May 1968 and After: Cinema in France and Beyond, part 2

Antonioni in America

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 2 / March 1998 15 minutes (3576 words)

Part II

At this point I will move away from a direct France May 68 context to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and the broader late 60’s zeitgeist which informs it. These are political events that stretched across the Atlantic and included Europe and North America. The common event being the Vietnam War, which acted as a glue for dissenters of all stripes. The broader political/cultural events that shape the context for Zabriskie Point are: Black Power, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat Generation and the Counterculture, the student uprisings, and the Vietnam War. Like in France, the American films that dealt most directly and radically with political issues were the documentary and underground films. David E. James covers this area remarkably well in Allegories of the Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton university Press, 1989): Forced to the edge of the cultural field and to the edge of radical politics, the characteristic American political film emerged from subcultures that had previously been as disenfranchised cinematically as they had been politically [i.e. Blacks, leftists, students, women] p. 173. American cinema had their equivalents to the French film collectives with groups such as “Newsreel” and “Third World Newsreel.” Two of the more popular Newsreel documentaries dealt with the student uprisings: Columbia Revolt (1968) and Summer of 68 (1969). Surprisingly, there were few mainstream films that dealt forthrightly with the student riots. In fact the two most prominent, Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Strawberry Statement (1970), were produced by the same studio, MGM.

I find it strangely ironic that a 58 year old, middle-class Italian art director became a spokesperson and defender of the American Counterculture! Zabriskie Point is surely one of film history’s great cinematic misfires (though it contains great moments). Largely because Antonioni was dealing for the first time with a class he knew very little about (working class), a generation far removed from his own, in a country (the United States) he knew little about. In his great Italian films Antonioni dealt almost exclusively with the class he knew best, his own, the Italian middle class. What affinity did Antonioni see with the American Counterculture? In his famous alienation tetralogy ( L’Avventura , La Notte , L’Eclisse , Il Deserto Rosso ) Antonioni depicted the Italian middle class as emotionally and spiritually vacant. Antonioni characterized this modern, post-war Italian society as suffering from what he called “sick eros” (sex that is used to fill an emotional/spiritual void). One of the counterculture’s most symbolic anti-establishment gestures was a return to a Romanticist notion of free and natural love and sexual liberation (which Antonioni symbolizes in the controversial desert love-in scene). Undoubtedly, Antonioni saw this energized sexuality as an antidote to “sick eros.”

Zabriskie Point opens with an in-progress meeting between white and black students trying to arrive at a strategic political alliance. In the scene we hear the familiar divisions concerning theory versus praxis played out between the black militant students and the liberal white middle class students. The black students argue for praxis and the use of violence, while the white students argue for theory and non-violence. This opening scene is closely aligned with contemporary political reality (except for the fact that the Black Panther Party, if that is who these blacks are meant to represent, were never involved with student politics). David E. James writes:

The Black movement abandoned integrationist nonviolence for the nationalist militancy of Black Power, developed in 1966 after the murder of Malcom X and the foundation of the Black Panther Party. Displaced from their role in the civil rights movement, White students broke with liberal reformists to follow French neo-Marxists in theorizing themselves as a revolutionary class and, more aggressively, to contest the Vietnam War (Allegories of Cinema, p.170).

The woman leading the black students is played by Kathleen Cleaver, sister of Eldridge Cleaver, who also appeared in the Agnes Varda documentary Black Panthers: A Report (1968). At one point in the discussion the question is raised, “are you willing to die for the cause?” One student stands up and says, “I’m willing to die…but not from boredom.” This student is Mark, who then leaves the room and becomes the film’s central focus and antihero. So the film moves from a Marxist notion of a collective protagonist to a bourgeois concept of the loner/individual hero. The cinema vérité style of this opening sequence is also abandoned for a more poetic and surrealist style. I would add that this style, with its foreshortened space (telephoto lens), zoom shots, and quick cutting, underscores the divisions within the group rather than a sense of unity. The film’s other central young character, Daria, is an apolitical employee of a huge land development company called “Sunny Dunes,” run by establishment figure Rod (Rod Taylor). The real character of this film, however, is the pure space of city and desert. Although the use of space and architecture is a seminal aspect of Antonioni’s visual language, the use of space in Zabriskie Point taps into a recurring American iconography of the late sixties, early seventies counterculture film.

