May 1968 and After: Cinema in France and Beyond, part 1

Godard and Company

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 2 / March 1998 14 minutes (3368 words)

Part I

May 1998 marks the 30th anniversary of the student riots and subsequent strikes that took hold of France from mid-May to June 5, 1968. The disturbances and events that led to the uprising are well chronicled. The revolt began harmlessly enough with students protesting against what they felt were deteriorating university conditions (overcrowded classrooms, indifferent teachers, insufficient space, stifling atmosphere….hmmm, sounds like there could be fodder for more uprisings!). The Paris student coalition fermented and gained momentum around a series of events: the arrest of student members of the National Vietnam Committee, police brutality, and government and university hierarchy impertinence. Things came to a violent confrontation between student demonstrators and the police on May 10th (‘Night of the Barricades’). By May 13 government discontent spread into the labor force and workers began joining in the protest with a series of strikes and factory occupations. Sylvia Harvey in her seminal May ’68 and Film Culture , writes, “By May 24, barely two weeks after the great demonstration of May 13, approximately ten million workers were on strike in France” (p.8). Due to many factors, most prominent being the divisions within the French left, de Gaulle’s 5th Republic government was able to diplomatically end the strikes by negotiating with the PCF (the French Communist Party), and the CGT (Confédération général du travail). The uprising was a failure in the minds of the radical French left (called ‘gauchistes’) whose goal was the overthrow of the de Gaulle government and establishment of socialism. On a symbolic level, however, May 68 represented a moral victory in demonstrating the far reaching effects of a small but united collective front. To quote Harvey once again:

Despite the defeat, despite the failures of policy and analysis, despite the hostility often expressed towards them by the Communist Party (quite apart from the hostility of the Gaullists), certain positive aspects of the student May movement – their memorable inventiveness – must be noted. Calling everything into question, the students were able to generate an enormous enthusiasm for the re-examination and criticism of all aspects of public and private life (p. 11-12).

Though these incidents are specific to France, the May 68 events are also part of a broader set of political and cultural factors that were sweeping across Europe, Asia, and North America in the sixties: a zeitgeist of social unrest and dissent, oppositional politics, and revolution. So much so that the mention of 1968 will invoke a different event or meaning depending on one’s cultural background. For example, this essay is an extension of a paper I delivered at a one-day conference on May 1968 at The University of Warwick in England. The papers centered on May 1968 and after in France, Britain, and the United States. A colleague’s Russian girlfriend showed up at the end of the conference. After looking around the room, the posters, and glancing at the conference program she was puzzled: where is Prague? She envisioned that the conference would be all about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia! Some of the broader political and cultural events that shaped the sixties zeitgeist include:

  • The assassination of Malcolm X (1965)
  • The formation of the Black Panther Party (1966)
  • The beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966)
  • May 68 in France and subsequent student riots in Germany and Italy
  • The “Prague Spring” that led to Soviet Union’s Invasion of Czechoslovakia to quell proposed liberal reforms and movement toward sovereignty (1968)
  • The United States Civil Rights movement
  • The demonstrations and riots surrounding the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King jr., and Robert F. Kennedy (1968)
  • Riots in southwest Watts, LA (1968)

I purposively left out the single strongest factor behind the 1960’s mood of social and civil unrest: the Vietnam War. Though the Vietnam War united dissenters of many national stripes, the political nuances varied from country to country. For example, French opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than that of American and British protesters. In “The Representation of Vietnam in French Films Before and After 1968” Celia Briton notes why the Vietnam War may have been a more problematic issue to the French left than their American or British counterparts. Much of the problem stemmed from the varied nature of the French left and their relation to Stalinism and Trotskyism (the Soviet Union), Maoism (China), and Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam). Both the Soviet Union and China were aiding the North Vietnamese. But the ideological divisions within the French left made things less than clear cut. Breton writes,

Ho Chi Minh’s relations with China quickly deteriorated once the Cultural Revolution started….it was therefore…difficult for French Maoists to support the North Vietnamese unreservedly. As for the French Trotskyists, their expressions of solidarity with Ho Chi Minh may have been inhibited by the fact that there was good reason to suppose he had been responsible in some way for the murder of all the leading Trotskyists in Vietnam in 1945 ( May 68: Coming of Age, ed. D.L. Hanley, A.P. Kerr, p. 165-166).

