Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers (1966)

A Book Review by Mads Larsen.

The timing could hardly be better. Every month seems to throw more gasoline onto the political fire that this edited volume hopes to be a part of. But while editors Christina Gerhardt and Sara Saljoughi have written an introduction with ambitions that – if they were delivered upon – would make 1968 and Global Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2018) increasingly relevant, unfortunately their book falls apart and atomizes under the weight of these considerable aspirations.

50 years after the 1968 student uprisings – to the surprise of many – we today experience a reemergence of similar ideals among growing segments of Western populations. With young Americans in several 2019 polls expressing more support for socialism than capitalism, their grandparents’ failed utopian longings should be ripe for reexamination. How cinema reflected and contributed to these “long sixties” could also be an interesting comparison to our era of blockbusters and media atomization. There has been no lack of scholarly exploration of any of this, though, but what Gerhardt and Saljoughi want to do is break new ground by bringing the many national New Wave cinemas of the late 1950s and 1960s together. Their goal is to further explore these cinemas’ global connectedness, and through new insights gleaned from this, help construct the future (2).

1968-and-global-cinema-100180Gerhardt and Saljoughi’s method is to “cover a breadth of cinematic movements” and to focus on “history, aesthetics, and politics” as each illuminate “the relationship of cinema to the events of 1968, or the long sixties,” in order to:

create new understandings of the period. We seek, in putting these works in dialogue, to encourage new lines of affiliation and new critical genealogies, and to renew interest in a period that has suffered from the discourse of failure attached to radical politics in what is now firmly the era of late capitalism. (Gerhardt and Saljounghi “Introduction,” 17)

It is a tall order to cover cinematic counterculture from all around the world, from the 1950s until the 1970s, with examples even from the 1990s. But if patterns were to emerge from this juxtaposition that could give new insights into what this radical movement was about, and how cinema played a part, it would be a worthwhile approach. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern any such “new lines of affiliation” from these nineteen very dissimilar chapters. The collection is divided into two equally expansive sections. “I. The Long Sixties: Cinematic New Waves” jumps between European, American, Asian, and African locations to explore counterculture cinema before, during, and after 1968. “II. Aftershocks” follows the same geographically diverse approach, but with material that extends somewhat more forward in time. What the editors refer to as “putting these works in dialogue” comes across more as a series of quite good essays with insufficient argumentative or even thematic resonance to work as a whole. It was an obvious risk with such a multitude of focal points. Not only is a lot of ground covered, but by broadening the concept of “1968 and global cinema” to include film in the 1990s, the already expansive exploration spreads itself needlessly thin.

Also, the texts’ connection to contemporary politics and media is perfunctory. Indicatively, Robert Stam ends chapter 1 by declaring that:

Many of these questions have to be modified in the light of changes in the medium and historical shifts in power – for example, the digital revolution, the decline in movie theaters, postcelluloid film, globalization, financialization, and so on – but with some reformatting they remain highly relevant to twenty-first-century concerns. (“The ‘Long 1968′ and Radical Film Aesthetics,” 40)

Unfortunately, in none of the ensuing chapters, though, is such “reformatting” attempted. Chapter 7, “Toward a New Mode of Study: The New Student Left and the Occupation of Cinema in Columbia Revolt and The Battlefront for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Sanrizuka,” briefly mentions parallels between those days’ and present days’ student debt as “a counterrevolutionary technique of control.” But these parallels are not furthered beyond claiming that they are affirmative of “the enduring quality of these struggles in our present” (160). In the same chapter, the older era’s “nascent environmentalism” is mentioned, but quickly abandoned (Adamson 157).

The very accommodating reader could of course choose to see this as fitting for a book on New Wave film. These were cinematic works that belonged to a movement that was far more willing to raise questions than to answer them. But for the curious academic, the trope transmediates poorly. The pattern becomes increasingly frustrating, as when it is repeated with the Czech New Wave. After this national wave was rediscovered with DVD releases, it led to “a good deal of internet writings and discussions” (Hames “The Czechoslovak New Wave Revisited” 92). But instead of sharing insights from this contemporary discourse, the chapter is rounded off with ‘The influence lives on and is in some ways wider and more informed than it was in the 1960s” (Hames 92). In which ways, the curious reader may ask. But, apparently this 2018 reassessment is not the place for such updates, apart from brief nods in concluding paragraphs.

The hurried approach is pursued throughout the volume, and the result is that neither the national movements’ global connections are made any clearer than what they have been, nor do new insights emerge that could be relevant for contemporary radicals or filmmakers or scholars seeking to understand what is different and what is alike 50 years later. Instead, an unwillingness to openly and seriously engage both the era’s positives and negatives expresses itself in several chapters as a dismay over how the “reigning neoliberal system” has “associated the ideas of 1960s left-wing radicalism with some negative moral connotations” (Leung “Re-presenting the ‘Just Image’” 234). While a few authors hint that future reassessments could cast a much more positive light, even with the period’s more Stalinist or totalitarian aspects, none are willing to bring forth an argument for more immediate scrutiny.

Winter Soldier (1971)
Winter Soldier (1971)

This creates an odd situation. The late 2010s have re-torched the fire of 1968, causing a hunger for new perspectives and insights on these countercultural ideas. This volume steers clear of twenty-first-century hindsight and comes across as something that could have been written in the 1990s. Adding this failure to deliver on its stated ambition of relevance, to its inability to weave a new global dialogue of these movements, leaves the many strong essays with little direction. What the editors aspired for was to undo the traditional national and regional boundaries of cinema studies, to instead include the whole world over four-five decades with a sequence of waves “rolling through adjacent cultures” (10). This is an admirably bold proposition. But when the submitted chapters fail to come together as anticipated, a rethinking of the concept, with a rewrite of the book’s introduction and cover, would have been the more elegant solution. As it instead has become, the volume falls prey to the same weakness as Mauro Resmini, in chapter 10, lays on anthology films like French-Italian Love and Anger (1969). Such anthologies “are too much and not enough at the same time [and] the configuration of the whole is amorphous, disjointed” (“Obscurity, Anthologized,” 199).

These considerable concerns apply primarily to the book as a whole, though, and are informed by what the editors express as their ambitions for it. If the volume is instead read merely as a survey of counterculture cinemas across the globe, the essays are informative and suitable for what the publisher describes as “courses on the long sixties, political cinema, 1968, and new waves in art history, cultural studies, and film and media studies.” The volume’s geographical scope is considerable, the essays’ variation in focus and method makes for an interesting read, and the material is conveyed convincingly and with clarity. Although the book, due to its breadth and lack of cohesiveness, falls short of developing an argument or offering new insights to its fields, the texts do a good job of sharing old insights as they relate to 1968 in the West and beyond, and to the cinematic interconnectedness of anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements around the world. As such, and with its subject matter’s increasing relevance, 1968 and Global Cinema still has the potential to fulfil its editors’ more modest ambition of generating “future conversations and projects” (ix). Hopefully, those future explorations will be able to use the still relevant movement of 1968 to develop insights that can be put to use with the perilous period we undoubtedly have entered.

Mads Larsen has an M.F.A. in Screenwriting from University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently a Ph.D. student at the same university.

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