The American counterculture film draws on the wide-open spaces associated with the Western genre in both an ironic and reaffirming fashion. In the Western the open space symbolizes freedom from the constraints of encroaching civilization. In the counterculture film the wide-open desert spaces of Death Valley and Monument Valley symbolize the last respite for youthful rebellion against establishment conformity. However, in the counterculture film the once positive symbols of expansionism, imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and the “American Dream” are violently shattered on the very same roads and spaces. Nearly every key American counterculture film ends with a violent death occurring in an open road, or in the middle of a desolate highway road, or in a desert pointing in the direction of a limitless future/past. In the counterculture film the automobile, an icon borrowed from the gangster film and itself a symbol of freedom, American progress and imperialism, is inextricably linked with the violent road death.

In Zabriskie Point Mark, the student anarchist, is killed needlessly by the police as he flies the airplane he stole back to Los Angeles. The police are waiting for him everywhere. He lands the plane on an open road but is shot dead before coming to a complete stop, with the plane coming to rest in-between two roads. At the end of Easy Rider (1969, dir. Dennis Hopper), perhaps the seminal counterculture film, the bikers are shot to death by a couple of trigger-happy rednecks. In Electra Glide in Blue (1973, dir., James William Guerico) Robert Blake plays John Wintergreen, a motorcycle officer patrolling the Fordian territory of Monument Valley. Wintergreen has dreams of becoming a detective, but becomes disillusioned and returns to his regular beat. The film concludes with Wintergreen forced to kill his insane partner Zippy and then, in a reverse of Easy Rider ‘s violent end, being senselessly killed by a hippie he has flagged down. Once shot Wintergreen falls to a sitting position, perched in the middle of the street, with his rag doll body hunched forward. The image is made even more surreal as the camera dollies back and away reducing his body to a mere speck in the road. Even One Plus One , which contains two extended scenes in an automobile junkyard, ends with the poetic death of Eve Democracy raised up into the sky atop a camera crane. Road deaths play a central role in Medium Cool (1969, dir., Haskell Wexler), a film that in many respects represents the “conscience” of the sixties. The film is set in the summer of 1968 in Chicago and is loaded with the key events of that historical summer: the riots at the National Democratic Convention, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Prague, Budapest (mentioned by students at a demonstration).

Like with Daria in Zabriskie Point , Medium Cool features a central character that becomes politicized through the course of the film. Robert Forster plays John, a television news cameraman emotionally and ethically detached from his work. The film opens with the aftermath of a car crash. John arrives on the scene and films the groaning body trapped in the car wreck before going to make a distress call. John’s ethical and political conscience develops through a series of events and is sealed when he discovers that his demonstration footage is being handed over to the CIA and FBI. The last scene of the film has John loosing control of his car and skidding into a tree, seriously injuring himself and killing his passenger. In an ironic circularity, a passing driver rolls down his car window and snaps a photograph of the accident. Perhaps no film represents the symbolic fusion of violent car death and the end of the sixties euphoria (hope for political change, individual freedom, the counterculture movement) more directly than Vanishing Point (1971, dir. Richard Sarafian). Echoing Zabriskie Point and filmed in the same locations (Death Valley), Vanishing Point stars Barry Newman as Kowalski, an ex-cop, ex-Marine hero and ex-racing car driver who earns his living driving cars. He is given an impossible date of delivery, but takes on the deadline and begins driving across America at a breakneck pace. As the media become aware of his “mission” his reckless trek becomes a symbol for freedom and self-expression (the media refer to him as “the last beautiful free soul on this planet”). The film ends with Kowalski dying by driving his souped-up Dodge Challenger at top speed straight into an impenetrable police blockade.

The archetypal British May 68 film is undoubtedly Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968), which ends with Mick Travis (Malcom McDowell) on the roof of his Public School leading the students in an armed revolt against the school’s repressive hierarchy, and turning his rifle to the camera. Many great political, revolutionary, and counterculture films of the late ’60’s, early ’70’s end with similar moments of frozen insurgency or imminent violence. The heightened and intensified presence of violence in late 1960’s American society, both at home in the form of riots, demonstrations, fires, assassinations, and state deaths, and abroad (Vietnam), manifested itself in literal “bursts” of cinematic violence. In film after film violence bubbles and boils until it finally erupts in a climactic finale. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) set the standard with a police ambush that showered close to 200 bullets (apparently 187 shells were collected at the real-life site on May 23, 1934) at the direction of hit and run thieves Bonnie and Clyde (again, death in a car). Two years later and less than a year after the Tet Offensive, Sam Peckinpah tops Penn with his ballet of bullets and blood at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch . Peckinpah continues his moral use of violence in the classic Straw Dogs (1971). In this film Dustin Hoffman plays a mild-mannered mathematician, David Summer, who reaches his boiling point at the film’s climax when local roughnecks try to break into his home to apprehend a village idiot (played by David Warner) he is harboring. The pacifist turns into a very resourceful rat-trapped-in-the-proverbial corner as he uses boiling oil, a knife, a rifle, and a bear trap to stop the burly intruders from succeeding.

