Aftertalking at Bryn Mawr: May ’68 in commercial film

Participating in Bryn Mawr’s Visual Culture Colloquium was a true pleasure!

I appreciated the stimulating feedback on my work in progress and reconnecting with Rebecca DeRoo, a fellow hybrid art historian/film theorist/Francophone.


At lunch afterward, a fun and very thought-provoking exchange with Homay King, Katherine Rochester and Johanna Gosse prompted me to record these thoughts on Paris’s May 1968 and commercial fiction film:

For Anglophone audiences, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) is more or less the go-to ’68er historical adaptation. The Dreamers is interesting in passages, but generally a quite empty viewing experience–neither historically nor politically nor emotionally insightful.

THE DREAMERS, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

THE DREAMERS, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

Unfortunately, most of Olivier Assayas’ Après mai (2012) doesn’t succeed in distancing itself from this kind of momentarily interesting, prettily erotic, socio-politically empty narrative.

I believe the weaknesses in both films lies in their misguided attempt to allegorize May as an individual love story–one that purports to be a lover’s triangle, but in reality is just two sets of couples that happen to have one person in common.

If Paris’s May and its paradoxes are to be accessed, the way to do so is in exploring love, sexual awakening or elective affinities more generally in juxtaposition with the idea of collectivity or collaborative projects. This is why the most arresting and contemplative moments of Après mai (disappointingly titled Something in the Air in English) come at the very end, as Gilles takes his first steps into film production and, ironically enough, also cracks open the Situationist International’s ode to collective dissolution La véritable scission dans l’Internationale (1972) whilst riding in the RER.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR, Olivier Assayas, 2012. Image accessed at

One pick for teaching France’s May ’68 would be Louis Malle’s Milou en mai / May Fools (1990), a disturbing homage to Marx’s idea that history repeats itself as farce (farce and cuckoldry, it seems).

MILOU EN MAI (Louis Malle, 1990). Image accessed at

Two other films released much closer to the bitter disbelief and disillusionment following May’s moveable feast would be Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain / The Mother and the Whore (1973) wherein the love triangle turns out to be a kind of triple-edged weapon, injuring everyone in turn…

…and Jacques Rivette’s epic Out 1 (1971), in which the social revolt is an unacknowledged MacGuffin that motivates the relationships of all characters to one another.

OUT 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971). Image accessed at


A final film we spoke of that afternoon: Sally Potter’s excellent Ginger and Rosa (2012). Although it’s not a film about France’s ’68 per se, the themes it treats are extremely resonant and provocative when considered in that context. I disliked the fact that the film transposes the backlash against consumer society into family trauma, but I thought that move was highly creative and very worthy of scholarly close looking.

GINGER AND ROSA (Sally Potter, 2012). Image accessed at


A second post soon that gathers together some excellent French shorts on the subject of May ’68.




I had the good fortune to see Eileen Myles and Thurston Moore perform together last week. It was a really great evening; its intensity surprised me.

I think many of us in the red-velveted auditorium felt a discomforting but not displeasing mise en abyme of nostalgia that night. (Paris’s Maison de la Poésie was the perfect place for it, with the Salle de Lautréamont right next door.)

The poetry they read and the music Moore performed were haunted by the specter of the lost-and-safe 1990s…

which was in turn haunted by the New York punk 1970s…

haunted by the Parisian decadents,

haunted by Sade and 18th century gothic terror…and that’s where I lose the trail of this dark streak. It was a glaringly Caucasian and Eurocentric day of the dead celebration.

Myles has moved much further beyond the mode of gleeful, negative immaturity than Moore in her creative work. She read from her forthcoming, unabashedly loopy dog memoir, which turns the dog she is fictionalizing into God. Her endearing and funny fusion of therapeutic lingo, rhythmic wordplay, and sensual description sounded very fresh to me.

Moore’s guitar work didn’t, but it did sound classic. I still found it quite moving:

The performance crystallized for me the highly problematic aspects of the Marxist-influenced, post-punk subjective paradigm Myles and Moore share. Yet it also helped me think about the ways this paradigm can still be useful and vital, once recast.

Punk never died, but was always part of a larger lineage of the undead that haunts dominant industrialized culture across the globe.

Here is Eileen Myles’ “Holes,” collected in Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, ed. Alan Kaufman. NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999.

Once when I passed East Fourth Street off First Avenue,
I think it was in early fall and I had a small hole
in the shoulder of my white shirt, and another on
the back–I looked just beautiful. There was a
whole moment in the 70s when it was beautiful
to have holes in your shirts and sweaters.
By now it was 1981, but I carried that 70s style
around like a torch. There was a whole way of
feeling about yourself that was more European
than American, unless it was American around
1910 when it was beautiful to be a strong
starving immigrant who believed so much
in herself and she was part of a movement
as big as history and it explained the
hole in her shirt. It’s the beginning
of summer tonight, and every season has
cracks through which winter
or fall might leak out. The most perfect
flavor of it, oddly in June. Oh remember
when I was an immigrant. I took a black
beauty and got up from the pile of poems
around my knees and just had too much
energy for thought and walked over to
your house where there was continuous
beer. Finally we were just drinking
Rheingold, a hell of a beer. At the
door I mentioned I had a crush on both
of you, what you say to a couple. By
now the kids were in bed. I can’t
even say clearly now that I wanted
the woman, though it seemed to be
the driving principle then, wanting
one of everything. I was part of
a generation of people who went to
the bars on 7th street and drank the
cheap whiskey and the ale on tap and dreamed
about when I would get you alone. Those
big breasts. I carried slim notebooks which only
permitted two or three-word lines. I need you.
“Nearing the Horse.” There was blood in all my
titles, and milk. I had two bright blue pills
in my pocket. I loved you so much. It was
the last young thing I ever did, the end of
my renaissance, an immigration into my
dream world which even my grandparents
had not dared to live, being prisoners
of schizophrenia and alcohol, though
I was lovers with the two. The beauty
of the story is that it happened.
It was the last thing that happened
in New York. Everything else happened
while I was stopping it from happening.
Everything else had a life of
its own. I don’t think I owe
them an apology, though at least
one of their kids hates my guts.
She can eat my guts for all
I care. I had a small hole in
the front of my black sleeveless
sweater. It was just something
that happened. It got larger
and larger. I liked to put
my finger in it. In the month
of December I couldn’t get
out of bed. I kept waking
up at 6PM and it was Christmas
or New Year’s and I had
started drinking & eating. I remember
you handing me the most beautiful
red plate of pasta. It was like your cunt
on a plate. I met people in your house
even found people to go out and fuck,
regrettably, not knowing about
the forbidden fruit. I forget
what the only sin is. Somebody
told me recently. I have so
many holes in my memory. Between
me and the things I’m separated
from. I pick up a book and
another book and memory
and separation seem to
be all anyone writes
about. Or all they
seem to let me read.
But I remember those
beautiful holes on
my back like a
beautiful cloak
of feeling.

The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935