Before the Revolution: The Influences of 1968 CinemaBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
In many ways the gestation of 1968 started decades before its first midnight 50 years ago. Its political revolution began in the ideas of Marx, back in the nineteenth century, and it became reaffirmed after the success of the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth. Its aesthetic revolt comes from the avant-garde that encompasses everything from Modernism to the Situationist International, and its cinema is an alloy shaped by rebellions, rejections and innovations which began in societies searching for the new or which were condemned to it. Of course, the films of 1968 were noticeably different from those of the 30’s or 50’s, but they’re still the result of those decades. More than a period in film history, the films of the late 60’s were, in both form and substance, the history of their century.
In 1932 Stalin claimed that writers ere engineers of the soul. Politicians, workers and social scientists would rearrange the human masses to create a future without inequality. Meanwhile, art, through novels, poems, paintings, symphonies or films, would transform the spirits. Its task would be to convince them to participate in the transformation not only through its themes but also employing style for its ends. Three great theoretician-filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin, would define the style of Soviet cinema, mostly through editing. By manipulating the rhythm with which images were presented onscreen or by juxtaposing them to create metaphorical meanings as if they were poetry, classic films like Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), Man with a Movie Camera (1929, dir. Dziga Vertov) or General Suvorov (1941, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin) rebelled against the Hollywood style in order to capture the proletarian experience and its desire for revolution in a style that not only inspired but represented marxist thought.
In films like Menq (1969), which captures history as a collective experience, Armenian director Artavazd Peleshyan would make good use of the Soviet lessons. French-Swiss master Jean-Luc Godard, an invincible solitary, would insert his films ambiguously within the Soviet style with individual stories which included the white noise of the bourgeois world. In Pierrot le fou (1965) we see an example of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage when the protagonist throws a piece of cake at his wife’s face and the image cuts to fireworks celebrating his liberation. Yet Godard and his comrades of the French New Wave —probably the most important cinematic movement of the 60’s— were too, and perhaps above all, heirs of cinema vérité and Italian neorealism.
After World War II the Italian film industry had collapsed. Without the large studios, celluloid —except for the one given away by the Americans—, without much funding and with a desperate need to tell the story of the war, Roberto Rossellini decided to use the streets, as well as some sets for interiors; he also assembled a cast made up of actors and non-professionals, in order to represent Italy as stepped on by nazism in his war trilogy, which started with Rome, Open City (1945). The guerrilla style of production would find a disciple in Godard, who shot his first film, Breathless (1960), with photographic film, adapted to the cameras by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Before that, in The 400 Blows (1959), François Truffaut, who had been Rosselini’s assistant for three years, achieved an unusual naturalism in his representation of childhood. This obsession with realism would echo in the American documentary films of Robert Drew and his colleagues, as well as in the British New Wave, born in the theater and novels but consummated in cinema. This tendency’s origins, though, were in social science.
An anthropologist-cum-filmmaker, Jean Rouch was one of the first and most important makers of what is known as the ethnographic documentary, that is, a type of film which aspires to watch social groups more than narrating their stories. Godard imported Rouch’s style to fiction in Breathless after writing that I, a Negro (1958) was “the most daring and humble of films”. Rouch’s cinema vérité —or truthful cinema— is based on the ideas of Vertov, who had produced several documentaries with which he aspired not to represent reality but to manifest it. They were released under the name Kino-Pravda, which also translates to truthful cinema.
In an influential coincidence, American filmmaker John Cassavetes had started shooting in a style very similar to Rouch’s for his 1958 film Shadows. His form, like Shirley Clarke’s, a colleague from independent and experimental film, was more than an imitation of jazz: it was its very nature caught on film. Along with the great figures of classic Hollywood, like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, as well as independent filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Ida Lupino, they would become part of the influences of a cinema that included itself in the struggles of its time for the liberation of all that had been suppressed by former centuries. The cinema of 1968 would be part of the revolution.