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Finally! A Movie That Tells The Truth About 1960s Radicals

Very different from Robert Redford's terrible The Company You Keep, go see Oliver Assayas's Something in the Air instead.

by
Ron Radosh

Bio

May 20, 2013 - 11:00 am

“There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air”

- Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

Finally, a movie has arrived that treats the story of the New Left honestly and in a realistic, mature manner. That film is not Robert Redford’s dreadful The Company You Keep, a paean to the Weather Underground, but the movie by the French director Olivier Assayas, Something in the Air. It takes place in various European locales in the summer of 1971, when the hopes of the European revolutionaries were shattered after the failure of 1968 to lead to revolution. Assayas’ film covers an assorted group of European New Leftists and some American tourist counterparts as they attempt to both get on with their lives and, for some, to keep alive their crushed hopes in a period of ideological and political retreat.

Assayas, who made the quintessential and powerful biographical movie Carlos about Carlos the Jackal, the Left’s most well-known ’70s and 80’s terrorist, now turns his attention in particular to the plight of the young graduating high school student Gilles, played by Clement Metayer, and his new girlfriend, Christine, played by Lola Creton. Each takes different paths. Gilles is guilt ridden over his desire to become an artist and study painting instead of serving the revolution, while Christine, plagued with guilt over her bourgeois existence, opts instead to live with an older man in a revolutionary collective and to devote herself to the task of organizing the proletariat in France and Italy. (All she does, we learn, is shop, cook and clean for the male comrades, as well as provide sex.)

The power of Assayas’ movie is that it takes place in real time, instead of flashbacks and narrative based in the present, as aging radicals try to come to terms with their past. We see these young people facing the options in front of them, each deciding which way to turn, as they experience the pulls to go one way and the warning signs that they had better think twice before acting on their impulses.

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The movie is in many ways a critique of France’s once most highly regarded leftist filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who made many pretentious and preening leftist screeds in that very era. Indeed, we meet a Godard-like filmmaker devoted to chronicling the revolution and spouting its message, as well as radical film collectives that screen horrendous didactic and boring documentaries for small leftist audiences, meant to encourage them to keep “making the revolution.” (The films they watch, as we learn in the end credits, were in fact real leftist documentaries of that era.) Many of them tout the “victories” of Third World revolutionaries that we now know turned out to be failures or led to new totalitarian regimes like that of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The viewer is well aware that Pol Pot himself learned his Marxism-Leninism while studying at the Sorbonne. Similarly, we see Gilles’ high school class as his politics teacher instructs the class in the intricate dialectics of Marxism, asking the class to explain why Marx and Engels rejected the “revisionists” of their theory.

The documentary they watch takes place in Florence, and was a real film about Laos, in which the peasant army is shown marching to victory. Gilles and Christine watch the screening and the discussion afterwards, as revolutionary Italians mock the director’s leftist credentials. The dialogue of these revolutionaries is at the same time hilarious, arcane, arrogant and sad.  “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ revolutionary syntax?” asks one communist audience member. The director answers: “Such a style would be a shock to the proletariat. Our role is to enlighten them.” The audience member has an answer. Wasn’t the filmmaker in fact revealing an “individualist style of the petit bourgeoisie?” The director has yet another answer: “You can’t make entertainment in revolutionary times.” Gilles has a more accurate thought, which he boldly tells the others with him. They are all “boring films” with “primitive politics.”

Assayas, in fact, has produced a film that is really about his own experience as a young radical of that era. His counterparts enthusiastically start by giving out leaflets for meaningless demonstrations, and quickly graduate to vandalism and Molotov cocktails, one of which harms a school guard and ruins his life. Later they join their comrades in violent street demonstrations against the police, who, since 1968, were an ubiquitous presence in the streets of Paris each summer, vigilant against any repeat of the events that almost led to the collapse of Charles de Gaulle’s government a few years earlier.

Indeed, that very summer I was in Paris, and recall the police with sub-machine guns throughout the city. Once I was stopped in a car and asked for my passport, as the police, viewing a car with a few young men in it, decided to check us out and not take any chances. The graffiti on buildings and the revolutionary slogans and signs still had not all been taken down, and the whiff of revolution was still in the air, just as Assayas portrays it.

An American New Leftist, Leslie played by India Salvor Menuez who reminds one of a young Julianne Moore, captures the revolutionary posturing of a young American taking time off to live the counter-cultural and revolutionary dream in Europe. Leslie becomes the lover of an artistic French revolutionary, traveling with him to Nepal, where she and others live the adventurous life of smoking dope, having sex, and regularly getting stoned. As summer comes to an end, she has an abortion, abandons the revolution, and returns home to New York where she will finish her studies at Juilliard and ready herself for a career in dance. Ever the pragmatist, she makes a classic American conclusion. She realizes that the hopes and dreams of her New Left summer friends would lead nowhere, and she chooses reality after a summer’s fling.

