Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Sylvia Harvey: May '68 and Film Culture
Sylvia Harvey’s May’ 68 and Film Culture examines the effects of a tremendous political event on film aesthetics and practice. French cineastes were perhaps exceptionally prepared for May ’68 because of the “Langlois Affair.” In February 1968, the government suddenly removed Henri Langlois from his position as head of the Cinematheque. A crowd of 1,500 people soon began demonstrating outside the Cinematheque, and intellectuals and celebrities en masse took up the cause of supporting Langlois. Protests continued throughout March, and Cahiers du Cinema included a special insert on the controversy. In April, Langlois was given back his position, though the Cinematheque lost its funding for film conservation. According to Harvey, the Langlois Affair did much more than give many cineastes their first taste of protest. “The defense of Langlois was a liberal cause, not a radical one, but it provided a certain organizational infrastructure, a network of communication within French film culture which was to prove useful to those who, in the month of May . . . were seeking not to defend individual freedom but to place the cinema apparatus in the service of the working-class.” During the events of May, many of the same cineastes again came together to form the Estates General of the Cinema (EGC). Shortly after the mass demonstration of May 13, action committees at the Sorbonne had set up a commission that screened films in the university and factories, and it was not long before elements of the film industry also began to organize so as to commit their skills to the movement. “On Friday May 17 the Union of Film Production Technicians of the CGT . . . called together a number of technicians, directors, and members of the French actors’ union as well as students from the two main film and photography schools: the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) and the Ecole Nationale de Photographie et de Cinematographie (ENPC). Out of this meeting, and a subsequent meeting between members of the film technicians’ union and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema came the suggestion for a new institution to be called the Estates General of the French Cinema (Estats Generaux du Cinema Francais). An action committee and the film technicians’ union itself issued invitations to all those active in or interested in French film culture to attend the first meeting of the EGC that evening (May 17), at the ENPC building in the rue de Vaugirard, which had been occupied by the film and photography students for a couple of days. More than a thousand people met together for the inaugural session.” The EGC regularly met over the next three weeks, the most intense period of resistance, and then slowly fizzled out in the following months. Harvey argues that the EGC was as full of contradictions and disagreements as the rest of the left, which included anarchists, Maoists, Stalinists, and popular front socialists, students and workers, reformists and revolutionaries. Different groups in the EGC produced “a number of plans for the transformation and re-structuring of the whole of the French film industry,” plans which, ranging from reform to total revolution, investigated self-management, exhibition practices, universal film education, and non-commercial forms of financing. These plans were often visionary and theoretically enlightening, yet divisions within the EGC prevented them from being effectively implemented in any manner. Within the EGC there was widespread hostility towards the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), a bureaucratic organ that regulated and funded film production in France. The CNC was perhaps just the most visible symbol of the reactionary nature of the existing film system, to which many during the month began to oppose the idea of a “cinema of today.” The Film Technicians’ Union went on strike on May 19, but the “EGC made arrangements for filming to carry on, despite the strike (though not in opposition to it), so that films could be made about the workers’ and students’ movement.” EGC sponsored a number of short, collectively-made documentaries on political subjects, including Sorbonne Repression, Le pouvoir est dans la rue, Comites d’action, and Ce n’est qu-un debut. What was referred to as a “parallel cinema” emerged as film groups experimented with new forms of distribution and exhibition, such as showing films inside factories. For many connected to the EGC, “The existing system of film production and distribution was criticized on the ground that it operated only to market film-commodities to alienated spectators and that, further, the consumption of these spectacles contributed to the maintenance of that alienation. The parallel cinema was to contribute to the destruction of that endless circuit which began with alienated production and ended with alienated consumption.” Another defining feature of the parallel cinema was a commitment to discovering more egalitarian ways of making films. “In addition to the attempt at developing new methods of distribution and exhibition, the radical film groups attempted a re-organisation of the practices of production: in particular the development of a collective mode of working which refused the hierarchisation of tasks typical of the mainstream of the industry. Thus decisions