Sunday, September 07, 2008

Okay, I'm about four months late for the 40 year anniversary of the student revolts of May 1968, but now seems as good a time as any to discuss these cinematic interpretations of a time in history that feels not too far off from our own.

Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel, 2005
The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

Philippe Garrel has made nearly thirty films since 1964, yet he is virtually unknown in the U.S. (at least when compared to contemporaries such as Godard, Chabrol, etc.) According to the Village Voice, when Garrel showed his movies in New York in 1970, Jonas Mekas called them “very sad cries from the past, one almost pities them”—yet Garrel persevered, and in 2005 made his first Lincoln Center appearance in thirty three years with Regular Lovers, a film that one can only assume must be an extremely personal and true-to-life portrayal of Paris in May 1968, as well as its aftermath. The film stars Garrel’s son Louis as a self-described poet named François who passively dodges the draft and talks of revolution with his friends (though when he takes to the barricades he refuses to launch a Molotov cocktail at the police).

The movie opens with extended scenes depicting the famous 1968 uprisings, then switches to the private lives of the protesters as they create art, smoke hash, and hang out. The film is more about the characters than about the political goings-on—there’s no real explanation as to the background of the revolt, no social commentary on the events taking place. The heart of the film is the love story (or lack thereof) between François and a sculptor named Lilie. With little action and a barely existent plot, the film’s chief merit is its style. The black and white cinematography, the gorgeous lighting, and authentic set design mirror the look and feel of a late 60s film to a T (unwitting viewers might mistake it for a lost work of the Nouvelle Vagueparadoxically, many of the scenes feel oddly contemporary, perhaps a result of our continued obsession with the past, manifested in current 60s-inspired clothing and music).

Garrel is a veteran of that era; he participated in the aforementioned revolt, he was romantically involved with one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico for ten years until her death, he lived the life of these characters. Thus, I don’t doubt that this is an accurate representation—but surprisingly, it’s just not that interesting. I suppose this must be intentional, to refrain from making some kind of explosive love story or grandiose action movie, in favor of something more muted and understated. I just found it hard to retain interest.

It is said that Garrel made Regular Lovers as a reaction to The Dreamers, another film about the May 1968 protests from a veteran director whose work dates back to the early 60s—Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris fame—because he thought it hadn’t succeeded in portraying the time period. In The Dreamers, a young American studying in Paris strikes up a friendship with a French sister and brother (also played by Louis Garrel), whose strange, creepily close relationship is reminiscent of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. When their parents go on an extended holiday, they invite their American friend to stay with them, free to let their inner fantasies and extreme, almost freakish isolation take over.

The Dreamers is more of a tribute to the films of the 60s. Its characters are devout cinephiles, and the story is peppered throughout with clips from such films as Band of Outsiders, Breathless, Freaks, and more, as the characters try to live inside of their favorite films, mirroring these beloved scenes in their own lives. The cinema is what brings them together in the first place—they meet at the start of the film while protesting the closing of the famed Cinémathèque Française.

The revolution might have completely passed them by if they hadn’t essentially been forced into participating by a brick crashing through their window. Otherwise they probably would have been content to drink wine, fuck, and watch movies. Instead, their isolation is shattered, both literally and figuratively—it seems they can no longer ignore the outside world. And yet they seem to be pretending, feigning this sudden interest in the revolts because it’s hip to do so—their hearts are more in the protest of the beginning of the film.

The Dreamers has a stronger narrative than Regular Lovers, but is perhaps less authentic, more of a period piece than an attempt at embodying the style of an older film. Perhaps the best representation of this era is yet to come, comprising an amalgamation of Garrel’s style and Bertolucci’s storytelling. Or, more likely, these events just may not easily lend themselves to dramatic interpretation—one of those moments in time that cannot truly be described with any combination of words and pictures, as something intangible will always be lost in translation.

La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard, 1967

This film represents a transitional period for Godard, as he moved away from the style of his earlier work toward more dialectical and political films. Here, a group of French students discuss Maoism and plot a revolution from their apartment, planning terrorist attacks of which they have not begun to consider the consequences. The students seem not to represent Godard’s point of view so much as his observations of young radical students at the time—more of a reading of the burgeoning youth culture than of the political situation. The film seems to be a kind of fond critique of the characters; they’re extremely naïve, proselytizing from the bourgeois comforts of their university education that their parents probably paid for. (This same assessment is present to some extent in the two aforementioned films.) Godard acknowledges that they’re misguided, but at least well-meaning: “their arguments were a mess…they were a bit like children.” Their plans are criticized by a knowledgeable journalist (perhaps a stand-in for Godard, or at least the voice of reason), who explains to them that they’re “not prepared...the lessons you draw are very’re heading towards a dead end.”

The characters are shown being interviewed, with cameras and microphones in view, lending the film a documentary feel, as well as emphasizing its subtitle: “a film in the making.” It boasts great cinematography, with striking images and bold colors—in particular, lots of red (hence the Maoists). Much like Godard’s other films of this period, each section of the film is preceded by a title card typed out in bold, capital letters.

One of my favorite moments comes in the form of this satirical pop song sung by Claude Channes:

Vietnam burns and me I spurn Mao Mao
Johnson giggles and me I wiggle Mao Mao
Napalm runs and me I gun Mao Mao
Cities die and me I cry Mao Mao
Whores cry and me I sigh Mao Mao

The rice is mad and me a cad
It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move
lmperialism lays down the law
Revolution is not a party
The A-bomb is a paper tiger
The masses are the real heroes

The Yanks kill and me I read Mao Mao

The jester is king and me I sing Mao Mao
The bombs go off and me I scoff Mao Mao
Girls run and me I follow Mao Mao
The Russians eat and me I dance Mao Mao
I denounce and I renounce Mao Mao

It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Alain Tanner, 1976

This Swiss film takes a look at the aftermath of the 60s, as former revolutionaries contemplate what they’ve become. The film’s eight central characters, all somehow affected by or associated with the events of May 1968, are linked in various ways (not to mention that their names all start with the letter “M”)—Mathieu is employed by Marcel and Marguerite, their neighbor Marco has a crush on Marie after meeting her in the grocery store, and so on. Each has taken a different path since those heady days of protest, from that of a disillusioned gambler and former journalist, to a history teacher, to a blue collar worker (i.e. shit shoveler), to organic vegetable farmers, to an anarchic grocery store clerk who steals from her employer to benefit others, etc.

Each of them tries to remain political in their own way, whether tilling the soil, teaching young people about politics, or stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Mathieu in particular is somewhat of a visionary—he tries to teach the children himself instead of letting them go to school, and later, while looking at the film’s characters standing in front of a wall, he envisions a mural depicting those people in those exact positions, Max with his arms outstretched; we see at the end that the mural has been created.

Towards the end, Mathieu rides his bicycle and sings a song about the film’s characters: “Marguerite the witch / Marco the philosopher / Marie the thief / Marcel the hermit / Mathilde my love / Max the former prophet / Madeleine the fool / I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.” The last line in particular seems to refer to him as a kind of shepherd, looking out for his friends when they might not be.

The film holds up fairly well over time, so it seems odd that it’s so hard to come by. One doesn’t have to know much about the events of May 1968 to understand it. The film could be applied to the present time, in its depiction of a group of people struggling to come to terms with the fact that they’re growing up, while applying their youthful ideals to reality. The world has seemingly changed around them, some of them evolving with it, and some not—through its final scene in which the young Jonah of the film’s title begins writing on the aforementioned mural with a piece of chalk, the message is ultimately one of hope in the future, though not exactly of earth-shattering optimism.