What is most striking is that the soundtrack of their lives was American and British rock and folk music. Assayas’ choice is not the obvious ones; there is no Bob Dylan, although we see LPs displayed as Gilles picks records to listen to while painting, of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and a blues album by Hot Tuna. We hear Mike Heron, Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band, a highly influential 60’s group but hardly the Rolling Stones. In one sequence, at an outdoor party of the young revolutionaries, a young American New Left folksinger tourist serenades the European comrades with one of the late Phil Ochs’ least remembered songs, which he sings in its entirety, as Leslie explains its meaning and context to the assembled listeners. (The song is actually about an individual who once blurbed one of my books.)

The film, realistically and honestly filmed, presents viewers with the choices his subjects faced as they enter adulthood. Assayas does not preach or hector. We watch, of course, from our present context, and we see a group of narcissistic, foolish yet idealistic privileged children seeking to become revolutionaries. Some give up the dream, while others perish. Rather than glamorize or eulogize these New Leftists as principled and heroic youngsters, Assayas lets us see them as they were.

Assayas himself, of course, became a filmmaker in his own right, often making movies today that confront the truth about the leftist illusions of his youth. We get a glimpse of this when Gilles picks up a book by Simon Leys, an expose of Maoist China published in the 60’s, at a time when his comrades all were singing the praises of the Cultural Revolution and extolling the virtues of Maoism. Even then, we know that Gilles future is most likely promising, since back in the day, he could read forbidden literature and glimpse the truth about what revolution really meant for those suffered to living in the society its spokesman created.

The film opened this week in Landmark theaters, and for those who have “On Demand” in their cable systems, can be rented for home viewing.

*****

Cross-posted from Ron Radosh’s blog

Ronald Radosh is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Hudson Institute, and a Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York. He is the author or co-author of 14 books.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
One gets the sense that, for those from outside the cultures in question, it's all a game of touristic slumming, like Third World backpacking or taking a tour of a shanty town, without ever really having to be forced to be a part of that culture. The difference is the political, do-gooder slant to the fake tour one can disengage from any time one wants.

Certainly the OWS series of occupations was such chest thumping to no purpose. A bunch of drama queens with iPhones who put up tents and didn't sleep in them. I've met them before - they want to feel alive but in truth risk nothing.

I've seen them in Chiapas when young American backpackers would tell me they were there to help Commander Marcos and young wannabe Mexicans would play the game too, meeting at kiosks in San Cristobal de las Casas at midnight, all wearing black ski masks and embarrassed when I'd stumble across them in my wanderings.

I've seen them in Costa Rica during the Nicaraguan Revolution, haunting beaches wearing the red and black scarves of the Sandinistas, which people would sell at rallies.

I've read accounts from such people who lied about what they experienced in the Egyptian revolution, claiming to be places I knew their timeline would never allow for, to up their bravery quotient.

It's all a game they can leave any time they want, never to have to be a doorman at a building they can't leave for bare wages, sleeping in some dirty back room while their wives live 200 miles away.

And they do leave. At the tale end of the Guatemalan civil war, in the summer of 1983, I saw not one gringo backpacker - because they were actually being killed for their games. They all latched onto Anderson Cooper as he left after being assaulted in Tahrir Square. Nice to be able to turn off revolutions like a TV. That's all it is for them, really. Get on a plane, leave, brag.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I went to her site..."

How did you manage that? If you're referring to the foreigner mentioned by Fail Burton, I wonder how you found the web site since there is no link in his remarks and he doesn't mention her name.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (16)
All Comments   (16)
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Thanks for the tip Ron. Ill check it out.

I found the movie Carlos to be interesting, so Ill give this one a go. Carlos is available on Netflix, for those who may wish to check it out.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
One gets the sense that, for those from outside the cultures in question, it's all a game of touristic slumming, like Third World backpacking or taking a tour of a shanty town, without ever really having to be forced to be a part of that culture. The difference is the political, do-gooder slant to the fake tour one can disengage from any time one wants.

Certainly the OWS series of occupations was such chest thumping to no purpose. A bunch of drama queens with iPhones who put up tents and didn't sleep in them. I've met them before - they want to feel alive but in truth risk nothing.

I've seen them in Chiapas when young American backpackers would tell me they were there to help Commander Marcos and young wannabe Mexicans would play the game too, meeting at kiosks in San Cristobal de las Casas at midnight, all wearing black ski masks and embarrassed when I'd stumble across them in my wanderings.

I've seen them in Costa Rica during the Nicaraguan Revolution, haunting beaches wearing the red and black scarves of the Sandinistas, which people would sell at rallies.

I've read accounts from such people who lied about what they experienced in the Egyptian revolution, claiming to be places I knew their timeline would never allow for, to up their bravery quotient.

It's all a game they can leave any time they want, never to have to be a doorman at a building they can't leave for bare wages, sleeping in some dirty back room while their wives live 200 miles away.

