a celebration of 1968
- By Cáit Murphy
There are particular years in cinematic history which have produced some of its most profound and culturally significant works. Reflecting on such years, it’s easy to look back at 2017, when we debated with friends over whether or not Phantom Thread was Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus, or discussed the objective fact that the Safdie brothers’ Good Time should have received more attention amidst the clamour.
However, if we look deeper into the dusty archives, before the full realisation of seventies ‘New Hollywood’ and blockbusters, 1968 is a year which stands out. The year saw both the beginning of January’s Prague Spring, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam which contributed to a widening credibility-gap amongst the American public. There was also the April assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the student and worker-led May protests and strikes across France. Much has happened in the fifty years since, but 1968’s cinematic achievements have endured.
The fraught political climate of the late sixties provided inspiration for filmmakers. Both East and West were in the throngs of Cold War unrest, their ideologies interrogated. Science-fiction can offer a distorted mirror-image of the present world, revealing certain ‘truths’ which may otherwise go unrealised. The dystopia encountered by Charlton Heston’s Taylor in Planet of the Apes (Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) is an uncanny presentation of an arid planet inhabited by anthropomorphic apes. Make-up artist John Chambers’ hyper-realistic facial prosthetics are perhaps the film’s greatest technical feat, and Jerry Goldsmith’s experimental percussion score instils unease. Ape society is tiered, with spiritually authoritative orangutans, gorillas as brute-force, chimpanzees as the middle-class, and mute humans as the subjugated minority. Formed out of Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel, the film probes evolution, ethics and rights, and as is consistent throughout the genre, what it means to be human. Writers Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, and Michael Wilson (previously blacklisted during the Red Scare) convey a multifaceted social message which remains poignant today.
Horror had been a well-visited genre by 1968, but was changed utterly by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s an independent cult classic, shot on a shoestring budget with innovative handheld cinematography. The film begins with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother visit their father’s grave, only to be ambushed by a marauding zombie. After this, the audience is kept constantly on edge. With Duane Jones playing the pragmatic hero, the film subverts Hollywood convention at the time by casting a black actor as the protagonist. Its lack of convention is also reflected in its avant-garde tone. Using kitchen products to create the effects of the undead, the film may seem tame today. However, its score, expressionistic lighting and editing makes the film disturbing nonetheless. Seen as the first true zombie flick, Romero’s film is a horror landmark.
During the late sixties, émigré filmmakers like Roman Polanski and ambitious alternativists like Dennis Hopper brought experimentation and ‘newness’ to the big studios. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is one result. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes, whose 1968 film Faces is a masterpiece in itself) are settling into their New York apartment. Elderly neighbours Minnie and Roman, played innocuously by Harold and Maude’s Ruth Gordon and veteran actor Sidney Blackmer, set an uncanny tone. Strange happenings occur in the apartment block, including an apparent suicide. Here, Rosemary dreams of being raped by a demon before onlookers. She later falls pregnant and her unorthodox obstetrician, waifish appearance and odd diet signal that something is definitely off. With Krzysztof Komeda’s lullaby and William A. Fraker’s moody cinematography, Rosemary’s Baby is a gothic masterpiece. Its urban paranoia would be reflected in Polanski’s later films. It delves into the sexual subjugation of women and procreation. Its tone and religiosity would influence seventies horror. One can’t ignore Polanski’s abhorrent history, especially when considering a film addressing such issues. However, to disregard the film would be an insult to the other craftspeople who worked on it.
During the late sixties in Europe, directors like Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Pierre Melville were making the greatest films of their careers. In 1968 iconoclast Ingmar Bergman released Hour of the Wolf, one of his 40 magnum opuses (perhaps outrageous bias has gotten the better of me). Europe in particular was experiencing great political upheaval. Jean-Luc Godard was in the process of making his most revolutionary works, including La Chinoise (1967). The 21st edition of the Cannes Film Festival was curtailed due to strikes in France that May. Italian director and Marxist, Pier Paolo Pasolini released Teorema in 1968 to backlash. The film’s explicit nature (a Pasolini given) received outcry from the Catholic Church, though it was ultimately nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice. Teorema follows a middle-class family in Milan who welcome a foreign stranger into their home. This Visitor (Terence Stamp) sexually awakens each member of the family, as well as the maid. With commentary on the Italian bourgeoisie, religion and sexuality while using symbolism and surrealism to foreground hypocrisy, Teorema is an avant-garde achievement in Pasolini’s controversial career.
If we look beyond Europe and Hollywood, one Cuban film, Memories of Underdevelopment (Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea), shows through archival footage and the experiences of an individual man, the crisis of change, or lack thereof, in Cuba. Using documentary and avant-garde modes, with real recordings of speeches from the period of the 1962 Missile Crisis to create verisimilitude, Memories has been cited as an influence on directors who have used similar methods since to produce a heightened sense of realism in historically grounded films. As both a subjective and objective tale of Havanan life, the film succeeds as a focal point in social cinema, and for capturing post-revolution Cuba.
If there’s one thing to learn from 1968, it’s that turbulent times can be artistically productive. Whether it be revolution or war, cinema can provide a mirror on which to reflect. So, we celebrate 1968 and its cinematic achievements, and perhaps in fifty years’ time the same will be said of our era.