The personal or the political?
I can’t say I’ve been taken by Olivier Assayas’ films, though I liked Irma Vep (1996), but I thoroughly enjoyed the awkwardly titled Something in the Air. The original title, After May, is far better but distributors presumably thought that English-speaking audiences wouldn’t get the 1968 reference. This semi-autobiographical film focuses on the personal-political fallout of May ’68, in the early seventies, of teenager Gilles, Clément Métayer, who campaigns for progressive politics whilst ‘falling in love’ with two girls.
Although I’m far too young to remember, or rather, I’m not quite old enough to remember, the time, I found the fervent atmosphere of the era, amongst leftists at least, convincingly portrayed. Assayas doesn’t romanticise the period, the men get on with talking whilst the woman are meant to do the domestic work, and Gilles is torn between his political convictions and his desire to join the art establishment.
Assayas uses wonderfully flowing camerawork to create a convincing narrative world and Eric Gautier’s cinematography captures the tone of the locations, from Paris to Italy, very well.
It’s unfair to compare the youth of today with those portrayed in the film but with climate change disaster, for youngsters in particular, looming it’s disappointing to see such lack of engagement. It’s actually worse than ‘lack of engagement’, they are not even aware of the developing disaster. The UK government’s recent budget saw fit only to bribe old people because they are more likely to vote. British youngsters, and others of course, are too burdened with debt, once at university, to feel too much like rocking the boat I suppose. For this I blame the parents, not only are we destroying the planet but have failed to engage our children in its future. Something in the Air, at least, shows that the young did care and, although politically May ’68, failed, culturally it still resonates today as this piece I wrote for in the picture suggests:
Knowing Arses from Elbows
(issue 60, July 2008)
Do your students know their left from their right? Whilst few still believe Francis Fukuyama’s pronouncement, in 1989, that history was at an end as the Capitalists had won the Cold War, the consequent shrinking of the ideologically left wing in mainstream politics has blurred the political landscape to such an extent that there are no easy shorthand descriptions of left and right wing. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was an attempt to describe non-ideological politics; however it proved to be an oxymoronic chimera that nobody mentions any more. Besides, Blair’s New Labour clearly had more in common with Thatcherite politics than Socialism. However, the confrontational Westminster politics, and broadcast news’ need for ‘balance’, still suggests that (New) Labour and the Conservatives are opposites, whereas both occupy, broadly, a right-of-centre position that vaunts the private sector, at the expense of the public, and courts Big Business as a matter of course. Today’s 14-19 year olds can be forgiven for not knowing what the difference is between the left and the right.
Media Studies specifications usually encourage, at least at A2, historical contextualisation and the need to understand the ideological basis of meaning, so delving into the past is the an opportunity to give our students an understanding of what the left and right mean. This is one of the reasons the Establishment so reviles our subject, we do not deal in ‘common sense’ (the definitions offered by hegemony), but attempt to understand the ideological underpinnings of how meaning is created. In so doing, we often find that media texts are driven by patriarchy, consumerism and xenophobia and are not ‘windows on the ‘natural’ world’.
The 40th anniversary of May ’68 was an opportunity to consider the events of the time (seminal for the development Media Studies) and contemporary reflections upon it. Although the film is deeply disappointing in its focus on the characters’ sex lives, The Dreamers (France-UK-Italy, 2003) does start out with a magnificent evocation of the events that served as a catalyst to May, the occupation of the Cinematique in defence of Henri Langlois. The ‘making of…’ DVD extra is also a useful tool in giving historical background.
The ‘60s was the formative decade for our consumerist society and yet is regularly reviled by conservative politicians (most recently Nicolas Sarkozy) including Tony Blair who declared, in 2004, that the ‘liberal consensus’ of the decade had been taken too far. Apart from the rise of consumer culture, the decade was characterised, in the west, by the move from deference to challenging the Establishment; the emergence of Youth Culture that was often anathema to older generations; the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war; Civil Liberties movements and so on.