While opposition to the Vietnam War in America did not have as strong a unifying ideological presence, French opposition was inextricably tied to the left. On another level, French students, unlike their American counterparts, could not rally against their government because de Gaulle opposed the American presence in Vietnam. However, the guilt of France’s colonial past with Algeria and Indochina (which historians see as the “prelude” to the Vietnam War) no doubt weighed heavily on the collective memory of nineteen sixties France. In the following pages I will look at some of the effects that May 68 had on film, beginning with the immediate French context and spreading out to the United States. Though I will dip and dart between them, my touchstone films will be Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One , Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch .

My starting point will be what I think was at the heart of the debates during and after May 1968: reform versus revolution. In the political context of France this pitted the gauchistes (Maoists, Marxists, Trotskyists, students) versus the PCF (the official French Communist Party) and the CGT (Confédération général du travail). It was a case of the radicals versus the moderates, with the former wanting wholesale changes to society and the latter wanting to mend it from within. Similar divisions appeared in the American political scene as well. As David E. James writes in his excellent Allegories of the Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton university Press, 1989):

Sixties politics were shaped by these more or less separate oppositions and attempts to make alliances between them, by struggles for power within such alliances, and by the purging of aberrant factions. The foundation of Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1961, Malcolm’s split from the Muslim’s in 1964, SDS’s dropping of its communist exclusion clause in 1965, the entry of the Progressive Labor Party into SDS and the expulsion of Whites from SNCC in 1966, the coalition between the Black Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968, the splintering of SDS into Marxist-Leninist, Weathermen, and Revolutionary Youth Movement factions in 1969 and its disintegration the next year…. (p. 170-171)

In France you could see these ideological divisions manifesting themselves in the area of film through the varying oppositional positions among filmmakers, film journals, and film collectives. For example, a result of May 68 was the formation of the Estate générale du cinéma (ECG), a group of filmmakers, technicians, and critics composed with the goal of spearheading changes to the French film industry. The EGC splintered into 19 different groups each with their own proposal for changes that would transform the film industry into a more socialist-style mode of production. The EGC could not come up with a consensus. In the end they did not ratify any of the proposals and just released a general declaration that changed very little. There were divergent political positions within the film collectives that were formed after May 68: SLON (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles), Dynadic (aligned with the PCF and CGT), Révolutionaires prolétaires (Maoists), the Dziga Vertov Group (J.L. Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin). May 68 had far reaching effects on film criticism and theory that are still felt today. André Bazin’s literary child Cahiers du cinéma, once an auteurist journal, became politically surcharged after May 68. The editorial face change was so drastic that it caused a change in ownership after a 4-month hiatus from Daniel Filipacchi to François Truffault and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in March 1970. Cinéthique, which began publication in January 1969, took a more radical position than Cahiers by abandoning narrative cinema and championing marginal cinema (documentary, avant-garde). The French “politicization” of film criticism was part of a larger paradigm shift in critical theory. Even before May 68 there was a move away from the humanist tradition to theories that were perceived as being more scientifically rigorous and analytical: structuralism and semiotics. In film, this saw a shift away from auteurist, genre, and formalist theories to theories borrowed from social, political, economic, and psychological fields. After May 68 there was a need to look beyond surface realism to the political-economic (Marxist-Leninist), the psycho-linguistic (Freud, de Saussure, Lacan) and/or the social-ideological (Althusser) structures and forms underlying the surface reality.

In film theory circles the “reform vs. revolution” debate took form through the following issues: What is the relationship of film to society? Is there a “correct” radical form or is radical content enough? Is the film medium itself ideologically loaded? What is the relationship between theory and praxis? Who is the intended audience for politically radical cinema? The one filmmaker in France who seemed to deal with all of these concerns was Jean-Luc Godard.

