Paris May ’68: Cinema

At Ebb Tide

Source: Positif, June-July 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

The rival of the Cahiers du Cinéma in the field of serious film criticism, Positif was always more of the left than the Cahiers, and their taste in directors differed somewhat from that of the Cahiers: Positif preferred Resnais to Bresson, and was even more extreme in its love of Jerry Lewis. The June-July issue, which included this editorial supplement on the events, featured a lengthy “Lexicon of Eroticism in the Cinema,” and the page following this text featured a picture of Ursula Andress in her underwear. All of Positif can be found in this juxtaposition.

Now that the last car has been extinguished and the paving stones are back in place, waiting to be replaced by an asphalt less propitious for architecture and self-defense; now too that elections have furnished, with the brilliant results we’ve seen, a shameful pretext for stifling a potential revolution; now then that things are at an ebb that we hope is provisional, now is the gloomy time for balance sheets and conclusions. For the events of May, as they are called, will have allowed for the unmasking of timidity and compromises and the laying out of a few guiding ideas, in the cinema as elsewhere. Just as elsewhere, but perhaps a little more so – since it is worthwhile to again say that there is no means of expression that is as directly and shamefully a tributary of capital, and thus of established power, as cinema. It is also not vain to stress that rarely has a power structure affirmed itself with as much violence and hypocrisy – in this domain as in others – as the Gaullist regime.

The Cinématheque Francaise and its “Affair”

The cinema had the fortuitous privilege, though this is of little importance, to have the first place chronologically. Before March 22, before May 3, the events occurred February 9 when the Artistic Director of the Cinematheque Francaise [Henri Langlois] was deprived of what was rightfully his following a palace revolt, one where the firm hand of Gaullism could be recognized and which – while meeting its financial needs and strong in this pretext – had invested the Council. The violent reaction that followed was surprising, since we saw here the cinéphile, gentle and maniacal intellectual if ever there was one, take to the streets, taste the hors d’oeuvres of police energy and, before the occupation of the Sorbonne, carry out the occupation of the theatres at Chaillot and the rue d’Ulm [translator’s note: the locations of the Cinematheque]. It would be pointless to again go over the details of a history already told several times, but three lessons should be drawn from this first skirmish.

The first concerns the technique of the Affair. Langlois was without a doubt not without reproach. And among the most measured objections that have for so long been made against him that they are part of the folklore of the place, certain were justified. There were complaints of disorder, moodiness and disputes. These things were also smiled upon, and perhaps, as the results showed, we were wrong to take these things lightly. But before the attack, when he was the master of the place, those in power never formulated clear accusations. Rather they satisfied themselves with remaining within a fog of insinuations that aimed at dishonoring without clearly accusing, and that in fact only dishonored those who formulated them. From the moment Malraux refused to specify the reasons for disgrace, to begin a true trial, to put forward the figures showing poor financial management, to show in circumstances other than a spectacle put on for a press it controls the destruction it wanted to halt, we had a right to believe that these reasons were as false as the arbitrariness that nourished it. From the beginning these were our principal reasons for taking sides without reservations with Langlois, even if we sometimes found irritating the personality cult that surrounded him and that surrounds him even more now.

The second lesson has to do with a progressive but tardy politicization. Langlois’ apoliticism was a secret to no one. Entrenched behind a passion for cinema that held him aloof from the tumult of the city, unreflectively applauding whoever helped him – including Malraux once upon a time – and covering with his hatred whoever contested him, never – either at the time of the war in Indochina or during the Algerian repression – did he take a position or give an opinion. In the same way, some of his defenders waited till February 14 to note – horrified and wounded – that the police was made up of brutes who didn’t hesitate to use their truncheons. These same defenders saw in Langlois’ disgrace nothing but an injustice. Others went further and frankly defended the private sector. For them the conspiracy was the conspiracy of the public against the private, the collective against the individual, of a state whose socialist, not to say Communist, complicities were well known, against the so-French initiative of the man alone. This is why we saw newspapers like Minuit and Carrefour, for whom the secret entente between DeGaulle and the Communists was a favored leitmotif, take up Langlois’ defense. And yet the Affair had a very precise political meaning. It occurred at a moment when capitalist authority, reinforcing itself in the direction of a paternalist dictatorship a la Franco or Salazar, can no longer accept the least spirit of independence from those who depend on it, high functionaries or, as was the case here, the assimilated. Or else it baptizes as disorder the simple exercise of freedom of judgment and considers non-conformism an unbearable negation of itself. When on March 18 college and high-school students smashed the windows of the building on the rue de Courcelles a young man in the crowd caused surprise tinged with disapproval because he mixed in with the Langlois Affair concerns more directly engagé. This young man, at the time little known, was the future presumed author of the famous “Godard: the biggest pro-Chinese Swiss asshole.” His name was Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

