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The films of 1968, the year of subversion

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

In 1970, the African-American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron released the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. There he recites a phrase which has become indelible: “The revolution will not be televised”. I dare say that back in those years television wouldn’t be revolutionary either. If 1968 proved something, both in commercial cinema and outside the mainstream, it’s that the revolution would be cinematic; that celluloid would be as revolutionary as lead. 1968 was the year of protests in Paris, Mexico City, Warsaw, Bonn, Madrid, but it was also a year of subversion in the images of Godard, Kubrick, Sjöman and many others who searched within the language of cinema what the young demanded on the streets: change.

In several ways, Peter Bogdanovich embodied these struggles. In 1968 he was a young filmmaker who came from film criticism to emulate the masters of the French New Wave with a career that would be critical but most of all a form of criticism. In his debut, Targets, in which a Vietnam veteran starts sniping random people, an old monster-film actor is the only one who can stop him. Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein, plays the hero and symbolizes the return of a forgotten form of filmmaking that fights the catastrophes of reality. In some way, the film was a manifesto for a generation which included Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and George Lucas. All of them were consummate cinephiles who expected to recreate their masters and, at the same time, surpass them.

Cannes celebrará el 50 aniversario de 2001: Odisea del espacio de Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

It’s arguable that any of them even dared to follow Stanley Kubrick’s inimitable steps, but his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would be an amazing experience not just for its ability to represent space travel but also for confusing audiences with an unsolvable mystery and still succeeding at the box-office as the most profitable film in its release year. Besides, it was proof that genre films have much more to explore than their formulas. This would be further affirmed by Rosemary’s Baby, a horror film directed by a Polish filmmaker who came from a successful career as an arthouse figure: Roman Polanski. The film was defiant in its representation of Satanism and in its cinematic style, which questioned the reality of the images on-screen. It was also a success.

John Cassavetes, who co-starred Polanski’s film, also released an essential work in 1968. Throughout its two hours and ten minutes run, Faces follows emotional conversations on love and solitude. It wasn’t a box-office hit but the fact that it was nominated to three Academy Awards means the irrefutable success of a film which prefers to excite and to watch, rather than narrating traditionally. George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had a documentary-like style, similar to the one in Faces, and even though it didn’t invent zombie films, it defined their style as we know them nowadays. The film is also relevant for participating in African-American integration by having a black man in one of its main roles.

In Paris, where the intense protesting almost brought down Charles de Gaulle’s government, 1968 came along with the release of Stolen Kisses, a sequel to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). The film starts with a homage to Henri Langlois, who had just been expelled from the Cinémathèque Française. This scandal would be the first step that would lead to the cancellation of the Cannes Festival a few months later. Jean-Luc Godard, always the most subversive member of his generation, released a documentary called One Plus One, also known as Sympathy for the Devil. Far from being a film about The Rolling Stones, Godard’s film uses the band in order to create a visual essay on the international chaos, as well as a celebration of the coming Marxist revolution. With his typical editing of apparently disconnected images and purely symbolic fiction sequences, Godard, the rebel, did, as usual, what he pleased. 

Sympathy for the Devil (1968, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Sympathy for the Devil (1968, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

The American in Paris William Klein contributed that year to French cinema with a deranged satire on American power. Mr. Freedom portrays the arrival of an eponymous all-American superhero in France. He’s a racist, anti-communist and devoutly Christian figure who decides to save France from the “red menace” even if he has to destroy the whole country while trying. This film has a level of political subversion which we can also see in I Am Curious: Blue, a sequel to 1967’s controversial I Am Curious: Yellow. Both are experimental films that involve unsimulated sex and a strong questioning of director Vilgot Sjöman’s Sweden. The second film particularly emphasizes the hybrid nature of both works by mixing documentary and fiction in an aesthetic decision similar to William Greaves’ inn Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. For that film, the American director shot a crew shooting a crew shooting several couples of actors improvising. It’s a radical film on metafiction which was released until 1993 when actor Steve Buscemi decided to rescue it. 

El grito (1968 dir. Leobardo López Aretche)

El grito (1968 dir. Leobardo López Aretche)

Purely documentary cinema, which in the US captured the experience of being young and watching the rock virtuosos in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Monterey Pop, served a different purpose to other cinematographies which used it to watch and incite the revolutionary spirit.  Directed by Octavio Getino and Pino Solanas, from the Grupo Cine Liberación, The Hour of the Furnaces is an emblematic example. A visual essay under the influence of Godard, this film expresses neocolonialism through more than four hours as it interweaves its historical analyses with moments of sensitive contemplation. History, it seems to be saying, contains events but also ravished bodies and faces: sorrows. In Mexico, Leobardo López Aretche’s The Scream is indubitably the greatest cinematic memory of the student movement. Shoot on a shoestring budget in 16 mm film —an amateur format—, the film is, in terms of its production, a guerrilla attack; in its themes, a penetrating look into an illusion which would end in disaster, like the year itself.

The revolutionary spirit fell under repression and negotiation in both hemispheres —a euphemism for both political systems which fought each other for world hegemony–. Yet the subversive cinema of 1968 lives still in the films we’ve reviewed along with others by masters from Ingmar Bergman to Pier Paolo Pasolini, without forgetting Lindsay Anderson and Roger Vadim. In 1968 societies and their films, like the protagonist in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), questioned their position in the world, and in that act of rethinking their roles, they found, painfully, vigorously, critically, a sort of freedom.