Guest post by Joan Hawkins, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University.
It’s hard for people coming up now to understand how important movies were in the 1960s.
1968 was a year of international revolution. It was the year of the Chicago Democratic Convention; Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet Invasion of Czechoslavakia; France’s Mai 1968; the Tlatelolco massacre of students in Mexico City; uprisings in Poland, Spain, Italy, West Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, Scandinavia, Japan, Pakistan, and many nations across the African continent. It saw the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the COINTELPRO infiltration of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.
Here in Bloomington, as in the rest of the country, there were campus anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so many in fact that IU Bloomington was singled out for mention in the recent Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War. The African American Students Association was formed, and in May they temporarily shut down the Little 500 race to protest racially discriminatory policies of fraternities and sororities. And the day after Christmas, Klu Klux Klan members firebombed the African American-run Black Market store downtown, a space that eventually became People’s Park. Today the Park remains a site of friction between the Bloomington Police Department, university students and the homeless street population. In Bloomington, as in the rest of the country, the reverberations of 1968 continue, as we still struggle for civil rights, for justice and equality, for alternative economic solutions, and for peace.
So what does all this have to do with movies? A lot as it turns out. In 1947 Amos Vogel started his avant-garde ciné-club Cinema 16. The club disbanded in 1963, supplanted by the commercial art cinemas that were beginning to dot New York City and every other major metropolitan area. But the guiding principles of Cinema 16 held, and were later encoded in a book that became something of a cinema Bible for my generation: Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art (Random House, 1974). What the best of art cinema promised, we believed, was—as Vogel wrote–“the subversion of existing values, institutions, mores and taboos—East and West, Left and Right—by the potentially most powerful art of the century.” Film critics–those who wrote about art cinema, experimental cinema, the new Hollywood, and American Independent Cinema–were stars. And like all stars, they attracted followers and had feuds. Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) routinely squared off against Dwight Macdonald of Esquire and the reviewers for The Village Voice: Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris, and–later–J. Hoberman. We followed the carping as we would a soap opera, rushing out to read the newest installments of Kael’s swipes at Macdonald—and to find out which films to see. So important a part of the culture was the art cinema scene and the film critic feuds that Michael Brodsky later wrote a novel about it. Detour (New York: Urizen Books, 1977) is set in the sixties and much of it takes place at the Thalia Theater in New York “where the management talks so loud, you can’t hear the subtitles.”
Wounded Galaxies 1968 is a film series that commemorates a tumultuous year in world history and in western film culture. Curated by renowned film critic J. Hoberman, the series is part of Wounded Galaxies 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach, a festival and symposium commemorating the momentous events and radical aesthetics of 1968. The festival title, “Wounded Galaxies,” is taken from the William S. Burroughs 1961 cut-up, sci-fi novel Soft Machine. The festival subtitle is a translation of the French Situationist slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!,” a popular resistance graffito during France’s Mai ’68. It refers to both the sand beneath the cobblestones that were pried up from the street to hurl at police, and to the Situationist conviction that the streets—the expression of capital and consumption—could be rediscovered and reclaimed by abandoning a regimented life.
The academic symposium will be held in the IU Cinema and the School of Global and International Studies. It will be hosted by The Media School, IU Libraries (including the Lilly and Moving Image Archive), Wounded Galaxies and the IU Cinema, and will feature keynote addresses by renowned scholars Greil Marcus, McKenzie Wark and Annea Lockwood, and special presentations by Mehdi El Hajoui, Julia Lesage, Ward Shelley, and two members of the United States Situationist International (Sherry Milner and Ernest Larsen). There will be 18 academic panels, running concurrently, with 62 presenters (13 from IU; 49 from other universities).
In keeping with the ’68 impetus to take the University to the streets, there will also be events in town, and many of the events on campus are free and open to the public. On Wednesday, February 7, for example, world-renowned musician Annea Lockwood will recreate her 1968 piece Piano Burning in Dunn Meadow. The piece involves setting fire to a defunct piano, one that cannot be restored. Piano Burning strives to give voice to a dead piano one final time—as the fire hits the sound box, the sonorous qualities of the piano burst forth. The burning will take place in Dunn Meadow, starting around 5:30 pm (the entire performance lasts approximately 3 hours). It is spectacularly beautiful and the sound is like nothing you’ve heard. Piano Burning is free and open to the public. Annea Lockwood will also be giving a free public arts lecture at the Monroe County Public Library on Thursday, February 8.