This wariness and loftiness were even less welcome because the circumstances, even from the point of view of culture, were quite clear. The third lesson, in fact, is that Langlois’ principles, as much as his trial, was a few lengths ahead of Nanterre and the Sorbonne. When Pierre Billard complained that the programs at the Cinematheque weren’t “pedagogical” enough, all he was doing despite himself doing was denouncing their virtues. What did these programs at the Cinematheque prefigure but the teaching without magisterium, the confrontation open to all, even the most questionable, the prohibition to prohibit that were at the beginning of the student struggle. To be sure, it would have been desirable if ,despite the activities of the friends of the Cinematheque, it were less localized, that it went beyond the framework of a Paris school, for example. But on the other hand, one could only with difficulty accept that in 1968 the television we know, and the Houses of Culture that have demonstrated their timidity and their dependence, could use and be used by the Cinematheque, as much for economic reasons – given the vagueness of copyright for old films – as for intellectual reasons, since there existed the stranglehold of a dogmatism, a “ciné-club spirit” which the Cinematheque was the absolute antithesis of. And no television, no House of Culture could show eight different films a day when the very abundance of programs was an aspect of an irreplaceable quality.

Nothing had been settled, neither the principles by which it functioned, nor the preservation of films, nor the opening of the library to the public when the first projection room was reopened. Situated on the rue d’Ulm, it was quickly closed due to barricades.

Cannes in May 1968

If not as completely, the tale of the revolution in Cannes is as well known today as that of the Cinematheque, and we can refer to the account published on pages 9-18 in “Le Cinema s’insurge” with an ardor made even greater by the fact that its publisher and that of Positif are one and the same person. [1] There it can be seen how in a little more than 24 hours a malaise that had been diffuse until then crystallized to such a point as to bring about the stoppage of all activities on the very day when – ironically? – the Soviet film was to be projected. It was a delegation from the Estates General, young and full of enthusiasm, that on the morning of May 18 unleashed the operation. There were Jean-Gabriel Albicoco, Claude Berri, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Louis Malle, Jean-Louis Richard and Francois Truffaut, but their role – and this fact must be stressed – was only that of a detonator. The most ardent of the promoters: Godard, Richard, and Truffaut, disappeared from the scene at the end of the afternoon, after the essential had occurred and the screening of “Peppermint Frappé” was halted. In the evening it was, with a few exceptions, journalists and cinéphiles who spoke out, and it was among them that the small group of enrages appeared, whose verbal excesses so frightened M. Favre Le Bet that he stopped the festival.

It is of course easy to resort to irony. Cannes is certainly not a dream spot for a revolution, even a minor one, and the diverse nature of the protesters: French, foreign, spectators, professionals, producers, critics, and whatever else, wasn’t one that could ensure the calm and clarity of the debates. Bernard Chardère justly said that one had the impression of witnessing a discussion of a railroad strike in which the workers, the shareholders, the managers and the passengers participated. So while some used the microphone with grace, others assumed the thankless task of master of ceremonies and tried to make themselves heard over the tumult; and I don’t know what to say about the gentleman who suddenly cried out “To Moscow!” with great conviction. Some spoke of fascism and others of Stalinism, without thinking that the principle of both regimes rested on the use of police violence in the name of the people and invoked by a near unanimous electorate; something that, , we were to have a foretaste of a month later and which, in any case, was the exact opposite of the Cannes protests. The height of the ridiculous was probably reached Sunday morning in the speech given by Cournot, straight from his room at the Carlton and who, on the cutting edge of paternalist demagogy, assured all that it was of little importance that his film be shown or not, since it was, by its essence, communard, and that in any event he, Cournot, was quite sorry that the rest of his team, “his workers” especially, were not also invited to Cannes. But these were but epiphenomena, and condemning – or at least mocking – what happened, as most of the journalists did in the name of a humor that struck the best of targets, was a strictly Gaullist reaction, analogous to the maneuver which a bit later was to displace the axis of the student revolution and to see in it nothing but the dubious colorfulness of the “katangais.” The petty revolution at Cannes, the brutal stoppage of the whole Festival was perfectly normal and just. The best proof of this was that the blow painfully struck those two teats of Gaullism that are respect and money.

