Mai 68

Lest we forget, 40 years ago this month it was “Mai 68”, that is, it was May 1968.

For most Americans (like me) the protests and riots that raged in France in 1968 are largely unknown. Like many protests of the 1960s there are questions as to their ultimate effectiveness. Certainly de Gaul was eventually pushed out, signaling a change from conservatism to liberalism. And, of course, Langlois was restored to his position, which was a part of the whole Mai 68 thing, though protests on his behalf started even earlier than May. But who really knows if any particular protest changed anything that would not have inevitably been changed anyway. And yet, those were glorious days, so I have read.

Here is a nice overview of some key elements of Mai 68:

My français is a bit rusty, but this is a nice retrospective timeline from French television:

There is a part of my soul that loves those protests in France, much like I love the protests in the U.S. in the 60s, or the anti-war protests and anti-globalization protests in recent years. Protesting is so romantic. Many cinephiles may not know that filmmakers shut down the Cannes festival (mentioned in the overview piece above) in 1968 as well.

The gang’s all here. Can you name each filmmaker in the photo?

This is a wonderful verité piece showing the debates among the filmmakers at Cannes deciding what their protest was going to mean and what actions that would require:

The fact that Cannes was closed down in 1968 shows that, as a film festival, it had clout, that it was important, and that films were important. I would love to see the Oscars shut down in protest to any number of things, such as the war in Iraq. But that would mean the Oscars are important and are we ready to admit that?

Special bonus: Captain Beefheart live in 1968 on the beach in Cannes.

*Filmmakers in the photo, left to right: LELOUCH, GODARD, TRUFFAUT, MALLE, POLANSKI

the art of a "limited means" life

We live is an age of great abundance for many. And yet, so many struggle for basic things, like shelter. Many of us, though not particularly wealthy by Western/Northern standards (I live in the U.S.), still live like kings compared to much of the rest of the world. And yet, sometimes we still know (I still know), at times, the struggle just to get by, especially those of us who have tried to support a family on a meager paycheck.

With those thoughts/experiences in mind (sometimes buried, sometimes glaring) I watched a fascinating documentary on La maison de Jean Prouvé (part of a great 4 DVD series called Architectures by ARTE France, distributed in the U.S. by Facets Video). I was struck by the simple story of a man who lost his business, faced into a difficult financial crisis, and had to then find appropriate shelter for his large family. His solution was to build on land others said could not be built on, use prefabricated pieces, ask his friends for help, and do it quick and cheep. What Prouvé created became one of the most famous, yet modest dwellings of the 20th century. The house is also both a challenge and an inspiration to me and my aspirations for someday designing my own house. But it is more than merely a question of design.

A few pictures will give some idea of the concept by way of the reality.

Front exterior
Looking out the front windows
One of the kid's rooms
The bathroom
The living room
The kitchen

As one can tell, the house is simple, though not exactly austere; the design is modern, though far from being overrun with ideology; and the space is very economical, giving what needs to be given without giving too much. It is truly an economy of means.

What I also like was how communal and personal the building became, and how it became that way out of necessity. Photos show the Prouvés and their friends hauling materials up the steep hills, laying foundations, putting up walls, and helping the Prouvés reach their goals.

My own philosophy, though still rather unformed, ranges toward the modern and the simple. I love quality and innovation. I also love the challenge, but so too do I love the finished product that can then be enjoyed. Although there are many aspects of Prouvé’s house I would do different, I often think about how much I have and want in contrast to what I actually need.

I believe design and art are central to the human spirit. I am only willing to give up beauty when it is absolutely necessary, and only for temporary periods, for beauty is like air. Some will not find Prouvé’s house to be a work of beauty. To each her/his own. For my part I find tremendous beauty in the simplicity and design of this house, but I also see an acceptance of one’s place in the world. Prouvé was able to achieve both. Live within your means, that is a kind of beauty too.

Jean Prouvé built his house in 1953. I find it an interesting coincidence that I began recently watching Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Rohmer began directing the loosely connect series in 1962. I won’t attempt an overview of Rohmer’s life or a critique of his films, but I will say that I find his circumstances of production to be equally as fascinating at those of Jean Prouvé.