Two keynote addresses may also be of interest to the greater Bloomington community. On Thursday, Feb. 8, J. Hoberman will be discussing 1968 and radical cinema, in conjunction with the film series that he is programming for the festival. The talk is currently scheduled for 5:00 p.m. at the IU Cinema. It is free and open to the public. Friday, Feb. 9, noted critic and author Greil Marcus will be speaking on 1968 and its legacy. His talk will be at 4 p.m at the IU Cinema and will be free and open to the public.
The Film Series
“No ten movies,” J. Hoberman notes, “can begin to encompass the sense of ‘1968’ while it was going on. But these…blended together, provide a taste of that era’s strange brew—a heady sci-fi concoction of TV violence, Third World warfare, blithe generational megalomania, druggy disengagement, imaginary liberated zones and the fervently hoped-for collapse of social norms.”
The ten movies in question are the ten films that Hoberman has selected for a specially curated series to be screened at the IU Cinema Thursday, February 8-Sunday, February 11, as part of the Wounded Galaxies: 1968 Beneath the Paving Stones, The Beach public art festival.
J. Hoberman is a noted film critic and scholar. As an undergraduate, he studied with prominent experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and Jacobs had a profound influence on Hoberman’s developing aesthetic. He received his M.F.A. from Columbia University, where he first met Andrew Sarris. He began publishing film reviews in 1977, with a piece on David Lynch’s quirky feature debut, Eraserhead. “Lynch’s creative method derived from his practice as a painter,” Hoberman wrote in what is still a remarkable piece of criticism. “It was a matter of collecting and accumulating things…so the script took on shape not so much in terms of plot as in terms of textures.” He continued writing film reviews for The Village Voice throughout the 1970s and became a full-time staff writer in 1983. It was a heady time both in terms of politics and of cultural production. “You were making the counterculture and reporting on the counterculture simultaneously,” writer Laurie Stone says about that period at the Voice. Hoberman was the senior film critic at the Voice from 1988-2012, writing some of the most cogent criticism on No-Wave and Punk cinema, as well as emerging trends in both popular and experimental film. He always situated his criticism within an historical context, incredibly helpful in the era of video culture because we could go back and see the older films he referenced as part of his contemporary critiques.
In 2012, the Voice fired Hoberman in a move to cut costs. Since that time, he has continued to teach at Cooper Union and has been writing film and DVD reviews for Artforum, Blouinfo, Film Comment, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He has published several important books on cinema, including The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, a book many critics (including this writer) consider to be the best print cultural history of the decade.
For Wounded Galaxies, Hoberman has selected films that he says “represent chaos through the surprisingly widespread reinvention of the film form.” The series kicks off on February 8 with a new 4K restoration of George Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. Shot in and around Pittsburgh on a shoestring celluloid budget of $100,000, Night of the Living Dead is frequently read as an allegory for America during the time of the Vietnam War–the war coming home, as it were. But it’s also one of the most remarkable films about race made during a decade when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967) was considered provocative. In the Living Dead race is mapped onto patriarchal struggle, as the Black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) and white antagonist Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) duke it out for control of supplies and alpha male status. At the end of the film, Ben is the one who survives the zombie apocaplypse—the final man, as it were. But 1968 racial politics didn’t allow for too many violent Black heroes and in a shocking reversal, Ben is punished for being uppity.
Night of the Living Dead is paired with America a.k.a. Amerika (Newsreel, 1969), a short that Hoberman says “annotates Eve of Destruction as anti-war teenagers and African American militants talk tough and battle the police, at times to a rock‘n’roll beat.”
On Friday, February 9, the Wounded Galaxies series continues with two international films: Jules Dassin’s Uptight! (1968) and Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers (1969). Dassin was an American director who went to England after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. We don’t talk so much about the Blacklist now, but in 1968—when my high school counselor had piles of John Birch Society literature on the table outside his door—the Blacklist (and the whole McCarthy era) was an important historical antecedent, a tangible example of what the government was capable of doing to its citizens. So Dassin’s status as a blacklisted director who left the country and then returned to make this film already invokes what Hoberman calls “the era’s strange brew.” Telling the story of a Black Panther-like revolutionary cadre, Uptight! was shot on location in Cleveland with a mainly Black cast. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes famously asked. The final apocalyptic half hour of this film provides one possible answer.