Many of the insurgents were uneasy. The quite relative violence of their undertaking seemed too strong. To be sure, it had to be done, that action, but it should have remained within the limits of good taste and politesse. Hanging from the curtains, cutting the sound system and pushing around the producers were manifestations of the worst of bad taste. M. Favre Lebret was going to feel bad, M. Holleaux angry, and M. Malraux was going to see in this a new stage in the history of civilization. Parenthetically, certain of M. Holleaux’s observers didn’t miss a crumb of the discussions. Finally, France’s prestige was going to be tarnished and our “foreign friends” would be innocent victims of a political passion that had no place in an artistic and international festival. That the best of these “foreign friends” had themselves understood the meaning of solidarity, and that that understanding, in the case of Carlos Saura, was not without risks deliberately accepted [2], nothing in their positions could disturb the supporters of respect, whose convictions were as unshakeable as a presidential term of the Fifth Republic.

The whining of wounded interest were sharper. Those who didn’t admire Messrs Cosne, Thevent, Weil-Lorac and Bercholz in their explosion of anger don’t know one of the most enjoyable aspects of rabid senility. They cared less whether or not the festival continued in its present form; what mattered to them was that if it stopped, if the screenings stopped, they wouldn’t be able to show and sell their films. And it was in this that the action undertaken resembled a strike, since ceasing to “work,” to see films, to show and to judge them was a direct blow at the monopolies in the cinema which the new and fragile revolution wanted to attack. This blockage was political not only logically but in fact, since the so-called guardianship – but actually complicit – organizations could not but feel the counter blow. This attack on business, on Cannes’ true raison d’etre, so perfectly reached its target that we saw some bizarre turnabouts. After hearing it heroically said in the afternoon that they were withdrawing their films from competition three producers, Mag Bodard, Claude Lelouch, and Christine Gouze-Renal went to look for Favre Lebret to tell him that they agreed after all to the showing of their films, on condition that their authors agreed. A bit later, giving the whole thing away rather clumsily, Madame Gouze-Renal had quite a success, while Claude Lelouch, principal beneficiary of the operation since he was also the author of one of his two films and since the other was, in any event, communard...demonstrated some confusion.

A few days after Cannes a second episode took place in Pesaro: street demonstrations, grenades and the rest. For their part the organizers of Berlin and Venice while recuperating the films that couldn’t be shown at Cannes (nothing goes to waste), took opposing attitudes. Bauer was ready for police intervention without delay. Chiarini, more diplomatic, invited Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, and Sauvageot. The problem of festivals as extreme manifestations of film as merchandise, is now posed.

The Estates General

The reproaches that sought to discredit the Cannes coup were again used against the Estates General of Cinema, born Friday May 17. Once again, if it wasn’t havoc that was spoken of, it was at least disorder, violence, and groupuscules. To be sure, from the beginning the ins and outs of the adventure were not always clear. That it was also true that its work was paralyzed by compromises is absolutely certain. But it would have been surprising, even worrisome, had it been otherwise, since that would have been the sign of an a priori victory of dogmatism over criticism. And even so, beyond the disputes and the sleepless nights, a few points remain solidly obtained.

The first and most important is the negation of the CNC [Centre national de la cinematographe] on May 21. From the very first days it was a question of occupying its offices, and even today there is no doubt that this was a reasonable proposal, if only because it would have then been possible, thanks to judicious administrative sabotage, to effectively paralyze the functioning of the French cinema and, beyond this, reconstruct it on more satisfactory foundations. But here again respect carried the day. At least there remains the text, signed by more than 500 people[3]. Without a doubt not all positions were pure, and among the signatories there were those who saw in it nothing but a way for private enterprise to rid itself of public control, a reactionary attitude if ever there was one. But aside from the fact that the number of these confused spirits was low, we must also know that the sense of this negation was put forward with great precision, and that the future attitude of the Estates General was not in doubt. The questioning of the Centre was not the questioning of a public organism, but rather of an instrument of the Gaullist state. When the motion speaks of “reactionary structures” it is staking out a clear political attitude. It denounces an organism that, on the pretext of protecting professionals, subjugates them to capitalism, if only in that it takes the part of big productions against small ones and that, while pretending by the Assistance Law to aid young cineastes seeks, by forcing them to bow before the laws of a superficial liberalism, to humiliate them and constrain them, when the Assistance Law in question doesn’t simply and cynically favor the big productions already mentioned. The negation was as perfectly balanced by the second acquisition of the Estates, the Suresnes points.

Two whole nights and a day, the tens of pages of 19 projects to arrive at some 20 lines of text; this appears to be a lot, but six points that – in the face of a state that conducts itself like a private organism in the service of other private organisms – peak of the primacy of the notion of public (the texts imprecisely says “national”), the need to combat all bureaucratic interference, for self-management in the matter of production, direct collection of taxes in theatres, the refusal of any form of censorship and the normalization of relations with television, are all necessary stages whose postulates are coherent enough that construction will be possible when the time comes.

