In 1968, the world went up in flames, the auteur theory ignited debate, parentalguidance at the movies was suggested, women in film were on the verge of a breakthrough, flesh-eating zombies hit the screen and American movies went to war (again). The world was watching, and the world was changing.
Fifty years later, it can sometimes feel as if we are living in the sequel, or at least some kind of weird dystopian reboot. The collective memory of 1968 is a blend of romance and apocalypse, nostalgia and trauma. In April, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and cities across the country soon erupted. Two months later Robert F. Kennedy was also killed. Before the year was out, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, rioting broke out during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and student demonstrators were massacred in Mexico City.
That same year, one of us also saw “Planet of the Apes” at the Academy of Music theater on 14th Street in Manhattan. Because, amid the murders and the fires, people also went to the movies, which offered a warped mirror and a cracked window on the world. Filmgoers watched Steve McQueen burning rubber in “Bullitt” on the streets of San Francisco; they freaked out at the mysteries of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They saw “The Odd Couple,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “The Love Bug,” and they also watched Rosalind Russell play a nun who comes face to face with the counterculture in “Where Angels Go … Trouble Follows.” Trouble followed the movies to the Cannes Film Festival, where protests shut the event down.
The aftershocks of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the backlash that followed are with us. We are still looking at dystopian and apocalyptic fantasies, still running from zombies, still watching cities erupt, still fighting over basic human rights. The movies have been conscripts in this continuing culture war and to look back at 1968 is to understand what has and hasn’t changed. To that end, we have seized on four historical events, viewing them as milestones and starting points. We’ve also revisited a handful of films that speak to some of the contradictions of their moment — and our moment too.
All across France
The student demonstrations that convulsed Paris in spring 1968 — les événements de mai, or just mai — are among the most cinematic upheavals of that year, and not only because the black-and-white photographs of attractive young people throwing rocks at riot police look like movie stills.
One of the legends of mai holds that the trouble began in February, when André Malraux, the minister of culture, fired Henri Langlois, a beloved founder of the Cinémathèque Française and a guru for young French cinephiles. (In fact, the protests had started at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris the previous November.) In mid-May, during a general strike that seemed to threaten the stability of Charles de Gaulle’s government, a group of filmmakers, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, succeeded in shutting down the Cannes Film Festival.
In Chicago in August, as antiwar demonstrators battled police outside the Democratic National Convention, they chanted, “The whole world is watching.” A young filmmaker named Haskell Wexler, making a fictional feature called “Medium Cool,” captured some of the violence as it happened. If you watch the movie now, you can still hear the warning of an unseen crew member: “Watch out Haskell, it’s real.”
The iconography of ’68, as it comes down to us in still images and moving pictures alike, pulsates with radical energy, with the angry, exuberant, liberatory promise of the posters and graffiti that covered the walls of Paris. Be realistic — demand the impossible. It is forbidden to forbid. But the political record tells a different story. Youth may have won the battle of images, but the ultimate winners, at the polls and in the streets, were the forces of law and order and sometimes brutal state authority. De Gaulle. Nixon. Brezhnev. In August, Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. In October, Mexican soldiers gunned down hundreds of protesting students in the Plaza Tlatelolco.
But a revolution did take place, even if it wasn’t the one the revolutionaries thought they were making. As the Brazilian filmmaker João Moreira Salles pointed out in his recent documentary “In the Intense Now,” those militant Parisian slogans sound like nothing so much as advertising catchphrases, less Marxist aphorisms than capitalist koans. “A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down consumer society, the ’68 students helped open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personal fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal. Change one letter in “mai” and you get Mao. Change another and it turns into “moi.” (A.O.S.)
1968: The Year in Film
A blunt and sly critique of American racism. A sanguinary satire of American conformity. A triumph of low-budget, regional cinema, made, as Vincent Canby put it in his dismissive New York Times review, by “some people in Pittsburgh.” George Romero’s gory black-and-white masterpiece is all of that and more. Flesh-eating zombies continue to rampage across big and small screens, protean symbols of everything we fear we might (or have already) become. (A.O.S.)
1968: The Year in Film
If “2001: A Space Odyssey” represents the pinnacle of the cinematic art circa 1968, or at least its critical adulation, “Planet of the Apes” — one of that year’s other sensations — has often been viewed as more of a light pop diversion. In “2001,” an ape-man turns a bone into a weapon, initiating a progression that traces humanity from, as it’s been described, ape to angel. In “Planet of the Apes,” humanity has blown it, surrendering the world to our primate overlords. “Planet” is the cruder science-fiction freak-out, but its vision of human de-evolution retains extraordinary power. Even decades later, I can instantly see Charlton Heston collapsing on a beach under the pitiless gaze of the Statue of Liberty as he bellows at a world that has betrayed him (us). “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Oh, damn you, goddamn you all to hell!” I think about that scene a lot. (M.D.)
