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
‘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?
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