And yet a danger threatens the Estates General, which is nothing but the reflection of a more widespread peril in this month of June. This danger is the temptation of fatigue and dispersal. The Estates themselves realized this when they saw “successful” directors who worked alongside them from the first day not break with them, but distance themselves by creating their own Association which was to work in agreement with them, but separately from them. This distancing becomes serious when its members forge good reasons and wish to hold themselves outside the disorder maintained by irresponsible – probably ultra-left – individuals who also lacked any respect for the seriousness, the careers, and the “work” of their elders. It is also serious because it amputates from the already weakened Estates the publicity they assured it. Finally, it is serious because they formally contradict a spirit – perhaps utopian in appearance but certainly fertile in the long run – that welcomed everyone, from Vadim to the most anonymous of spectators. These artists, so concerned with their privileges, should be thrown out, following the example of the Atelier Populaire of the [school of] Beaux Arts.

The remedy of one fine day transforming the Estates into a legal association was no less perilous. At the same time that other political groups (and the Estates General should remember that they are in the first place a political group, even if that displeases the reformism and corporatism in place among certain technicians) saw themselves forced underground, it appears they had to line themselves up on the side of the law under the threat of seeing themselves deprived of any practical possibilities. The intention was praiseworthy but the peril was great that effectiveness in law would get the upper hand over effectiveness in fact. The only power of an assembly like that of the Estates General is that which it manifests in its revolutionary (we hope) acts and their contents, and has no need of social recognition. For some this alignment risks going hand in hand with the weakening of a flame that is vacillating, but through which passed a few glimmerings of revolution. Now that the initial momentum has been lost we must protect ourselves from a more or less shameful, more or less reformist return to the ranks and on the contrary strive more than ever for intransigence and toughness.

The Cinema on Strike

Of course the cinema too was on strike. It was more strange than uncauthorized. Despite the efforts of militants who crisscrossed Paris over the course of a night, the projectionists kept working and immediately obtained a substantial raise, if we can say “substantial” within the framework of an increase whose first sign was the “liberation” (sic) of ticket prices. And the theatre managers led the public believe that everything was normal, earning the gratitude of those in power. In this honor roll of the profession the leaders of the theaters of the French Association of Art Houses deserve a special place. These gentlemen of the Latin Quarter perhaps had a few windows broken, but against wind and bricks they kept their theatres open, hoping to see the students who assure their prosperity come to them. They had no fear of the enticing posters that invited people to come without delay to see the films of protest and revolution, “Dutchman” and “I Am Curious.”

The other pole of cinematographic life, production, was truly on strike, from the technicians from outside agencies, almost all of whom refused – often under very difficult conditions – to be strikebreakers against the personnel of the ORTF, up to the teams arbitrating American productions. But as long as the theaters functioned that strike had no effect on the spectators. The counterblow would only be felt much later, and much softened, for we wouldn’t be deprived – though we hoped we would be – of Gerard Oury’s traditional Christmas film, which would after all have constituted a timid beginning to cultural revolution. But like all the others, this strike quickly limited itself to salary demands, carefully avoiding demanding the changes in structure desired by the Estates General, the Union of Film Technicians, and the next stage higher, the Show Business Federation of the CGT.

What was left to conscious spectators? To either go on strike against theaters or to frequent a few places reserved to the underclass, the amphitheaters of the universities where were finally shown forbidden films that we discussed when they came out, like “Sucre Amer,” which has an odor of “Elections – Treason.” The adventure hardly went any further than one of the Trois Luxembourgs, occupied by a groupuscule and whose owners had a bailiff issue a statement saying they had nothing to do with any possible infraction of fiscal regulations.

And during this time the laboratories for their part remained obstinately on strike. Greater and lesser names of the craft, directors, stars in search of publicity and conscious militants filmed generously and in disorder. Nothing could be developed. The cineastes took to the streets but no films were able to contribute to the immediate action. And yet these films exist.

That at such a time Positif occupies itself with eroticism instead of occupying itself with a detailed economic, social, and political balance sheet of French cinema can surprise some. We have a bad excuse and a good explanation. The excuse is that the issue had been scheduled and prepared before the “events.” The explanation is that the now famous sentence: “The more I make the revolution, the more I want to make love. The more I make love the more I want to make the revolution.” Since we must hope and act so that everything soon start up again and this time succeed, why not take things from this end and not the other?


1. Recall that it was the same publisher who took the trouble and the risk – which others refused – to publish the first pamphlet dedicated to the Langlois affair.

2. In France it appears that even Truffaut and Malle have had serious problems with United Artists

3. 385 signatures were published in the first issue of the Bulletin