Regaining the kinetics of 1968

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
11 April 2008

With the predictable turn of the decimal wheel, 1968 is back in our faces, up for grabs, forty years on but perennially a live if not limber subject for excavation, contention, and inquisition. Sometimes the media perform selective taxidermy, as in the annual media effort, at work as I write, to stuff the remains of Martin Luther King into a narrative of seamless American uplift.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the phD programme in communications at Columbia University. He has written twelve books, among them The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (John Wiley, 2007), Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2003) and The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press, 2006). His website is here. His most recent book is The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Of Identities and Ideals in the Uproar of American Politics (John Wiley, 2007) Among his many articles on openDemocracy:

"How to be radical?" (4 September 2003) - an interview with Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot

"Why the Democrats lost: an interview" (22 December 2004)

"After the fall: George W Bush in trouble" (16 May 2005)

"The authority of anti-authority" (16 November 2005)

"The dust and the butterfly" (12 May 2006
Sometimes, embers of those days of ferocious hope and wild rage ignite flames and the flames lick at the edges of an American presidential campaign, with Barack Obama hammered for affiliating with a minister who long indulged in the trips and tropes of that time, Hillary Clinton insisting that she is the proper custodian of the flame, and John McCain quipping that he couldn't get to the "cultural and pharmaceutical event" of Woodstock because he was "tied up at the time" (in Hanoi captivity, as he didn't have to say).

It's remarkable, but not really surprising, that American politics should be haunted by spooky afterimages, since the earthquake of 1968 emerged from deep, wrenching faults that still emit tremors. Clashes of race, sex, and culture, revolts against mindless authority, the hubris of America's plutocrats and reckless legions - all this still reverberates in present time. At the same time, the popular products of American culture are nervelessly tied up themselves, fearing to plunge too far into the cauldron of unresolved history. Strikingly, if one surveys film, television, and fiction in the United States, thoughtful dissection of the bygone decade is at a premium - except when swallowed up in the picturesque exploits of the Weather Underground, the gaudiest and most self-caricaturing of the offshoots of late-‘60s militancy. Faced with the decadal commemorations, almost everyone under 50 turns into Mr Jones, who knows that something was happening then but hasn't much idea what it was.

Fortunately, an Italian film has just arrived in the US to channel the devotional, incandescent, melodramatic and crazy moments of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Although many of the Italian particulars differed from the American (or the French, the Mexican, or the Czech), there is enough of a common template to enable a foreign filmgoer to apply the tone and texture of Italian events to their American not-quite-parallels.

The political carousel

Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother Is an Only Child) is in the great line of Italian films where everything fervent and jarring breaks out of the working-class family. (Luchino Visconti's 1960 film Rocco and His Brothers is a precedent for My Brother...- love, longing, and violence, not least in the device of two brothers who love the same beauty.) The title-line of somehow good-hearted estrangement, lifted from a pop song, might have been spoken by either of the two brothers who are the movie's principals.

The younger, Accio (Elio Germano), is a intellectual who, when we first encounter him, is wearing a seminary collar and praying that Khrushchev will be converted to Christianity, while the elder, the dashing, reckless, impecunious Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio), huffs that "Jesus was a revolutionary." Accio's revolt leads to his indoctrination by pugnacious, unreconstructed fascists in the provincial town of Latina (which was, in fact, created by Mussolini's policy of draining the Pontine marshes). Manrico's girlfriend Francesca (Diane Fleri), in her spare time, melts Accio down with her eyes. Accio gets more thuggish, bragging to his quietly communist cello-playing sister (Alba Rohrwacher) that he's "starting a civil war." Then, disillusioned that the fascist leaders aren't forceful enough (this part is a bit hazy), he also somehow returns to his roots in a classical education when he decides he wants to keep art pure.

By 1968, the peripatetic Manrico has gone from factory militancy to inspiring his sister's conservatory orchestra to "defascistize the Ode to Joy" with a rousing rendition of "Mao, Marx, Lenin, Stalin" which rounds into Avanti popolo. In the balcony, the fascist thugs are chanting, "Leave Beethoven alone or we'll bust your ass"; but by now Accio has (somewhat mysteriously) had enough, and confronts them with "When the fuck did you ever care about Beethoven?" The volatility of the characters is dizzying, and it doesn't always track with what we know of their characters. But the very fluidity of their political commitments captures some of the actual weirdness of the late ‘60s, when in the twinkling of an eye an apparently patient participatory community organiser might reinvent herself as a Stalin-quoting exponent of the revolution's vanguard.

In this universe, action speaks for itself - "demonstrative action", propaganda of the deed. The brothers think with their fists. When they are not triangulating with Francesca, they are brawling, and the brawls have an exuberance that breathlessly captures the kinetics of ‘68 better than any other film I've seen. (By comparison, Bernardo Bertolucci's Paris version of '68 street-action in The Dreamers had all the frolic and spontaneity of a Franco Zeffirelli-staged operetta.) In My Brother.., ideas seem a pretext for action, and action takes place in public, where everyone quarrels - whole families, lovers, brothers, political movements.

Among openDemocracy's film reflections and reviews:

Maryam Maruf, "Howl's Moving Castle: a film for adults" (23 September 2005)

Stephen Howe, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley: Ken Loach and Irish history" (16 June 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry" (11 July 2006)

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, "Letters to the past: Iwo Jima and Japanese memory" (23 February 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa : between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

The intensity is ferocious. Whether Accio is running the streets with the fascisti, or refusing to follow them in torching his brother's car, or joining a left-of-communist movement and setting off a grenade, he throws himself into action with abandon - as if embodying the same spirit with which an American militant said, around 1969, "I felt like turning myself into a brick and hurling myself." Manrico, meanwhile, keeps one step ahead into the vanguard, and heads over the cliff to "organise the revolution." Unmoored from the working class, he swings toward a brigand cell that resembles the Brigate Rosse. Tragic events follow, along with and all-too-schematic redemption.

A rapture of altitude

My Brother Is an Only Child.. was directed by Daniele Luchetti, written by him with Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, from a novel by Antonio Pennacchi called Il Fasciocomunista, which I have not read. (Pennacchi himself was born in 1950 in Latina, is about Accio's age.) Luchetti was born in 1960, but remarkably, he replicates something essential in the spirit of ‘68ers whom he is too young to remember by recourse to the improvisationally loose film style that emerged in the 1960s. He uses multiple cameras to recreate riots. The cameras seem not just hand-held as hand-clutched, sometimes hand-swung. The frame teems with faces as the working-class home teems with people. The camera roars into faces.

This film does not, cannot, evoke the whole truth of the late ‘60s, but it does evoke the central dynamic. In Italy as in America, the action factions, in onrushing fury against appalling war and avoidable misery, overplayed their hands and talked themselves into a revolutionary identity. (Here is how I recently described this process in play at Columbia University:

"Conquer the university or humble it and you moved the world - so thought the maestros of purification, riding an arc of moral giddiness toward some sort of apocalypse. Those of more complicated views were shoved aside. In the iconography of the time, hugely amplified in the country's media capital, Columbia became a stop on the Revolution Express. But the delirium of the year was predicated on a drastic misreading of the actual balance of forces.")

Militancy as end, not means, produced moving and indelible moments. It also produced delusion, as the militant surge masked the movement's fractional nature and fragility. Movements such as Accio's and Manrico's stood firmly in thin air, in a rapture of altitude. My Brother Is an Only Child wonderfully stirs up the love and madness of those grand illusions.

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