about script and treatment were taken collectively and the clear distinction between those filmed and those doing the filming (and taking the decisions about the organization of meaning in the finished film) began to be broken down as the film-makers entered into extensive consultation with those about whom they were making the film. In this way the method of organizing around the point of production developed as a genuinely co-operative endeavour, and the mental-manual distinction characteristic of the division of labour within the existing industry began to be replaced by a less alienated and less alienating mode of production.” The most famous of these film collectives of course was the Dziga Vertov group, which, as its most notable member, Jean-Luc Godard, stated, was formed in order “to make politically a political cinema.” An equally important collective was SLON (Society for the promotion of new works), which formed during the production of Loin du Vietnam. With the help of militant workers, SLON member Chris Marker made A bientot j’espere about strikes in Rhodiaceta. This collaboration led to the formation of the Medvedkin Group, which “changed its composition and internal modes of organization in order to represent more adequately the workers’ own views and priorities, and the decision-making role of the film-makers themselves was reduced or disappeared entirely.” Another collective, Dynadia, aligned itself with the French Communist Party, and made propaganda films supporting the organization’s political line. Finally, the Maoist position was put forth by Cineastes revolutionaires proletariens (Revolutionary Proletarian Film-Makers), which shot films of confrontations at strikes and exhibited its films in an underground manner in working-class communities. Like Dynadia, Cineastes revolutionaires proletariens saw film as an instrument and therefore did not question its form, only its content. The French film journals also were immediately impacted by May ’68, though these effects didn’t appear in print for a few months. Harvey focuses on Cahiers du cinema and Cinethique, the two journals that seem to have been the most affected by the political events. Cahiers first responded in its August issue, which discussed the EGC and the proposals to change the film industry. It began printing and discussing translations of Eisenstein, and made space for new theories drawing from psychoanalysis, most notably Jean-Pierre Oudart’s theory of the “suture.” “Cahiers’ most explicit statement of its post-’68 position, its clearest presentation of a programme of work, and one which precipitated a crisis in the ownership of the magazine,” was Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” an explicitly Marxist, Althusserian theorization of the cinema as a form of ideology. They offered a useful classification of films into seven categories: films that reproduced without question the dominant ideology; films that confronted the dominant ideology through choosing a political subject and attacking traditional methods of depicting reality; films that were not explicitly political but whose form had political consequences; films that had political content but that were undermined by their reliance on traditional ideology and aesthetic forms; films that appeared to reproduce the dominant ideology but upon closer inspection revealed cracks and inconsistencies; documentary films that dealt with political subjects but did not question their own form; documentary films that dealt with political subjects and did question their own form. Less well-known in the English speaking world, Cinethique set forth a different leftist line than Cahiers, with whom it debated politics and aesthetics. Cinethique largely shunned mainstream film (unlike Cahiers) and focused on experimental and alternative forms of film. The journal sought out a materialist cinema, “a theoretical cinema capable of producing scientific knowledge.” Although Cahiers disagreed with Cinethique about whether film can be scientific, the two journals, along with Tel Quel, were united in their opposition to the anti-theoretical line of Positif and in their interest in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The rest of Harvey’s book is a solid and helpful, though not especially original, examination of the problems of political modernism. She shows how the post-May ’68 debate about film aesthetics and practice, particularly as it appeared in Cahiers and Cinethique, led “to a re-examination of some of the debates around the questions of culture and class, attitudes to the art of the past and the development of new forms of art which had been conducted in Russia in the decade or so following the Revolution of 1917, and in Europe in the thirties by writers like Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.” In both these earlier examples and in France, there was often a split between those who pursued a culture that was formally radical, but potentially both elitist and politically ineffective, and those who accepted the use of bourgeois ideology and traditional aesthetic forms in the creation of a popular proletarian culture. Harvey concludes the book with a discussion of how the ambiguities of the theory of ideology, and particularly Althusser’s version, were ferociously worked through in the debates within and between French film journals in the first few years following May ’68.