Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is a film whose immediacy and docu-realism was all too fitting for an America that could, for the first time, see its wars on television. Shot during the protests and riots that accompanied the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, Wexler’s film seamlessly mixed narrative storytelling and documentary – Medium Cool is a Hollywood-made document of America in ’68 if there ever was one, a stunning portrait of the chaotic state of politics and its relationship to media in one of the most tumultuous years in American (or, perhaps, world) history.
But Criterion’s long-anticipated release of Medium Cool isn’t the only A/V flashback to ’68 occurring this summer. Olivier Assays’s Something in the Air reflects on the student protests surrounding the similarly turbulent demonstrations in France in May of that year, while Season 6 of Mad Men has just entered the sweltering summer that will climax in the events in Chicago that August. Maybe it’s Congress’s seemingly eternal bottleneck, or the government’s paranoia-inducing surveillance of the press, or a general aura of well-justified cynicism, but the simultaneously dark and potentially revolutionary years of ’68 seem to demand contemporary reflection, even if it only results in pop culture nostalgia.
That said, here’s The Criterion Collection’s archive of films that captured the spirit of the revolutionary times of the ‘60s around the world, all fitting comrades of the brilliant Medium Cool.
Organized Revolution: The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Z (1969)
Yes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers meticulously recreates real events of the mid-1950s, as Algerian dissidents struggle for independence in war-torn France. But beyond masterfully reconstructing the emergence of a revolution down to the smallest violent details, the film played an important role in terms of the tactics that would be embraced throughout various organized efforts of defiance during the 1960s. Banned in France for five years until an amended release in the early 1970s, The Battle of Algiers was seen as threatening to a culture that look to shake off its colonial roots and dismantle its own hegemonic traditions. It was also widely seen by left-wing groups ranging from the Black Panthers to the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Another film that framed then-recent history to speak to a contemporary moment, Costa-Gavras’s Z uses a fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis to channel the sense of outrage over the military dictatorship that controlled Greece at the time through a deft, even strange mix of dark humor, a vast mosaic of characters, and sudden acts of violence.
Both Algiers and Z are historically specific but usefully transportable, films that are emblems of a particular period of time but also speak volumes to the time of their making. They each benefit from a meticulous examination of the difficult political struggles of their respective nations, but at the same time translate readily to similar leftist political movements taking place oceans away.
Made by Godard: Made in U.S.A (1966), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), and Week-end (1967)
As hinted at in his Pierrot le fou, Godard’s love of American cinema that he expressed so openly in early work like Breathless was now becoming tested against his growing distaste for American imperialism, encapsulated by the war in Vietnam. Made in U.S.A., his final collaboration wife former wife/muse Anna Karina, marks a decisive act of severing his prior loyalties to the cinematic institutions that inspired his career in journalism and his initial foray into filmmaking. An indecipherable and anarchistic neo-noir, Made in U.S.A. is the bridge between Godard’s New Wave works of Hollywood pastiche and the inventive, challenging didacticism that would characterize his more politicized late ‘60s/early ‘70s filmmaking, culminating in his establishment of the Dziga Vertov Group.
2 or 3 Things and Week-end provide two additional, subsequent political challenges that completed this bridge between Godard’s New Wave work and his decisive use of film as a political protest tool: the former an essay that critiques consumer culture, mass production, and the commodification of the female body; and the latter a chaotic journey through the French countryside that calls for a revolution against a bourgeois society that seems condemned to leisure-based savagery.
Over at BBS: Head (1968) and Easy Rider (1969)
BBS, the company that produced one of the most profound and decisive statements against the Vietnam War with Hearts and Minds, is best known for making some of the most iconic films of New Hollywood, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. But the BBS studio began with perhaps one of the most unassuming critiques of mainstream American culture that Hollywood produced during the ‘60s. The heads of BBS first launched their careers by producing The Monkees for television, and they turned their manufactured pop group on its…well…head when they morphed a fake band in a musical era that valued authenticity (see below) into a surreal, psychedelic, postmodern nightmare of a first feature.
Bob Rafleson’s Head sets its decisively kid-unfriendly tone when a satirical cover of their opening theme song is interrupted by footage of the assassination of Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lam. Sure, Easy Rider, with its contemporary soundtrack, drug-addled guerilla production, and subversion of American archetypes more definitively captured “the ’60s” as the decade is popularly reflected on now, but it’s worth remembering that the studio which produced some of the most memorable films of the era began with a critique of war embedded in a work of unabashed pop.
Docs that Rock: Monterey Pop (1967) and Gimme Shelter (1970)
’60s rock music was obsessed with authenticity as a defining category of value, especially by 1968 as the relatively minimalist albums Beggars Banquet, Music from Big Pink, and The White Album provided a down-to-rock contrast to the maximalist psychedelic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. And nowhere did this sense of authenticity play out more authoritatively than in the concert documentary. The combination of the minimalist observational aesthetics of the Direct Cinema movement with authentic countercultural rock was potent.
D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop predates the epic Woodstock rockumentary by three years, and the setlist presents an incredible variety of essential American 60s sounds and performances including Hendrix, Joplin, The Mamas and The Papas, and Ravi Shankar. And the Maysles’ (with Charlotte Zwerin) Gimme Shelter is so much more than a vérité concert film, but like Medium Cool is a near-impossibly fortuitous archive of a dark moment towards the end of the counterculture, capturing the tragic murder of a concertgoer at The Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont Free Concert.
France Defines Itself: Mr. Freedom (1969) and The Milky Way (1969)
Godard was hardly the definitive filmmaker to attempt a portrait of revolutionary-era France. Several filmmakers contended with a multitude of approaches to what it meant to live in France before, during, and after May 1968. American expatriate William Klein’s Mr. Freedom is a stark, overt satire of good ‘ol boy American imperialism that chronicles a Nixon-era superhero and his attempted defeat of Red China Man to save France from a “Commie” invasion. To its credit, the film isn’t timeless – it’s an unmistakable product of its time that paints an incisive portrait of what the “silent majority” looked like overseas.
Luis Buñuel’s underappreciated The Milky Way also presents a France after the hangover of a confusing revolutionary moment. Like many of his prior films made in France, Spain, and Mexico, The Milky Way irreverently satirizies religious authority, presenting everything from a Pope executed at a firing line to a Jesus who is perpetually late to meetings with his disciples. However, unlike his L’Age d’Or and Viridiana, which caused riots in a right-wing pre-war France and Franco’s Spain, respectively, The Milky Way was met with little interest at the time of its release, as the Catholic symbols lampooned by Buñuel no longer retained their institutional power.
A film produced before May ’68 and released after, The Milky Way is one of the most striking portraits of this revolutionary era, a capsule of a France that had finally embraced some aspects of modernity by a veteran filmmaker who had previously critiqued the country’s inability to do so for over forty years.