of lessons learned and a near-universal retreat from the values espoused by the movement. What is left for me, for my generation? Where do we stand in relation to this definitive experience that has shaped our collective imagination, an image of populism so powerful that we have been unable to replace its fundamental physical structure in the decades since its collapse?
As a twenty-something student myself, confronting my own feelings and how to respond to Bush I and his Gulf War, it was fascinating to me to watch my generation ape this movement; The large rallies and long, sweaty meetings discussing strategy, 25,000 students marching on the streets of Ann Arbor, hand painted signs and peace symbols, my friends and I packing up the car and heading to Washington, D.C. for the obligatory March On Washington, and all of it to almost no effect. Where was the actual confrontation? And again, another decade later, a new Bush and a new war; Masses of people taking to the streets against the War in Iraq, folk songs being sung, sit-ins, rallies marches and talk talk talk but again, nothing. Silence. And now, there is no real popular movement in America, a dominant media environment that refuses to acknowledge dissenting opinion and a public (and, much to my dismay, a youth culture) that identifies more closely with the empty jargon of a factually and historically inaccurate rationale for war than they do with any message a popular anti-war movement seems capable of providing. Is it any wonder we have a cinema that teeters between silence and failure, an entire form seemingly unable to communicate the experience of being alive in the Bush years, the outrage of the Iraq War overly literalized into cinematic cliché?
And why is that? Why is it that populism has fallen on such hard times? Why is the cinema unable to capture this time and place, or even satirize it effectively? In my opinion, the shadow of 1968 has a great deal to do with it. We have been unable to replace our own romanticism of that moment, of young people and folk songs and barricades and free love and confrontation, with the relevant set of tools necessary to engage the ways in which the world has changed. Power refuses to confront the people; It's easier to ignore the masses, to stay on message and refuse to acknowledge everything else. The movement for political change in this country has, ironically, refused to embrace the actual changes in society and seems not to have learned the lessons that the rest of the post-1968 world learned; Principles be damned, you have to control the articulation of your message in order to convince people that they have a stake in the change you propose. And personally speaking, I find it hard to see much change in the rhetoric of romanticism for a movement that never delivered on its glorious promises. Why in the world would anyone play a folk song at a political rally in 2008? If I had a hammer, I'd use it to re-shape the fucking unintelligible lingua franca of protests. Why has the internet not been properly utilized as a tool for creating the conditions for social change? Why can we not replace the romantic structure of a by-gone set of tactics and strategies with a new, relevant set that erases idealism and replaces it with practical actions for winning the war of ideas?
In looking over the film schedules for the 1968 and Godard programs, I am at once fascinated, excited and self-critical; I wonder if Godard, Garrell, Oshima, Wexler and Makavejev spent their weekday afternoons in May of '68 in the dark, sitting in various cinemathéques around the world and watching retrospectives from 1928, hoping for lessons in the silent films of that era, looking back forty years and wondering how they might find images that spoke to their own times. I wonder if they gathered to watch Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan Of Arc, curious as to how Falconetti’s face might symbolize their own refusal to conform to the will of an unjust authority. Or did they instead look forward, hoping to find ways to shake things up in their own times and examine their own unique moment as an opportunity to re-shape cinema into an expression of youthful desire? Either way (or both ways), the distance between the on-screen matyrdom of Falconetti’s young, pure idealist and Godard’s brilliant excoriation of the youth movement in Week End is the same distance and that lies between Week End and the cinema of today. But man, it's been a long forty years; Is there a film that feels less likely to be made today than Week End? Who would even try?
Week End: Godard Wasn't Subtle, But He May Be Right.
One of the most restrictive concepts of '68 as a cinematic moment is the absolute certainty it presents in its image of the world; The cinema is suddenly reshaped, primarily by Godard, through the power of montage. This is the dawn of the essay film, a form which reached its apotheosis in the hands of Chris Marker (whose brilliant 1968 elegy A Grin Without A Cat is playing in the Lincoln Center series) and the didacticism of certainty is so beloved by so many of these filmmakers, they bend over backwards to stuff their films full of timely, big ideas; Newsreel footage, documentary footage of demonstrations, dramatic recreations of historical events (reshaped to conform to the correct dogmatic principles of the day). There is so much lecturing going on that characters will often spend endless scenes reading decontextualized passages from books to one another, the poetry of a literary fragment providing the dramatic thrust for undercooked connections to bygone eras.
Thankfully, the best of these films has a tongue buried in its cheek and this certainty, this need to understand ideals as desirable realities, is eventually exposed as a pretext for good old fashioned human interaction; No sex before a literary and intellectual pedigree is established, thankyouverymuch. It’s got to be politically justifiable love, after all. But oh, aren't they cool? So young and beautiful, so passionate about ideas? For me, it all feels so tragic knowing that just around the corner, outside the comforts of the cinema and in the real world, this powerful sense of political certainty would literally explode into the 1970’s with the formation of left-wing political terrorist groups like The Red Army Faction, The Weather Underground and The Red Brigades. Yes, cinema (and art in general) was eager to expose the dangers that this unyielding, self-satisfied approach to political life offered, but that warning was often muted by the fun and beauty to be found in giving visual representation to what was, in so many respects, a truly lovely sense of idealism. Unfortunately, that idealism became reactionary nihilism very quickly.
Desire On The Barricades: Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers
Which brings me back to the quote I used to introduce this piece. I heard it this past week on a terrific radio show called To The Best Of Our Knowledge when V.S. Naipaul (not one of my favorite thinkers) used it to describe his primary beef with that certain brand of Islamic Fundamentalism that promotes the use of terror. While I wouldn’t dare equate the populist movements of ’68 with the rise of global Islamic terrorism in the 21st century, I do believe that the great irony we face in the shadow of ’68 is that the most profoundly influential youth movement shaping our world today stands, in many respects, at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from the values and ideals espoused forty years ago. Time feels like it is moving backward now. Which is to say, young Muslims all over the world are ready to organize, rise up, murder and die for their own belief in the certainty of paradise, only this paradise is so ideal as to not be attainable on earth, in our physical reality. What's a free-thinking humanist to do? And while Naipaul is right (in my opinion) about the nihilism of fundamentalism of all stripes, that there is nothing that has ever been proposed by political and moral certainty that could possibly adequately replace the beautiful and messy reality of our own world, the failure of the movements of 1968 to reshape mankind into a free loving, peaceful, egalitarian utopia is borne from a similar limitation; The world that was proposed by the popular youth movement at that moment was simply not possible or, in retrospect, even desirable. And it was this certainty that things were, in fact, possible and desirable that lead to the empty, short-sighted violence of the 1970’ s and ultimately to the near-wholesale cultural rejection in this country of the principles of ’68. Which is a terrible shame.
As I said before, I am a child of that rejection. And while I plan on taking in as many films in both series as I possibly can in the coming weeks, I always look at films about ’68 differently than I look at other films; I look for what might have survived, which sparkling bits of humanity and idealism still speak to the world today. Because, and it must be faced, the rest of it feels like a lot of bullshit. There is a very real sense of sadness that permeates these films, a grief in knowing what might have been possible if only someone, anyone had known what they were doing. Oh, what might have been. And then again, oh, what is.