Like in The Wild Bunch , Peckinpah uses violence as a moral imperative. In The Wild Bunch Pike (William Holden) and his bunch know that they have not always lived by their own codes. In the end, rescuing their captured member Angel – or at least trying – signifies perhaps their last chance at redemption, at doing something “right” and at coming square with their “principles.” David Summer, not a man of violence, is, however, forced to use violence to defend his moral principles -as opposed to the unprincipled use of violence in the Vietnam War. A great “late” Vietnam film influenced by Straw Dogs is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (made in 1976, one year after the official end of the Vietnam War). Again, violence is contained until ex-Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) explodes in an orgiastic, “purifying” (…one day a real shower’s gonna come down and sweep the…) mêlée of blood. Though deaths do not take place within cars in Taxi Driver , ideas and thoughts of violence fester and germinate in Bickle’s cab as he drives the streets of Manhattan. Bickle’s cab is his coffin-on-wheels. 1 The climactic violent outburst can also take the form of a fantasy, as in Zabriskie Point , which concludes with the politicized Daria’s anti-establishment, montage-explosion reverie. In Joe (1970, dir., John G. Avildsen) violence against the counterculture erupts in the joint hands of the middle and working class establishment. In Joe a wealthy advertising executive named Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) beats a hippie to death in a fit of rage triggered by the hippie’s verbal slandering of his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon). In a drunken state he reveals his crime to a working class sod in a bar. The man, Joe (Peter Boyle), expresses admiration rather than shock at what Bill Compton did. Meanwhile Bill’s daughter Melissa has run away from home. Bill and Joe begin a search for Melissa that takes them to a hippie orgy, which they willingly partake in. In the process their wallets are stolen. They track down the hippies who stole their wallets to a commune. When they discover that the money is still missing they begin shooting the hippies at random, with Bill realizing too late that one of the victims of their “hit” is his daughter Melissa.

I would like to conclude with a film I have touched on already, The Wild Bunch . As a point of contrast to One Plus One and Zabriskie Point , The Wild Bunch , a big budget, epic-scale western, is further removed from the events of May 68. When looked at closely, however, the subtext links it directly to the late 1960’s zeitgeist, and the Vietnam War in particular. “The years 1968 and 1969, perhaps the darkest in American history since the Civil War, witnessed some of the most original American films since the forties… Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was about America’s mercenary presence in Vietnam itself” (David Cook, The History of Narrative Film , p. 928).

The film begins with a group of Americans dressed in military garb on military horses, entering a downtrodden Third World country that is involved in a Civil War, Mexico, and raising hell. Quite a striking parallel to the Vietnam War that was raging at the time! The movie takes place in 1913 during a tumultuous period in Mexican history. General Mapache (played by the brilliant Mexican director Emilio Fernandez) of Victoriano Huerta’s military government holds court over a small village, Agua Verde, and battles against revolutionary forces led by Pancho Villa. Peckinpah underscores the Vietnam War allegory by having a foreign (German) military advisor working for Mapache. At first the wild bunch are indifferent to Mexico’s political situation. Led by William Holden (Pike), they strike a deal with Mapache to hijack 16 crates of weapons and ammo from a US train in exchange for $10,000 in gold. The only non-American in the bunch, a Mexican and revolutionary supporter named Angel, offers Pike his share of the gold for one crate of guns and ammo he can give to his home village to defend themselves against Mapache’s men. What is interesting here is that Angel, the only non-white central character, is the film’s moral center. As author David Weddle says, “Angel has shown them by sacrificing himself for his people – stand up for something noble, something beyond themselves – a dream of a better world” (Sam Peckinpah: If They Move… Kill ‘Em!, New York: Faber and Faber, 1994, p. 318). Angel reaffirms the film’s central moral message: to remain faithful to your beliefs and ideals.