And they do leave. At the tale end of the Guatemalan civil war, in the summer of 1983, I saw not one gringo backpacker - because they were actually being killed for their games. They all latched onto Anderson Cooper as he left after being assaulted in Tahrir Square. Nice to be able to turn off revolutions like a TV. That's all it is for them, really. Get on a plane, leave, brag.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks so much for recommending Something In The Air. I intend to see it as soon as possible. I saw the mini-series Carlos a few years ago. I recorded it either from Sundance Channel or IFC and watched it in one sitting. Brilliant in every area in which a film can be brilliant. I found parts of it not just ironically amusing but downright LOL funny. No directors are as capable as the French in being able to put human nature in all it's complexity on the screen and make it magically accessible and gloriously mundane.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The movie is in many ways a critique of France’s once most highly regarded leftist filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who made many pretentious and preening leftist screeds in that very era."

Yes, but 'Weekend' was great!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
The effing scummy commies WILL NOT STOP, until they are STOPPED!
They have always counted upon the average citizen not quite understanding what the scummies commies are actually saying?
"Hope and change" shoulda made your head explode!
Howzabout SPECIFICS?
Nevah gonna happen. If you heard them like , en passant, mention, a Bill Ayers lunch to launch a nice, kinda black candidate who he kinda knows, YOU WOULD BE shocked!
It's nothing new. They consider themselves the enlightened. Therefore they can tell you what to do.
LSD had more than a tiny bit do do with this, by the way.
The Nazis did it better, because they hadn't discovered dope.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...and it is fed by the pain I feel that every thing I consume, every move I make, every cent I spent, is part of a machine built by greedy people and run by their fearful, perhaps innocent minions and oiled by cowards. ...this is a cultural problem, this is a problem with white supremacy."

That's from the blog of a student-teaching assistant here from Asia on a visa at a major university writing about her disgust over "post-colonialist" white people who write science fiction. It's from January. These crazy nutters are worse than ever.

If I could, I'd have her thrown out of the country. She certainly should be.

She says her blog analyzes a "wide range of postcolonial, post-structuralist, post-modern, race and feminist theories."

In my day we just called it racial bigotry. She is often asked to speak at science fiction conventions because of her views on racist America. These people truly hate us and half of us agree.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank Teddy "Chappaquidick" Kennnedy.
In case you think him a bad example of the despicable Kennedy Clan, howzabout JFK pimping his teenage interns?
Or perhaps OLD JOE reporting from England that he thought we should side with Hitler? Whilst pimping HIS teenage interns?
A buncha effing SWEETHEARTS these SOBs are.
And Teddy wrote our current immigration laws. What could possibly go wrong with THAT? He needed more whores than were currently available. Wotsa guy to do?
I know. Teddy never wrote anything that wouldn't fit on a cocktail napkin. Yet, we let these idiots set policy for a half century later, because Camelot demanded it.
The rot is deep, dear friends. I hereby forgive any mention of Hitler. The analogy is only TOO apparent!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you want to start a minor university, begin with a major one and employ bigoted and talentless teaching staff, emphasizing racial politics over any academic aptitude. In between making appointments for her triple charm bypass, that toxic miss appears to have learnt her English in a sewer.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I went to her site and read her....uh....perspective. If anything she is consistent n contradicting herself and the points are weak assumptions and prejudice within themselves. Unable to comprehend or accept reality, she has buried it in assumptions. Unable to produce anything of value, she produces detritus with hopes that the guilt ridden white race will pay her money and feel better.
Based on Leftist colonialism guilt bashing, these will be the first to complain if we cut aid to Africa in fighting AIDS and Malaria.
I am sure (sarcasm) while she is in Asia she will discuss tyranny and colonialism of those nations and races.
I agree, a total loser.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I went to her site..."

How did you manage that? If you're referring to the foreigner mentioned by Fail Burton, I wonder how you found the web site since there is no link in his remarks and he doesn't mention her name.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's a she and you just need to google a few of the words quoted. To help you out, I'd recommend that you skip "it", "is", "the" and "I". Try searching on "consume greedy innocent minions oiled".

That will get you there.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I went and read that post at the site as well. She is a foul mouthed Moonbat and her musings are pure psychobabble.

However, I did get a chuckle when she kept posting, "PoC" and all I could keep thinking was, "Piece of Crap."
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
When you drop a quote into Google it usually brings you to the source. It does in this case. In my opinion the woman's an idiot as well as nuts. She's admired for her views in the SF community. That's a damn wide gap. Maybe I'm nuts.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've no idea if you're nuts (although I recall that you did laugh at Obama's deeply unfunny jokes - not a very healthy sign), but you're right in this case - and I didn't know you could slide a whole paragraph into google. I did manage to find the charming lass you quoted. She is everything that is wrong with English-speaking universities, the world over. Tragically, she is probably proud of the fact.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
If white Europeans are so objectionable, why do these "Others" flock to white European territories to hang around them?

Shouldnt they be averse to attending a European university full of white Europeans and their evil ethnocentrism/supremacy? As if every other groups ethnocentrism isnt exactly the same.

Haters and bigots, the lot of them.



47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
So.
Which does she sound closer to?
Hillary Clinton, or or Moochelle Obungles?
Either answer gets full credit!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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