Once upon a time, lo these 40 springs ago, children all over the world joined forces to smoke dope, make love, listen to the Rolling Stones, and smash the state: Did it ever really happen?
Mais oui, say the programmers at the Walter Reade, where 1968: An International Perspective seems an unnecessarily sober rubric under which to survey so delirious a moment. Back then, it seemed as though life itself were a movie. Something approaching the essence of the epoch’s theatricality might be gleaned by a double feature of Medium Cool (1969), a drama shot by Haskell Wexler amid the street riots of Chicago ’68, and Dionysus in ’69 (1970), Brian DePalma’s split-screen documentation of Richard Schechner’s sensational proscenium-smashing counterculture version of Euripides’ Bacchae. Or perhaps the projectionist could simply alternate reels.
Fittingly, the Walter Reade show is programmatically promiscuous in mixing and matching documentary and fiction and, most crucially, combinations of the two. Thus, Hollywood’s three-hour celebration of the civil-rights struggle, King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (1970)—co-directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph Mankiewicz, no less—segues into Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1969), the definitive outsider Viet doc, then and now; Year of the Pig is followed by MGM’s contribution to the revolution, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 Zabriskie Point and then the all-but-unknown Blow for Blow, a 1971 staged documentary about a textile-factory strike, made by future film-distribution powerhouse Marin Karmitz. Rarer still is street photographer William Klein’s personal account of the French uprising, Maydays (1968-78), which warms up for Zabriskie Point‘s second screening.
Beginning with Jean-Luc Godard’s prescient La Chinoise (1967), youth rebellion inspired filmmakers all over the world, including youth itself: Witness the selection of guerrilla agit-props—Off the Pig, Columbia Revolt, and People’s Park among them—made between 1968 and 1971 by the Newsreel collectives on the east and west coasts. In junta-run Brazil, 23-year-old Julio Bressane concocted the wildly anti-authoritarian Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (1969); in Hungary, 24-year-old Gyula Gazdag dreamt up The Whistling Cobblestone (1971), a deadpan comic allegory about the impossibility of youth revolt in the realm of actually existing socialism.
The Walter Reade show, which also includes features from Norway, Japan, Switzerland, and Germany, provides not only perspective but several epic postmortems. There’s the three-hour Milestones (1975), in which Robert Kramer and John Douglas look back at the Movement; Chris Marker’s even longer Grin Without a Cat (1978; 1993) does the same for the European New Left; and, viewing the past from an even greater distance, Phillipe Garrel’s 2005 Regular Lovers is a fictional evocation of Paris ’68 superior in every sense to Bertolucci’s kindred The Dreamers.
That one isn’t actually showing, but the quintessential movie is: Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism is part counterculture doc, part New Left comedy, the saddest and funniest of ’68 post-mortems, as well as the movie most redolent of the period—that is, everything at once. Through May 14, Walter Reade Theater.