Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mai 1968: À bas le vieux monde

It's 40 years since Mai '68, the month of student uprisings and labor strikes in France aimed at bringing the optimistic idealism of the 1960s to the conservative French government. Since the French love nothing more than self-analysis and philosophizing, I am sure that the newspapers there are filled with articles comparing the national mindset then and now. Meanwhile, the Vassar French department got in on the act, posting Mai '68 slogans in the cafeteria. (You can read many such slogans translated on Wikisource and untranslated on this Belgian site.) There were also blank posters inviting us to create slogans for Mai '08. After some thought, I took a pen out of my bag and scrawled

(To arms, citizens / To the arts, citizens / To the trees, citizens / With ardor, citizens)
A small crowd gathered to watch me graffiti. I refused to write the English translation, to explain myself, or even really to make eye contact. I capped my pen, turned on my heel, and walked calmly away, leaving people to puzzle things out for themselves. I figured this was in the proper revolutionary spirit.

As for my slogan, it probably wouldn't have passed muster in Mai '68--an era that hated all references to old patriotic traditions ("Aux armes citoyens" is, of course, a line in the Marseillaise) and scorned the notion that art could save us. Slogans from the time included "Lisez moins, vivez plus" (Read less, live more) and "La culture est l'inversion de la vie" (Culture is the inverse of life). But I DO believe in art--maybe that's a flaw of mine, that I am naturally an aesthete, not a revolutionary. In fact, you might sum me up with another Mai '68 slogan: "Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho" (I'm a Marxist--the Groucho kind).

I prefer art to polemics, and I do believe you can separate the two. In Mai '68, film director François Truffaut was joining the protests and helping to shut down the Cannes Film Festival--but he was also making a light-as-air romantic comedy, the wonderful Stolen Kisses (my IMDB review). Stolen Kisses has the spirit of 1960s youthful optimism, but I can relate to it because it's not specifically concerned with the day-to-day problems of 1968. For that reason, I am much more interested in Truffaut's universal, humanistic outlook than in Godard's explicitly political and theoretical films.

Yes, film was a big part of the Mai '68 spirit, and to celebrate that, the French Department also sponsored an outdoor screening of Barbarella last week--another movie that doesn't explicitly tackle politics, but couldn't be a better expression of the free-love, down-with-authority '60s. I got excited as soon as the screening was announced.

See, my friends Molly and Thane introduced me to Barbarella last December, when they screened it to help people chill out during finals. I had my laptop in front of me, frantically trying to finish a draft of The Rose of Youth, and beside me Thane and Molly were yelling out their favorite Barbarella quotes and playing a drinking game: you take a sip every time Barbarella changes her outfit or has an orgasm. I adore a good campy movie, and as soon as I heard the first words of the opening song, "Barbarella, psychadella," I knew I was in for a treat.

The plan last week was to screen Barbarella in French with English subtitles, but that fell through, because the French dialogue track did not have subtitles. So, while I was a little disappointed not to hear Jane Fonda say "De-crucify the angel or I melt your face!" in French, I still had fun, watching the movie with Thane and Molly again, quoting along with them this time. We seemed to be the only people there who got the campy joke of Barbarella. Everyone else watched it politely, respectfully, raising their eyebrows at the silly parts, or just getting fed up with it--as if it were meant to be educational! The three of us giggled, and gleefully anticipated our favorite moments, and go-go-danced during the end credits.

There's kind of a coda to all this--if you want to over-extend the metaphor, a reminder that the '60s are long past. On Friday Thane e-mailed me that actor John Philip Law, who played the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella, has died at the age of 70. He's more of a lifeless pretty-boy than a real actor, but that means he provides some of the most amusing moments in the movie, with his spaced-out readings of hippie-dippy lines like "An angel does not make love, an angel is love." Indeed, despite the dubious quality of Law's acting, and of Barbarella, and of some Mai '68 slogans, I do feel a little sad that such statements never could occur today, neither in the movies nor graffitied in the streets.

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