Uptight! is paired with Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers, a 28-minute documentary about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, shot during one summer in Oakland. “The film captures the complexity of the Party, with its blend of personal, domestic and international politics,” writes Beth Mauldin for Senses of Cinema. “Varda’s camera focuses on the energy of crowds–particularly the young children–clapping and dancing as the singer sings ‘We didn’t come here on our free will/Our people was sold…. The truth about the whole thing, children, never been told.’” Varda, in an off-screen voiceover, explains to her French audience: “This is neither a picnic nor a party in Oakland. It’s a political rally organized by the Black Panthers–black activists who are getting ready for the revolution.” This program is co-sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive.
Saturday, February 10 features one of the most interesting film pairings of the series. In a program called “Magical Thinking,” Hoberman has paired Jean-Luc Godard’s Maoist classic La chinoise (1967) with Kenneth Anger’s trippy homage to Magick, Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). Invocation was filmed in San Francisco at the Straight Theater on Haight Street and the William Westerfeld House (the former Russian Embassy). Starring Anton LaVey, the then-leader of the West Coast Satanic Church, as his Satanic Majesty, and Bobby Beausoleil, who later hooked up with the Manson Family, as Lucifer, the film uses color, strobe, and filmed sequences from a Satanic funeral to cast what Anger hoped would be a real spell. The music is composed by Mick Jagger—who has a cameo in the film–using a Moog synthesizer.
La chinoise is one of Godard’s most pointedly polemical and most beautiful films. Here, five young Maoists occupy a spacious Paris apartment left vacant for the summer by its bourgeois owners. They then argue their way toward an act of political terror. “There’s a cineaste myth,” Hoberman says, “that La chinoise, which opened in New York on April 3, 1968, inspired the Columbia students who, three weeks later, began occupying campus buildings.” I didn’t see the film until 1973, when I was living in Sweden. At that remove, the film seemed less a preview of the revolution to come than a eulogy for the revolution that never took place. It features some of Godard’s best color work, and even Pauline Kael—who could be snarky about JLG—wrote glowing reviews.
A Sunday matinee bill, provocatively named “Liberated Women,” pairs Kusama’s Self-Obliteration by Jud Yalkut (1967) with Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966). Daisies is a milestone of the Nová Vina movement that blossomed just before Prague Spring. This funny, satirical and very innovative film was made with State money and then banned in Czechoslovakia for “depicting the wanton.” It’s a New Wave farce that, as Hoberman says, “looks better every year.” In fact, he says, “it’s remarkable this feminist Duck Soup buddy film, an expression of pure anti-social revolt, isn’t as well-known as, for example, Bonnie and Clyde—it’s more fun and arguably more transgressive.” Paired with Daisies, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration documents one of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “body festivals.” In 1968, Kusama rivaled Andy Warhol for tabloid notoriety, as the press described her “festivals” as “orgiastic.” Or at least as “orgiastic” as you could be in a public park. The film was made by underground director Jud Yalkut, who depicts the merging of flesh and identities into one whole through the masterful use of dissolves, with no discernible individual units.
The series concludes with two Head films: Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) and Bruce Conner’s Looking for Mushrooms (1967). Director Otto Preminger (Laura, 1944; The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955; Bunny Lake is Missing, 1965) dropped acid with Timothy Leary in preparation for making Skidoo, a trip-inspired musical comedy about intergenrational strife. “It was rejected even more violently than Salò (Pasolini, 1975) on its initial release,” Hoberman says, but gained a second life “as a midnight feature—particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Carol Channing and Jackie Gleason play the parents of a wayward teenybopper, Groucho Marx plays God. Timothy Leary also figures in Looking for Mushrooms, a 3-minute film about a pixelated hunt for psilocybin mushrooms in rural Mexico. It is scored to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
J. Hoberman will be on hand to introduce the screenings Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased online or in person at the Indiana University Auditorium box office during regular business hours, or in person at the IU Cinema 30 minutes before the show starts.
For more information on this series and the other films being shown in conjunction with Wounded Galaxies 1968: Sous les pavés, la plage, please see the Wounded Galaxies website or the website of the IU Cinema.
Portions of this text were previously published in Ryder Magazine‘s January 2018 issue, pages 14-19.
Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the IU Media School. She has written extensively on experimental and avant-garde cultures. Her most recent book is Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001 (Intellect Press, 2015). She is a member of The Writers Guild at Bloomington and The Burroughs Century.