“Why rank directors at all?” That was the question Andrew Sarris asked and brilliantly answered with an astonishing depth of knowledge in his landmark book, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.” A taxonomy of the greatest, the interesting and the highly questionable — written under the influence of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma — Sarris’s book popularized what he called the auteur theory, which proposes that directors are the authors of their work. It forever changed how many look at movies, including films from Hollywood.
There are reasonable objections to cinematic authorship, not least of which is that filmmaking is a collective, often industrial practice. What about the screenwriter? The cinematographer? “The genius of the system” (André Bazin’s indelible phrase for classical Hollywood)? Is it possible to talk about the auteur in the Age of Marvel? In the years after Sarris’s book hit, auteurism went in and out of fashion, drifting on theoretical currents. The death of the author was announced and the reader became paramount: “A text’s unity,” Roland Barthes wrote, “lies not in its origin but in its destination.” John Ford had directed the movie, but we filmgoers unlock its meaning.
Some feminist scholars have objected to auteurism, partly because female directors have been so marginalized while male filmmakers have been deified. There are just two women in Sarris’s catalog: Ida Lupino and Mae West, but not Dorothy Arzner or Shirley Clarke. There was a dearth of working American female directors during the period he wrote about, which of course has as much to do with sexism outside the industry as inside it. Sound familiar? Yet even as there has been an increase in the numbers of female directors — and a new appreciation for pioneers like Alice Guy-Blaché — the auteur remains a designation largely reserved for men.
Female directors remain a persistent minority, which clearly suits the male-dominated industry. The other problem are those who decide who is an auteur and who is not, including the critics, festival programmers and award givers who continue to value male directors, as well as male-associated stories and genres, above women and their stories. The concept of the auteur emerged in a male-supremacist context. In a fairer, more just world — and with more female directors, more female critics, more female festival programmers and more female award givers — auteurism might finally be liberated from its sexist taint. (M.D.)
1968: The Year in Film
“Funny Girl,” one of the last of the grand studio roadshow musicals (directed by Old Hollywood stalwart William Wyler), is decked out in lavish show-business opulence and velvety period décor. But the movie’s look belies its radicalism. It tells the mostly true story of Fanny Brice, who started out as a Ziegfeld Follies chorine and became a powerful force in early-20th-century vaudeville and a paragon of female independence. She seized control, at least partly, of the means of production with a boldness that foreshadowed the career of the woman who played her. That was Barbra Streisand, making her big-screen debut at 26 with a mixture of self-confidence and self-awareness that represented something new in Hollywood. The young Ms. Streisand was unapologetically Jewish, unabashedly sexual and also unfailingly funny. She could sing, too. (A.O.S.)
1968: The Year in Film
Can a musical biopic be a revolutionary work? The first feature by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” insists as much in a way that is both emphatic and elusive. Straub-Huillet, as the duo came to be known, practiced a rigorously difficult kind of filmmaking, whose visual austerity, resolute slowness and refusal of conventional narrative were meant to advance a ruthless critique of capitalist aesthetics. “Chronicle” interweaves real-time performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano works with extracts from a fictional diary kept by his wife, the title character. You are almost enticed into thinking that you’re watching a 17th-century documentary, and also that Bach’s music belongs not to the past but to the future. (A.O.S.)
time’s up forerunners
In 1968, the writer Ellen Willis joined a women’s liberation group called New York Radical Women. Years later, she wrote: “We argued that male supremacy was in itself a systemic form of domination — a set of material, institutionalized relations, not just bad attitudes.” That’s a good way to think of the movie industry, too, including a period of film history that is too often framed in terms of male artistic triumphalism, as if women existed only on screen or at the pleasure of bearded male artistes who talked about mise-en-scène and their deals at Columbia Pictures.
There were the usual male-driven hits that year — the collapse of the old studio system proved catastrophic for female stars — but also female-driven stories like “Funny Girl” and “Rachel, Rachel.” Behind the scenes, women remained excluded and marginalized. (From 1941 to 1980, the Directors Guild of America found, women directed just 0.5 percent of American movies.) But something was happening, tectonic plates were shifting, and that year, the brilliant writer and performer Elaine May signed a deal with Paramount to direct (write, star in) “A New Leaf.”
What makes Ms. May’s contract significant is that she was joining a tiny sisterhood consisting of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, the only women who had directed for the big studios for decades. Women had been making independent and avant-garde films, but they had long been shut out of Hollywood. And so they worked elsewhere, including on the margins. In 1968, Agnès Varda directed her short documentary “Black Panthers” in Oakland and began making “Lions Love (... and Lies)” in Los Angeles, where she was living with her husband, Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”). Ms. Varda is a French new wave trailblazer, but they were in Hollywood because Mr. Demy had the big-studio contract.