For Godard, who was always the most political of the French New Wave filmmakers, the turn for the radical came with May 68. When asked, “At what exact point in time did the break from bourgeois to revolutionary filmmaking occur?” Godard replied, “During the May-June events in France in 1968.” The political turn resulted in the formation of the most radical of the film collectives, the Dziga Vertov Group (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin). The group realized nine films from 1968 to 1973, only one of which ( Tout Va Bien 1972) played in mainstream theatres. The name that they chose for their collective was symbolically relevant. The debates that were being waged in France during May 68 and after strongly echoed those that arose among the artistic communities in Post-Revolutionary Soviet Union in the late teens and early twenties: Is the artist a worker in the service of the State (Vladimir Tatlin) or an artist among society (Kasimir Malevich)? Is art subservient to society (Constructivism) or can it be concerned with questions of pure form and aesthetics (Suprematism)? In film, debates raged between the relative merits of non-narrative form (Dziga Vertov) versus narrative form (Sergei Eisenstein). Dziga Vertov was by far the most radical of the Soviet filmmakers, arguing for a Constructivist-like program of perceptually challenging documentary and avant-garde cinema. A defining difference between the two contexts is that in the Soviet Union the debates were in relation to a successful revolution. Consequently, the artists had a politically “correct” form with which to work from: Marxist Dialectical Materialism. The artists only had to adapt the form to their particular medium in the manner they felt was best. So for film, Dialectical Materialism translated to montage, which in turn spawned further debates on how to best employ montage. This of course was not the case for Godard, since there was no revolution. As such, the Dziga Vertov Group was a period of intense searching for that “correct” form to, as Godard said, “make political films politically.” It is a search that Godard began before the Dziga Vertov Period and still continues today (with, for example, Godard’s “histoires du cinéma” series).

Because of a deal he had signed several months before May 68, Godard, ironically, had to leave for London in June of 1968 to film what he would later refer to as his “last bourgeois film,” One Plus One. During the Dziga Vertov period Godard disowned nearly all his earlier films as being bourgeois. But by most people’s standards One Plus One is anything but a “bourgeois” film. In a sense it is an important transitional film to the Dziga Vertov period. Along with Weekend (1967) and La Chinoise (1967), One Plus One forms a loose trilogy that displays some of the formal concerns he would deal with in the Dziga Vertov period (experimentation with sound-image, non-conventional use of dialogue, long take lateral tracking shots, rigorous form). Godard’s lateral tracking shots – which Brian Henderson referred to as a “non-bourgeois” camera movement – irritate, bore, fascinate, beautify and estrange at the same time. The extended left to right movements seem to trace the political spectrum of the May 68 stratosphere, ranging from far the left (students, gauchistes, Maoists), to the centre-left (PCF, CGT), to the right (de Gaulle’s 5th Republic).

One Plus One is composed of ten sequences of approximately ten minutes each. Though there are a few intercuts within some of the sequences, they are self-contained long take sequence shots. In some ways One Plus One is Godard’s perverse twist on Hitchcock’s Rope . Five of the sequences take place inside a recording studio with the camera passively studying the Rolling Stones as they meticulously rehearse and record the song “Sympathy for the Devil.” The camera never interferes by moving into their hallowed space, but instead charts its own course laterally and around the outside perimeters of the studio. At times it leaves the rock stars to capture hanger-on’s lounging about, sitting in quiet boredom or engaged in personal rhythm with the song. The other five sequences take us away from the “reality” of the studio to the “unreality” of Brechtian-like political essays staged in various locations: two featuring militant blacks in an automobile junkyard in the Battersea area of London next to the Thames river (sequences 2 and 8). Sequence four features a character named Eve Democracy (played by his then wife Anne Wiazemsky) walking back and forth in a beautiful natural setting answering “yes” or “no” to a host of loaded political questions from a television documentary crew. Sequence six takes place inside a fascist pornography bookstore; and the last sequence (ten) takes place on a beach, where Eve Democracy is killed and placed onto a camera crane and hoisted up into the air.

The ten sequences are intercut in ABAB fashion (Stones and non-Stones). The only time there is a logical link between the sequences is the first time Godard-Gorin cut from the Rolling Stones to the black militants. The film cuts from Keith Richards playing lead in an outward blues style to a black man sitting in a wheel barrel reading from LeRoi Jones’ Blues People . The connection, of course, is between the black blues music that the Stones and other white British bands from the sixties appropriated into a more popular and marketable form (The Who, The Yardbirds, Ten Years After, John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Rory Gallagher).

