Friday, February 16, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: Far From Vietnam & I Am Curious - Yellow

Yale University's Sixty-Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution? opened this evening with a pair of films preceding its year-specific subject. Far From Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam, 1967) represents the collaboration of legends Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda in the production of a pro-North Vietnamese tract, assembled from the filmmakers' documentary (and in some cases, fictional) footage. In a word, Far From Vietnam is propaganda, which in many cases raises more questions than it answers: for instance, what role were the Soviets and the Chinese playing in South-East Asia? Are the filmmakers overstating the Edenic, pre-industrial qualities of North Vietnam, etc.? Then again, Far From Vietnam's one-sided narrative should not be counted as a weakness: the picture never pretends to be anything other than what it is, agit. prop. And in this regard, which is to say on the level of the visceral, Far From Vietnam is powerful work, at least to the sympathetic; for the skeptical, Far From Vietnam can be a maddening experience.

Of course, none of this exactly speaks to its placement at the head of Sixty-Eight! While surely its inclusion suggests a precondition to the Leftist revolts of the following spring, and specifically to the currency of anti-war sentiments in France, Far From Vietnam seems better positioned as a work of our time, contextualizing Franco anti-Americanism in the Bush era. If anyone wants to say unequivocally that the current U.S. President lost the rest of the world, they may want to consult Far From Vietnam. Then again, a screening of Far From Vietnam might have also saved the right the trouble of worrying about whether or not Europe would support Bush's war. Actually, Far From Vietnam raises an even bigger question, though: whether a broad war can possibly sustain popular will at all in Western societies, now that television has made everything visible to the general public.

Far less fraught perhaps, but similarly political in its subject, the evening's second offering, Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious - Yellow (Jag är nyfiken - en film i gult, 1967) manifests even less connection to the conference's 1968 topic. Even so, Sjöman's notorious soft-core art film served as an excellent balance to the collaborative doc. Whereas, Far From Vietnam is rhetorically unambiguous, I Am Curious - Yellow instantiates a more measured approach to its topic. Here, Sweden's revolutionary sexual politics are interrogated in what one could only call a conservative fashion: early twenty-something protagonist Lena (Lena Nyman) experiences the consequences of her liberated sexuality -- namely, a broken-heart and venereal disease. Then again, given Sweden's extreme liberalization in the post-war period, it follows that its filmmakers would have to combat the deficiencies of their relativistic society, wherever they appear, with moralist rhetoric; basically, there was no space to satirize Swedish society on the left.

However, it is not simply in the relative conservatism of Sjöman's content that I Am Curious - Yellow balances Far From Vietnam, but indeed in its own admittance of contrary and contradictory perspectives. I Am Curious - Yellow utilizes a fictionalized direct, cinema-verité form that includes a spectrum of reactions, even if, ultimately, Sweden is portrayed as a nation largely lacking a class consciousness. Then again, the film's filmmaker-character (played by Sjöman himself) is as subject to his individual needs as are any of the anonymous Swedes on the street, of which the film's 'meta' structure is a reflection. That is, Sjöman reminds us of his role in constructing the explicit sexual content of the picture, and particularly in the pleasure he takes from watching his actors perform the acts. (And make no mistake, I Am Curious - Yellow truly does set the standard for explicit content in the European art cinema of the time.) Nevertheless, even if Sjöman's picture partakes in Sweden's extreme participation in the sexual revolution, his picture remains aware of its limitations, as his portrayal of Lena makes clear.

No comments: