I relived my futile radical youth by watching French director and writer Olivier Assayas' "Something in the Air," or Après Mai in French. The sumptuous, at times dragging film, was on my Comcast On Demand menu at the same time it's in theaters. "Something in the Air" was much more enticing than that other recent cinematic look at youth rebelling against the capitalist system, "On the Road."
"Something in the Air" examined a slice of the new left revolts that shook Paris in May 1968, also the subject of a late book by James Jones. The young revolutionaries thought they were on the verge of overthrowing the French government, a giddy belief that turned out to be exaggerated. I was surprised again at how brutally the French government, with its revolutionary origins, suppressed the young rebels.
The film, in French with subtitles, aptly captures the misplaced idealism, fatuous leftist ideology and counterculture excesses of the time. The young people depicted read their Marx and Mao and engage in vandalism, veering toward ever more violent demonstrations, while never escaping their upper bourgeois tastes. I was amused at a close up of a student's record collection, with many of the same albums I also possessed. Rock was the true international language. Anachronism alert - one of the albums is the Blind Faith record with the topless girl holding what we thought was an Oldsmobile hood ornament. I still have that cover, quickly pulled from the market. The album appeared in 1969, while the film takes place in 1968, so the kid couldn't have had a copy yet. Adding to the inauthenticity is that the cover shown looks worn, as if already played many times. The kid might have had Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, or maybe the Beatles' Rubber Soul.
The movie highlights one of the main benefits of the revolution - those vanguard girls didn't mind taking off their fetching peasant clothes, even in the woods or what not. The French leftists, like those throughout the world, were quite sexist - women's lib would soon expose these left wing pigs. Also accurately depicted in the film is the stupid blindness of doctrinaire leftists to the horrors of Chinese and Soviet Communism. This brought a brutal enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy - the young student with the records is chastised for reading a book detailing the abuses of Mao's cultural revolution. CIA propaganda, a humorless bearded fellow insists.
In my case, the revolution brought an expansion of reading frontiers, for better or worse. Under the direction of a radical professor, I read Daniel Cohn-Bendit's analysis of the 1968 Paris events, "Obsolete Communism, The New Left Alternative." "Danny the Red," later a Green legislator in Germany, turned out to be a creep, accused of pedophilia.
I read other works by dubious and not so dubious characters. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" was quite good, if horribly misogynistic. Other Panther memoirs, such as Huey Newton's, sunk to heavy-handed propaganda. I couldn't understand what Herbert Marcuse was trying to say. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" was the best book from my radical days.
As I watched "Something in the Air," a thought occurred to me that fewer and fewer selections of radical literature are available these days. The Nation magazine is about as left wing as it gets. A few years ago, I used to see, and quite often buy, anarchist, socialist and radical ecological magazines at the old Borders in Buckhead. Alas, Borders is long gone, replaced by a Container Store, leaving one Buckhead bookstore, the Peach shopping center's Barnes & Noble, with its limited stock.
Whether because of Sept. 11, the Patriot Act, or economic pressures on publishers and booksellers, we have a narrower range of political and social thought available to us."Something in The Air" brings chagrin at what was thought and said when our generation was young, along with regret that our best hopes died in the womb.