This ideal of fighting for what you believe in is also the central allegorical message in relation to the Vietnam War. By the time of the film’s release, a large majority of the American population no longer believed in the Vietnam War. One of the most often quoted lines of dialogue from the film comes from Pike in defense of his old sidekick (played by Edmund O’Brien): “You’re not getting rid of anybody. We’re going to stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him, and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal. You’re finished. We’re finished! All of us.” Within the context of the late 1960’s the lines resonate every which way. The lines reflect ironically on the “coalition of dissent” among the American population, a nation no longer “sticking together” for the war cause; they also echo the deteriorating morale and fighting spirit among the American soldiers. In another sense, the lines could just as easily be heard at a revolutionary rally!

Later in the film during the exchange of goods for gold, Mapache learns of Angel’s sabotage and captures him. The bunch resign themselves to the fact that Mapache’s army is too big for them to intercede on Angel’s behalf. The bunch decide to visit the town bordello, but must pass through the town square where they see a bloodied Angel dragged around the dirt square by Mapache’s red car (there’s that car-death connection again!). The image of the tortured Angel festers within Pike throughout the bordello scene. The bordello scene is a defining moment in the film, where the bunch come to realize their own moral bankruptcy and realize that saving Angel is their last chance at redemption. The scene is wonderfully acted out in unspoken glances and gestures. Two words from Pike are all that is necessary to initiate the suicide mission: “Let’s go!”

After a dramatic long walk, the four men arrive at Mapache’s post, a huge courtyard, to challenge his army. Pike asks Mapache to release Angel to them. Mapache feigns approval but slashes Angel’s throat in front of the bunch. Pike reacts quickly by shooting Mapache dead. Mapache’s death stuns the Mexican army. Mapache’s men scurry about, while the bunch twist and turn to reposition themselves accordingly. The camera pans quickly from face to face, cutting to members of the bunch. Both sides seem braced for combat, but instead the moment freezes to a tense halt. Mapache’s army is paralyzed. Time seems paralyzed. The bunch are equally stunned to sense an opening, a moment where they can walk away unharmed. They realize their victory with nervous laughter, but decide to take their mission to its apocalyptic end. Pike’s eyes seek out the German military advisor like a rifle site range. He spots him and pointedly shoots him first, knowing that the sound of one bullet will trigger a free for-all that will end in their death. The bunch make a moral choice to die in honor (their style of honor). As a consequence of their actions in this final battle – trying to rescue Angel – they involve themselves in the Mexican Civil War. The mercenaries become surrogate revolutionaries.

In the end, film is film and reality is reality. But one bleeds into the other, as it surely did across many national cinemas in the late sixties, early seventies. They say that history repeats itself, but surely May 68 is a singular moment that will never be repeated. Or will it? During one of my breaks from writing this paper I turned on the television and saw a report on a violent civilian uprising in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. The ire of workers, the unemployed, the poor, and students erupted against the 32-year military-style reign of General Suharto. The images were brutal, far more intense and violent, I imagine, than anything from May 68. Looting, military police brutality, destruction of material goods, fires, and death. At last count over 500 people have died during the uprising. Even though the context is very different, it seemed uncanny and at once prophetic to be seeing these images exactly thirty years after May 68. Uprisings are triggered by many factors: government corruption and military oppression; opposition to government policy; huge economic decline; human rights abuse; uneven distribution of wealth. The intensity of an uprising is always in proportion to the level of oppression. In whatever form, the more powerful the oppression, the more violent the uprising. And the level of oppression was far more pronounced in Indonesia than in France May 68. While Asian cinema has been one of the most vibrant and innovative of recent years, recent history has also shown that the “spirit of May 68” lives on most vehemently in Asia: Indonesia, China (1989), and South Korea (1987, 1991).

Part 1


  1. To take this American fascination with violent death and cars along contemporary lines, let’s look at Quentin Tarantino. In Pulp Fiction (1994) one of the central set pieces begins when Vincent Vega (John Travolta ) accidentally blasts the head off a passenger driving with him and his sidekick Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). Local “expert” The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) is called in to “clean-up” the mess. The sodomy scene between Marsellus (Ving Rhames) and the hillbilly store-owners is preceded by a motorcycle/car crash and subsequent gun exchange between Marsellus and Butch (Bruce Willis). In Jackie Brown (1998) the De Niro character wastes the Brigitte Fonda character in the middle of a huge car park, and then is himself shot dead by the Samuel L. Jackson character in the front seat of a van.

May 1968 and After: Cinema in France and Beyond, part 2

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 2, Issue 2 / March 1998 Essays michelangelo antonioni, political cinema, political theory, sam peckinpah