When considering current views of 1968, the most obviously right-wing newspaper in Britain is bound to offer a distinctive view. Add renowned right-winger, Peter Hitchens, to the mix and you get some entertainingly ludicrous pronouncements. In an article about drug laws (The Mail on Sunday, 11 May, 2008, http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2008/05/the-class-of-68.html) Hitchens wondered:
‘how many civil servants, BBC and Guardian journalists, ‘respected academics’ and politicians are concealing serious current drug habits from us.’ (p. 31a)
The article was headlined ‘The class of ’68 smoke their dope, as the poor go to hell’. This is a typical Mail headline, more a moral rant than a succinct summary. Hitchens conflates the generation of ’68 with moral turpitude by stating that the thing they care about is drugs:
‘They pretend to be worried about dictatorship in Burma or hunger in Africa or the oppression of women in the Muslim world. But that’s just the dinner-party fake concern. The real issue for the 1968 generation has always been their right to have fun, however much it costs other people.’ (p. 31b)
This suggestion is that the protestors of ’68, who are now at least in their 50s, where never really politically engaged and so we shouldn’t pay any attention to their agenda. Another right-winger, Niall Fergusson, writing the FT Weekend Magazine (May 17/18), agrees:
‘They wanted a revolution. But they wanted a mixed-sex party – a really big one – even more.’ (p. 35a)
What does Ferguson mean by a ‘mixed-sex’ party’? He goes on to argue that the:
‘siouxant-huitards exploit their still dominant place in the western media to romanticise their youthful antics…’ (p. 35b)
Therefore we shouldn’t pay too much attention to romantic (ie left wing) representations of ’68 as they are merely nostalgia. The right wing regularly suggest that the BBC is in the thrall of a ‘liberal conspiracy’, which it probably looks like from their position on the political spectrum. To those on the left, the BBC appears to be a repository of consensus politics and so resides on the right. Ferguson argues that the ‘cultural changes’ that occurred during the ‘60s were more the product of demographics; in America the proportion of 16-24 years olds ‘surged from 11.5 per cent in 1957 to a peak of 17.2 per cent in 1978’ (p. 34b) as if that, in itself, would be enough to gain Civil Rights as a black person or as a woman. The puritanical streak in both Hitchens’ and Ferguson’s columns is clearly in evidence; as if ‘having fun’ is not a reasonable thing to do.
Ferguson does, however, have a point when he outlines the electorate’s reaction to 1968 in electing right wing governments in both France and USA. In The Guardian (1 May, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/01/1968theyearofrevolt) Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggested that, though the right won the political battle, the left won the cultural war. Like Ferguson, he uses lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man to belittle the participants in the street protests (cue students’ analysis of the use of lyrics as a political tool; compare them with standard pop ‘boy meets girl’ fare?) as if these were a political manifesto. Wheatcroft’s response to the ‘naivete’ of the lyrics is ‘Oh, come on, old boy.’, discuss: what social class does Wheatcroft come from?.
From a left wing perspective, Gilbert Adair concentrates on these cultural gains:
‘What its detractors have always failed to comprehend is that the real bombs that were hurled in the streets of Paris were time bombs. They exploded later, sometimes decades later. It was, in France at least, out of May 68 that the liberalising ideologies and reformations that we now take for granted were born: modern feminism, the ecological movement, homosexual liberation, the outlawing of cultural censorship, the rejection of national service. If, for all its disfiguring scars, ours is a rather more civilised world than that which our parents and grandparents knew, it’s in some part due to those posturing rebels.’ (http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2268966,00.html)
Both Wheatcroft and Adair were writing in The Guardian; an example of how that newspaper does offer contrasting ideological voices. Mike Marqusee writes in Red Pepper (Apr/May, http://www.redpepper.org.uk/1968-The-Mysterious-Chemistry-of) how it’s best to view 1968 as ‘a year of contradictions and confusions’ (p. 10) and focuses on the American experience. With Barack Obama heading for the Presidency, this is surely a good moment to look at the Civil Rights movement. Indeed it’s always a good exercise to get publications, such as Red Pepper and Socialist Worker, that most students are unaware of into the classroom and compare their views with mainstream coverage.
Prospect (May, http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10164, nla) ran 54 short responses on the impact on May ’68; in blog form on the internet. These offer a variety of viewpoints and could be used with students as an exercise where they guess writers’ political orientations; this could be supplemented by further internet research to try and find out if they were correct. This would combine research skills with making clear that knowing the position from which the writer (source) is coming from is crucial and encourage students to use more than one source to verify the efficacy of what they’re reading. And, hopefully, at the end of the exercise – a good one to do in the summer term after AS levels – students will have a more concrete idea of the ideology, which will help them distinguish between the arses and elbows, that they are reading.
Further reading: 1968 The Year That Rocked the World, Mark Kurlansky, Vintage: 2005)
A collection of my articles from in the picture can be purchased for kindle here.
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