The sequence in the pornographic magazine shop contains perhaps the film’s most direct political reference to May 68. In the sequence the storeowner, played ironically enough by the producer Ian Quarrier, reads aloud from Hitler’s Mein Kempf . He reads continually, though the soundtrack is at times interrupted by the omniscient voice-over of a revolutionary Bolivian reading from a trashy novel that he could very well have bought in this store! At times the camera moves away from Quarrier to pan across the rows of pulp and trash novels and magazines adorning the store walls. These moments, with the camera panning across exploitative covers of nude women, fascist soldiers, acts of violence, and military paraphernalia, recall Godard’s earlier semiotic-loaded films. Customers mill about flipping through magazines and novels. Each purchase is followed by a Nazi arm salute. Two young, dour looking students sit next to the cash and are slapped across the face by each customer in lieu of money. They accept the physical abuse and only respond by reciting revolutionary slogans: “Long Live Mao,” “Peace in Vietnam.” (Are these two youngsters Jewish?) Within the context of Godard’s radical style something extraordinary occurs in this sequence. For the first and only time in the film, the camera moves in to focus on a single character/face, those of the two young students. The camera zooms in to a two-shot of the students and stops. They both turn to face the camera. The camera zooms in further to a close-up of the student on the right wearing a bloodied bandage around his forehead. It then re-frames to the left to a full close-up of the other student. This inward movement is striking on its own because it emphasizes the individual. What gives it its political import is the soundtrack. Accompanying the image track is the off-screen voice of the storeowner reading the following passage from Mein Kempf : “It must never be forgotten that nothing really great in this world has ever been achieved through coalition, but that such achievements have always been due to the triumph of the individual.” Such is the fascist ideology of Hitler, one that served him well in later years. But within the context of May 68 and the divisions within the left and other groups fighting on the same side, the contrast between the quote and contemporary reality is quite poignant.

What was Godard trying to say with One Plus One ? At the film’s ending the camera becomes liberated from its lateral and circular trajectory and takes to the sky with Eve Democracy as she lies dead at the foot of a camera atop a big movie crane. The intended irony here is that the crane represents Big Budget Hollywood and, with its skyward movement, suggests a transcendental journey beyond the nuts and bolts reality of the political play. Godard and Gorin seem to be asking: can a politically committed film use an establishment machine? And can it employ such an obviously expressive “auteurist” touch? Earlier I noted the structural similarity between One Plus One and Rope . But while Rope moves inexorably to a dramatic conclusion One Plus One ends pretty much where it begins. Which is exactly Godard’s point: 1 + 1 doesn’t equal anything; as one intertitle reads, 1 + 1 makes 2. Nothing in the film seems to “add up.” The contrasting sequences do not add up. Neither does the constant contrapuntal use of sound and image. The sound-image dissonance breaks down any notion of unity to underscore that words and thoughts are shaped by social conditions. Which explains why there are two different endings of the film, Godard’s ( One Plus One ) and the producer’s (Sympathy for the Devil). Godard wanted the film to end without the completed song heard. Producer Ian Quarrier wanted the completed song played, so he changed the ending by extending the final image of Eve Democracy atop the crane with gel-colored freeze frames that extended the end credits long enough to have the completed song play. To show his ingratitude, Godard punched Quarrier in the face at the London premiere of the film. In its initial run in New York the two versions played on consecutive nights.

Godard’s ending makes perfect sense in relation to how the Stones are constantly filmed isolated in their own cubicles. In the third sequence we see the Stones repeatedly rehearse the song. The camera pans and tracks left to right from Mick Jagger, to Brian Jones, to Keith Richards, to Bill Wyman, to Charlie Watts, each isolated inside their personal spaces, and then back again. By separating them from each other and from the completed product, Godard is transforming the Stones into artist-workers-revolutionaries “alienated” from the completed product. By emphasizing the banal, the stops and starts, the moments of boredom, the people aimlessly hanging around, and the endless repetition of song passages, Godard is emphasizing the work-like nature of the creative process. By leaving the ending (song) incomplete this parallels, perhaps, the incomplete revolution of May 68.

Part 2

May 1968 and After: Cinema in France and Beyond, part 1

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   french cinema   jean luc godard   political cinema   political theory   revolutionary cinema