Your NPR news source

Milos Stehlik Explores 1968 Cinema

SHARE Milos Stehlik Explores 1968 Cinema
Milos Stehlik Explores 1968 Cinema

Scene from the film “Berkeley in the Sixties”

A programmer for Czech Television told me this summer, “We don't really have good films on the “8's”. What he meant was that, in rough numbers, the important transition years in modern Czech history fall on the ‘8s: 1918, the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic, 1938, the Munich Pact which gave the Czech borderlands to the Germans, 1948, the overthrow of the government by the Communist Party, 1968, the Russian Invasion, and beginning in 1988, the Velvet Revolution.

American history and that of other countries may not be as numerologically systematic as Czech history, but in a very disturbing way, film – the medium of the age – is remarkably unresponsive and inadequate in providing a satisfying historical record. What do we have of the Kennedy assassination but Oliver Stone's conspiracy thriller, J.F.K.? Does Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW really tell the story of America's involvement in Vietnam? It took documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and rummaging through tens of thousands of still images to give us a sense of what happened in the American Civil War. This was in 1990, some 125 years after the Civil War ended.   Even World War II, the most fertile soil for both feature films and documentaries, has strange gaps when it comes to historical representation. What was it like to be an ordinary person during World War II? You are better off reading the wartime diaries of Victor Klemperer than looking at films.  Given the Nazis' obsession with documentation, with how much footage was captured and preserved, given some filmmakers' ability to analyze archival material, why is every portrait of Adolf Hitler either propaganda or a simple-minded caricature? Perhaps the filmmaker who came closest was Roberto Rosselini, both in his early dramatic films like OPEN CITY, PAISAN and GERMANY YEAR ZERO – films which gave us the emotional tenor of the war through the lives of ordinary people – and his later attempts to chart European history in films like THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV or AGE OR MEDICI.

The problem is that filmmakers aren't historians. They just try to capture some sense of reality. But whose reality and from whose perspective?  1968, a pivotal year in world history, is a critical juncture for film and history. Not only was revolution being fought in the streets of Paris , Prague or Chicago , but the filmmakers were in the streets too, emboldened with the idea that their story – the narrative of their revolution – needed to be told from the perspective of those who were also in the streets. Collectives like Newsreel, Chicago 's Kartemquin Films, the Film Group, and the Yippies were a part of this. It was a unique moment in history and it was a unique moment in cinema history – a movement to repatriate cinematic truth to those whose reality it represented.  

Yet where are these films today and who watches them? Many were raw, cinema-verite documents, other films were agit-prop provocations, created to stir discussion. From these raw attempts, more cohesive examinations of contemporary history emerged -- films like BERKELEY IN THE SIXTIES and Glenn Silber's THE WAR AT HOME.  

Almost forty years later, attempts to situate dramatic feature films against this background – films like Brett Morgan's quasi-documentary CHICAGO 10 or Bertolucci's  THE DREAMERS, which was set against the French unrest and street battles of 1968 – come across as strangely naïve and missing the point.  This perspective and analysis fail because we expect and feel the overwhelming need for film to deliver the good guys and the bad guys. But history is rarely black and white, and so historical analysis gets sacrificed for the dramatic demands of a well-executed script.   

Just how far off the mark we are is most clearly reflected in the coverage of the Olympics. We are not seeing the Olympics. We are seeing a TV network's pre-digested version of American heroism at the Olympics. The world record, he who hoards the most gold, the tragedy of an injury are little more than dramatic devices molded with personal histories and a sense of the athletes at home, in America , a landscape we recognize and know. What we are seeing is processed, like cheese, through a giant grinder of historical record so that it is something we want to see. All that remains valid in this landscape is celebrity.  

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

More From This Show