Special section:
1970s leftist cinema


by Joshua Sperling

This special section on 1970s leftist cinema grew out of a conversation that first took shape at the 2012 New York Film Festival. Daniel Fairfax and I were covering the event for Senses of Cinema.  Danny and I tend to agree, or at least overlap, in our tastes, but there was one film on NYFF’s main slate which polarized us. This was Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air: an atmospheric, often dreamy, at times beatific, coming-of-age story about a group of radicalized teenagers in post-1968 France.

On the surface our split reactions were simple. I loved the film and Danny hated it, as our Senses of Cinema report indicates. What I saw as a novelistic celebration of youth, Danny felt was an egregious case of leftist posturing. But out of this difference came a longer, and much more nuanced, discussion about the complexities of the historical period Assayas' film explores.

What Something in the Air revealed was the sense that the 1970s, with its blind alleys and political stalemates, worked as a kind of prism for the International left. Most activists, including filmmakers, began the decade together. By 1980, many were professors, others were in jail, still others were burnt-out, reborn, back-to-the-land, or had turned corporate. The more we discussed the period, the more we came to appreciate that the mid-1970s were at once the historical pivot-point to decades of political stasis–a stasis only now coming undone–and also a repressed blind spot in the collective memory of the present. It was the last moment when large numbers of young people (civilians) in the affluent countries risked their lives for political values. Yet it was also a period of counter-revolution, when many on the left entered a state of exile, whether real or metaphorical, including the exile of academia. In this, the decade felt to us, children of the 1980s and 1990s, both very near and very far.

Stills from Something in the Air (2012), a political coming-of-age film by Olivier Assayas, set in the early 1970s.

In 2015, Danny and I put together a panel on the 1970s for the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Montreal. Our idea was to begin an honest yet sympathetic appraisal of the political aesthetics of the period. We wanted to emphasize that it was a decade not only of retreat, but also of transition and renewal, a fertile moment where the doubt and resistance faced by filmmakers helped to shape their work.

The essays collected here have been adapted from that panel. They explore a range of filmmakers and theorists, across a number of contexts. Daniel Fairfax traces the early efforts by Cahiers du cinema co-editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni to create films in dialogue with the theoretical tradition of the journal. Jose Palacios considers the discursive tensions between resistance and exile among Chilean filmmakers who left the country in the wake of the 1973 coup. And my essay takes up questions of post-Utopian compromise and possibility in the films of John Berger and Alain Tanner.

All of our essays share an interest in the trajectory of political commitment. How does commitment travel across historical watersheds? How does it change across the theory/practice divide? We are not interested in the arrogance of 20/20 hindsight or the sport of assigning a political “score” to a work of art. Instead, we want to reexamine an often overlooked period of sweeping change–a period when many on the left were experimenting with their lives–and locate those political, aesthetic and personal insights, born either of progress or disappointment, still instructive to us today.

There was one presentation from the Montreal panel that, for personal reasons, could not be adapted for this issue. This was Jonathan Mullin’s paper on the turn to Super 8 and the everyday among the Italian cultural left. His analysis of Massimo Sarchielli and Alberto Grifi’s Anna (1975), Nanni Moretti’s Io sono un autarchico (1976)and unedited footage of the “Convention against Repression” in Bologna in September 1977 from the archives of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), provided a fascinating portrait of an understudied moment in Italian cinema history. His talk also squarely raised the question of post-revolutionary irony, and the humor born of the dissonance between ideology and everyday life.

What Jonathan’s talk emphasized applies to the other filmmakers discussed here. In the wake of a monolithic conception of revolution, novel modes of political consciousness became possible. Out of crisis arose new, more personal or experimental, ways of combining art and politics.

A final note. In organizing the panel one of our central objectives was to include a breadth that ranged across the Global North and South. Ideally we wanted a much wider geographic scope—and readers should see this special section as only the beginning of a larger conversation that might travel to other continents and political contexts. We encourage readers to pick up where these essays leave off.

[Jump Cut editors note: We’re eager to consider other articles on 1970s leftist cinema  that continue the discussion begun here.]