Man, the bar­ri­cades

Four decades ago, revo­lu­tion was in the air across Europe, and Parisians were fling­ing bricks at gen­darmes. But how did the spirit of ’68 in­flu­ence the era’s movies and mu­sic? Don­ald Clarke looks back

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - 1968 -

‘E very­where, I hear the sound of march­ing, charg­ing feet, boy!” Mick Jag­ger fa­mously bel­lowed from the safety of his ar­mour-plated Jacuzzi. Sir Michael’s words – the open­ing lines of Street Fight­ing Man – were scrib­bled in re­sponse to the anti-Viet­nam dis­tur­bances out­side the Amer­i­can Em­bassy in Lon­don dur­ing the early months of 1968.

You will, I guess, have heard them re­played quite fre­quently over the past few weeks. The so­cio-cul­tural typhoon that blew through the west­ern world in that year is still send­ing ed­dies about the me­dia. Break out the hip­pie wigs and nov­elty trousers. Soix­ante-huit is 40 years old.

So, how does the era’s pop­u­lar cul­ture hold up? This was the year that saw the as­sas­si­na­tions of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the first civil rights march in North­ern Ire­land, the joy and tragedy of the Prague Spring and the ri­ots at the Chicago Demo­cratic Con­ven­tion. But, strangely, it was the dis­tur­bances in Paris dur­ing May that had the big­gest in­flu­ence on film and mu­sic.

In­deed, you could ar­gue that film-mak­ers played a sig­nif­i­cant role in trig­ger­ing and sus­tain­ing the strange quasi-revo­lu­tion that briefly trou­bled the French es­tab­lish­ment in ’68.

OnFe­bru­ary 9th of that year, An­dre Mal­raux, the French Cul­ture Min­is­ter, at­tempted to as­sert his author­ity on the Cinéthèque Française, the hub of the na­tion’s cin­ema com­mu­nity, by sack­ing its

much beloved di­rec­tor, Henri Lan­glois. Younger film-mak­ers and cineastes were ap­palled, and such lu­mi­nar­ies as Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Bel­mondo, Alain Res­nais and (you’re way ahead of me) Jean-Luc Go­dard took to the streets in protest. By late April, de Gaulles’s gov­ern­ment had de­cided to throw in the towel and reap­point Lan­glois.

A month later, when the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val kicked off, con­sid­er­ably more se­ri­ous demon­stra­tions were tak­ing place at the Sor­bonne, and France’s Marx­ist-in­clined film-mak­ers, in­spired by their suc­cess dur­ing the Lan­glois af­fair, were in­clined to make their voices heard again.

François Truf­faut and Jean-Luc God­dard shouted the loud­est.

“It is in­con­ceiv­able that peo­ple should be see­ing films down here when there is blood be­ing spilt in Paris,” Truf­faut waf­fled.

“I am talk­ing to you about sol­i­dar­ity!” Go­dard, ever the diplo­mat, screamed at one in­ter­viewer. “And you talk about track­ing shots. You’re a bas­tard!” Even­tu­ally the fes­ti­val dis­solved in an­gry chaos.

Even mono­lithic Hol­ly­wood shud­dered slightly at the grow­ing dis­tur­bances. Fol­low­ing the mur­der of Martin Luther King, the Os­car cer­e­mony in Fe­bru­ary was post­poned for the first time in his­tory.

Yet the list of the great­est films of 1968 – and it was a fine year for cin­ema – is not ex­actly alive with revo­lu­tion­ary in­can­des­cence. The truth is that Euro­pean cin­ema was in a state of tran­si­tion, and com­mer- cial US film-mak­ing was only be­gin­ning to get the counter-cul­tural bug. The French direc­tors who launched La Nou­velle Vague at the start of the decade had, for the most part, a quiet year. In 1967, Go­dard had strained his bizarre tal­ent to break­ing point in cre­at­ing the last mas­ter­pieces of his sane years, Week­end and La Chi­noise, and was pre­par­ing to launch him­self into to­tal ab­strac­tion. Truf­faut de­liv­ered the mod­er­ately in­ter­est­ing The Bride Wore Black, but of the French masters, only Alain Re­nais broke new ground with Je t’aime, Je t’aime.

The most sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can film of the year, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, de­spite its abun­dant philo­soph­i­cal in­sights, played most suc­cess­fully to the more phar­ma­ceu­ti­cally con­fused sec­tions of the counter-cul­ture. John Cas­savetes de­liv­ered an earthy clas­sic with Faces, but he’d been ex­per­i­ment­ing for years. Of the US movies listed here, only Night of the Liv­ing Dead ap­pears to spring di­rectly from the year’s dis­tur­bances. It would be an­other year be­fore Easy Rider would bring the revo­lu­tion to the down­town movie theatre.

The mu­sic world had, of course, al­ready had its great leap for­ward a year ear­lier dur­ing the sum­mer of love and the best al­bums re­leased in 1968 buzz with ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Lis­ten to a com­pi­la­tion that places the ag­gres­sive free jazz of Peter Brötz­mann, the de­ranged folk of the In­cred­i­ble String Band, the min­i­mal­ism of com­poser Terry Ri­ley along­side more familiar tunes by Hen­drix, The Bea­tles and The Vel­vet Un­der­ground, and you could find your­self be­liev­ing that the whole uni­verse had de­cided to aban­don it­self to the avant-garde.

This was, of course, far from the case. This year saw the trou­bled re­lease of the now leg­endary doc­u­men­tary The Rocky Road to Dublin. Peter Len­non’s film, which was to have been screened at that trou­bled Cannes, of­fers us a grim mono­chrome Ire­land still in thrall to the Catholic Church and to a fright­ened, in­ward-look­ing na­tion­al­ism.

Con­sider also the epi­logue of Do­minic Sand­brooks su­perb re­cent his­tory of Bri­tain, White Heat.

“At twenty past eight on the evening of Wed­nes­day 31 July 1968, in a small town on the south coast, a lav­ish and con­vivial din­ner was head­ing to its con­clu­sion,” the pas­sage be­gins. Sand­brook is de­scrib­ing the open­ing scene in the very first episode of the time­less sit­u­a­tion com­edy Dad’s Army.

Sand­brook goes on to point out that far more peo­ple watched Cap­tain Main­war­ing than ever at­tended freak-outs at UFO or waved their fist at the Amer­i­can Em­bassy. De­spite the up­heavals re­flected in the cul­tural arte­facts listed here, life in Bri­tain and Ire­land went on much as be­fore. Af­ter all, the Black and White Min­strel show was not can­celled un­til 1978.

Did the black-faced war­blers ever get round to cov­er­ing Street Fight­ing Man, I won­der?

Putting the revo­lu­tion on the screen: a scene from Lind­say An­der­son’s grip­ping and blackly funny If...

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