The National Film Theatre’s 1968 season continues through December, with an eclectic programme of screenings from the late 1960s. The feverish political climate and the increased opportunities for directorial independence helped create the conditions for some brilliant cinema. Even the least interesting, most obvious choices are still worth seeing on the big screen – Antonioni’s visually sumptuous but pretentious Zabriskie Point (which includes a slo-mo shot of a house being blown up to the sound of Pink Floyd), and the overrated drug hippy biker odyssey Easy Rider.
But some of the more rarely seen films are the real treats here, including two documentaries. In the Hour of the Pig is a classic documentary about the American war in Vietnam. The secretly made Hour of the Furnaces uses extracts from films, newsreel, interviews, songs and poems to tell the history of Argentina’s struggle against neo-colonialism.
I’d also strongly recommend Medium Cool, which follows an American cameraman’s changing responses to the protests and people he captures. It critiques the cynical, trendy permissiveness of the new establishment as well as the more traditional ideologies of the old. One of its many great scenes shows a group of black militants insisting the reporter listens to their radical analysis of the media. The film – which terrified US politicians – reminds me of the slogan painted on the walls of Paris during November’s European Social Forum: ‘Media partout, information nulle part’ (Media everywhere, information nowhere). It has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, borrowing from Vertov’s constructivist Man with a Movie Camera.
The season also offers a rare chance to see the radical Japanese film Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets, described by the NFT as ‘an explosive rallying call to the young to rebel against the social taboos of Japan’. On the horror front, George Romero’s genre-busting Night of the Living Dead allegorises militarised consumerism as zombie flick and is genuinely scary as well as hilarious. Lindsay Anderson’s If… shows a private boarding school (which works as a metaphor for all repressive social systems, but also as a portrayal of a very peculiar British institution) taken over by violent revolt and anarchy.
Daisies – banned for two years by the Czechoslovakian authorities – is an endearingly surreal comedy about consumerism in the middle of crisis. Two young women act out cycles of overconsumption and destruction, persuading gullible men to buy them expensive meals, and then behaving outrageously before running off into the night. There is more subversive humour with Robert Altman’s classic M*A*S*H satirising army life during the Korean (read Vietnam) War. The gentler Alice’s Restaurant stars Arlo Guthrie in a lyrical and generous film set around the restaurant of the title and based on his talking blues song (about being fined $50 for littering and subsequently being rejected for the Vietnam draft for being an unrehabilitated criminal).
There are also showings of TV programmes from 1968. Drama 1968 includes two films: Golden Vision (by Ken Loach) and On the Eve of Publication. The latter is a coruscating ‘Wednesday Play’ about the crisis of the pro-Moscow left, personified by a talented but sick and embittered writer, who drinks and abuses his lover and friends in a futile attempt to drown his guilt for compromising with Stalinism. It’s not pleasant viewing, but it gives a real sense of the failure of the Moscow-orientated old left to connect with the new. The News 68 programme promises to be fascinating archive viewing: it will feature reports on riots in Paris, Russian tanks in Prague, and the ‘I’m backing Britain’ campaign which urged people to work for free to help the British economy.
Other films include the rare German New Wave film Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated and I am Curious – Yellow, a Swedish film which mixes reportage and fiction, and satirically interrogates the meaning of women’s sexual liberation. Louis Malle’s Milou en Mai is possibly an odd one out for its positioning of the 1968 events within a nostalgic frame: its country-house farce (in which the inhabitants are stranded by strikes) is not really satire, more a comically affectionate portrait of a rural bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, most of these films are excellent, and since so many of them spend their time sitting in the archives, it’s definitely worth trying to catch some of them.
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