In the beginning Rohmer had no money to make films. He had written one novel and then some stories. He was unhappy with how the stories turned out and he felt he needed to make them into films to adequately get across his ideas. Eventually he got what he needed, but only just. His films, especially the early ones, are excellent examples of an economy of means. He shot on a shoestring budget, often using small crews and working with friends. He also tended to shoot in limited takes and tended to prefer first takes. He rehearsed his actors relentlessly and then tried to not let them ask for more takes. Sometimes he used improvisation during rehearsals, but rarely in production. His first feature-length film, La Collectionneus (1967), was shot at less than a 2:1 ratio, which means that most of the takes were at most done twice, and many only once.

Rohmer’s first of his moral tales, La Boulangère de Monceau (1963), was shot MOS (silent), dubbing the audio in later and relying mostly on voice-over, on 16mm format, using found locations. Never released in theaters, this 20 minutes film was almost more of an experiment in style and production, but it clear set the tone for the later films.

Here is a brief look at the filming/story telling style of Rhomer. While we hear a voice-over we watch a simple moment based mostly on looks and glances that are fuller of meaning than the rather unemotional surface gloss might suggest.

When I compare Rohmer and Prouvé I see two driven men, singular in their ideas and ideals, producing great artifacts within strenuous limitations. I also see a mode of production, whether by choice or by acceptance, that is truly independent from larger financial/corporate interests. No one is completely independent, but smaller scales of production, working with friends and colleagues, forced to stay focused on the end goal, and beholden more to one’s own vision than to those of others, makes Rohmer’s moral tales and Prouvé’s family dwelling about as independent as one could hope for.

Some might say that Prouvé’s home is too simple and lacks too much. Some might say that watching Rohmer’s films is like watching paint dry. I know it is a matter of taste, but sometimes I would like to believe that not all taste is equal. Certainly, I find the final products of these two men more satisfying than so much else in this world. And that is what I look for in my own “limited means” life.

Xala, imperialism, and bottled water

About two days before the great African filmmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, passed away on June 9th of this year, I got the urge to watch one of his masterpieces, Xala (1975). Recently I also watched one of his earlier films, Black Girl, and wrote about it here. Needless to say I was surprised at his death. And I have been thinking of Xala ever since, and in particular two structurally and thematically intertwined scenes that feature the use of bottled water.

Here we have the chauffeur pouring a bottle of Evian (a French imported water) into a bucket so that a street beggar can make a buck washing the car:

Here the chauffeur pours another bottle into the car’s radiator:

These shots are meant to display a kind of ambivalence towards the product (Evian).

Here we have government minister Hadji Aboucader Beye (the main character if one does not count Africa itself as the main character) offering some Evian to his daughter who has visited him in order to confront him about his marrying a third wife:

We watch Beye pour himself a drink – the daughter declines:

Emphasis is placed on Beye’s preference for Evian:

Beye speaks to his daughter in French. His daughter speaks to him in the native Senegalese language of Wolof – which upsets Beye:

In these two scenes an apparently innocuous product, a bottle of Evian water, is used as a kind of metaphorical device standing for the continuing hegemonic power of colonial imperialism, even when the former colony has now gained its Independence. Senegal had been a French colony from about the 1850s until 1960. Xala pokes very serious fun at how the newly elected leaders of Senegal ruled for their own self interests, were corrupt, and were still trying to emulate their former masters.

The bottle of Evian also raises the issue of how products play a role in defining cultures and individuals. As consumers we make choices based on needs and desires. Our choices say a lot about who we are and what we value. Just as when we speak our native tongue, or that of another, the products we buy have a kind of symbolic language that is both an expression of who we are and changes (even slightly) the world in which we live. Brands can have real power in the world, but that power is given to them, not inherent to them. In Xala we find that products are not disconnected from culture or power. Not surprising coming from a Marxist like Sembène.

Needless to say, I like Evian, and probably a lot of other products emblematic of imperialism, free trade, and neo-classical economics – for example: Nike, Coke, iPods, low prices, instant gratification, and even organic food grown on farms around the world using low-cost labor. I like to think I am independent of those products, but am I really?

Some good examinations of Xala:
Symbolic Impotence: Role Reversal in Sembene Ousmane’s Xala
Xala at Louis Proyect
The Guardian review