In 1968, Pauline Kael became a staff critic for The New Yorker, sharing the job with Penelope Gilliatt. Barbra Streisand and her beautiful unbobbed nose struck a blow for Jewish female identity in “Funny Girl.” The African-American actress-singer Abbey Lincoln starred alongside Sidney Poitier in “For Love of Ivy,” which is said to be the first mainstream American movie with two black romantic leads. These women were changing the world, and to look at them once more is to see that the culture was changing, power was shifting and the future was forming. In looking back at 1968, Ellen Willis wrote that challenging male power “required a revolutionary movement of women.” That movement may not have come to pass, but women continue to challenge power in every area of life, including activist groups like Time’s Up. (M.D.)
1968: The Year in Film
“We are fighting a war in Vietnam,” John Wayne wrote the surely unsurprised President Lyndon B. Johnson on Dec. 28, 1965. Wayne was writing, he explained, about a film he planned to make that would “tell the story of our fighting men in Vietnam with reason, emotion, characterization and action.” He wanted “to do it in a manner that will inspire patriotic attitude on the part of fellow-Americans — a feeling which we have always had in this country in the past during times of stress and trouble.” That story was “The Green Berets,” a soporific slab of gung-ho idiocy released in 1968 that is devoid of life. Critics tore into it; antiwar protesters picketed it; the writer Michael Korda damned it as “immoral, in the deepest sense.” Of course it was a hit. (M.D.)
1968: The Year in Film
In “The Green Berets,” mostly white American soldiers are in Vietnam to prevent what the film calls “communist domination of the world” and what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” In “Black Panthers,” a blazing short documentary from Agnès Varda, black Americans are fighting a different battle on the home front. Shot in 16-millimeter color film, it is a direct, sympathetic, humanizing introduction to the Panthers — which had formed in response to police brutality — with images of party members carrying guns for self-protection that help crystallize why they became government targets.
There are other radical images, including those in which a party leader, Kathleen Cleaver, talks about her Afro on a porch in Oakland while surrounded by other women. She looks at the camera and says, “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this because it’s natural.” The reason, she adds, is “a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful.” Ms. Cleaver looks around, talks some more, women sing and then she looks right back at the camera. “Dig it, isn’t it beautiful?” (M.D.)
parental guidance THEN AND NOW
From the 1930s to the mid-60s, Hollywood was governed by the Production Code, rules dictating what could, and mostly what could not, be said or shown on the big screen. The code was based on, and helped enact, a fantasy of cultural consensus. Since movies were for everyone, every movie had to be universally acceptable, reflecting sensibilities that were, in practice, dictated by religious dogma, racial prejudice and conservative sexual mores. Still, the era of the code was also the golden age of the studio system, and the whole thing worked pretty well, until all of a sudden it didn’t.
When Jack Valenti, formerly a special assistant to President Johnson, was put in charge of the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry group that administered the code, one of his first acts was to get rid of it. At the time, he would later recall, “the national scene was marked by insurrection on the campus, riots in the streets, rise in women’s liberation, protest of the young, doubts about the institution of marriage, abandonment of old guiding slogans, and the crumbling of social traditions. It would have been foolish to believe that movies, that most creative of art forms, could have remained unaffected by the change and torment in our society.” And so, on Nov. 1, 1968, Valenti introduced the rating system, dividing movies into four categories, each designated by a letter.
The letters — originally G, M, R and X — have changed over the years. Since they weren’t trademarked, the X, which barred entry to underage viewers, was soon appropriated by pornographers, who changed it from a warning to a boast. M (for adults and mature young people) evolved into PG, which was supplemented in 1984 by PG-13. The old X was revived in the form of the NC-17 rating in 1990.
The system has always been controversial, and at times its rulings have seemed arbitrary. Sexuality tends to be more severely scrutinized that violence, and language is parsed with compulsive precision. Even though an X-rated movie — John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” — won the best picture Oscar in 1970, filmmakers have long complained that the arbitrary-seeming boundaries between ratings amount to de facto censorship. Until his death in 2007, Valenti ardently defended his creation, insisting that voluntary ratings were better than government oversight, and that the system, however imperfect, managed “to match the expectations of those it was designed to serve — the parents.”
Any middle-schooler who has ever sneaked into an R-rated movie might argue with that. Still, Valenti’s system survived a half-century of change and torment. The question is how relevant the ratings are in a world where the principal gatekeepers are not parents or multiplex workers but algorithms and passwords — where a different kind of code controls what can be seen by whom. (A.O.S.)
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