Restoration and Reflection: The 2013 Re-releases of 'Le Joli Mai' and 'Far from Vietnam'
What does the present have to say to the future? What will that future say of the past? These are questions films and filmmakers ask in relation to their work. When these works are restored and re-released for a current generation, we may also ask, Why these films, and why now? We assume there is a significance.
Two important films from Chris Marker's body of work are being re-released in North America through Icarus Films, having gone through rigorous restoration processes. Both Le Joli Mai (1963), restored by the film's cinematographer and co-director, Pierre Lhomme, and Far from Vietnam (1967), restored by the Archives françaises du film du CNC , were official selections of the New York Film Festival and Cannes. Fifty years ago, the difference of four years between the two films may have seemed a substantial separation, with neither film directly acknowledging the other. Today, however, the brief span between them creates a dialogue that speaks to the cultural resonance of the events of Paris in May 1968—felt today, for example, in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the ongoing discussion over potential Western military intervention in Syria.
In March 1962, France signed the Evian Accord, giving Algeria its independence, and signaling a shift in decolonization conflicts subsequent to the end of the Second World War. Marker and Lhomme's Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May) is a portrait of Paris, set in May 1962, during the country's first springtime peace in 23 years. The film, divided into two parts, "A Prayer From the Eiffel Tower" and "The Return of the Fantomas," is equally an investigation into the personal lives of its citizens and the political and social life of the city. The city—and the country—are not without conflict; conflicts have become internalized within the individual inhabitants and collective civic consciousness of Paris. An ebbing, transient and transitioning tension remains. The suggestion in Le Joli Mai is that Parisians, given the recent peace, are now free to reflect on their own lives and the life of their city. As in Far from Vietnam, we get a sense of how conflict impacts those domestic and abroad.
In stark contrast, though, Far from Vietnam's conflict seethes at the surface, in content and intention. The project, initiated and edited by Marker into a collection of fiction and nonfiction films by Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnés Varda and Alain Resnais, is an explicit protest against the United States' military involvement in the Vietnam War. Where Le Joli Mai explores a greater social whole through the perspective of the individual, Far from Vietnam dissolves the individual's perspective and rationale into abstracted factions, reducing individual citizens to the sides they take and the banners or batons they wield. The apparent, perhaps superficial, tranquility of Le Joli Mai is in juxtaposition to Far from Vietnam's internal and external violence, a violence that is visibly manifested in the clashes between protestors and supporters, but also, it seems, conspicuously steeped in the very heart of Americans. Together the films act as bookends; what is not seen, but easily inferred, are the intervening years, between 1962 and 1967, when subtle stirring segues into explosive release, eventually culminating in events in France and the United States with, respectively, the May 1968 General Strike and the May 1970 Kent State shootings by the Ohio National Guard of students protesting President Nixon's Cambodian campaign.
The subjects in Le Joli Mai discuss what makes them happy, what their hopes are, what they face each day; their quotidian rituals fall somewhere between the sacred and profane. A man who sells suits describes the pleasantness of his drive home, if there is not too much traffic. Female prisoners itemize facets of their internment. A young couple detail their wedding plans. We watch a wedding reception. A priest speaks of unions. One subject states, "If everyone went on strike, the government would have to buckle." As it turns out, precisely six years later the students and workers would do just that-but as we also know, the government did not buckle. What is intriguing about Le Joli Mai are the premonitions it provides; there are several instances-not the least being archival news footage of the February 1962 Charonne Metro Station Massacre and the demonstrations in response (the only footage not shot by Pierre Lhomme)—where Parisian discontent becomes visible. Looking ahead to May '68 or even Godard's films from1967 onward, the insinuation is that these minor turbulences were laying the groundwork for a larger, ostensibly imminent collision.
As history has further evidenced, massive paradigm shifts take their first steps by placing an initial toehold at small scale: first, a neighborhood; then, progressively, a city, a country, a continent and beyond. Paris in May 1962 looks, in many respects, the way it will a year later, and several years later. Paris in 1968 may have looked not altogether dissimilar to Berlin in the late '80s, leading up to the fall of the Wall. More recently, Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran and Tripoli have demonstrated the effect of elevating scales of internal conflict, as the events poured over nationwide, resulting in undermined or removed governments and international recognition and support. It would have made for an interesting historical exercise to have captured, as Marker and Lhomme did, the conversations the citizens of these cities were having in the years leading up to their revolutions.
But this makes the Vietnam War protests in the United States an anomaly. Decades later, it is questionable how much these protests, intrinsically and fundamentally, altered the sociopolitical landscape. The United States government continued the conflict, which carried over to Cambodia. They set an interventionist hawk agenda within their foreign policy. Afghanistan, to many, was justifiable and Iraq, while widely unpopular, has not carried the same cultural, generation-defining gravity as Vietnam. It begs several questions, one being the same question every successive generation asks: Have we not learned from our mistakes?
Far from Vietnam, however, may provide an answer—or at least insight. Protest divided a nation, pitting its citizens against each other, which, although unpleasant, could also be passionate, bringing to life a population lulled by the prosperity that came with the end of World War Two, a sleepwalk characterized by proliferating, consumer-driven homogeneity, the suburbs, television and its advertisements. If quiet, critical and evolving dissent is inherent in the nature of Parisians, than perhaps physical altercation is necessary to the psychological equilibrium of Americans. This implies that conflict itself—not the outcome—is the point. And this is precisely what Far from Vietnam so graphically depicts. It is arguably shocking less because of the intensity of aggression between supporters and protestors, than because we know this exact dynamic continues to the present day, despite being faced with the horrors and atrocities committed on nameless, unidentifiable "others" on the opposite side of the world.
Arguably, it is quite ironic for the French to be making films in reaction to what is essentially another form of colonization, by the United States, of a former French colony. Political positions are, over time, revealed to be mercurial and often forgotten, if not forgiven, then placed within a sympathetic context. The objective is not to fix the polarity, but to simply be an observer or marker of time. As the Note of Intention to Le Joli Mai states:
"There is one question the writers wanted to ask themselves. In 25 or 30 years, what will those who allude to the 1960s have retained?
"What will we fish out from our own years? Maybe something completely different from what we see as being most forward thinking now, the film Le Joli Mai would like to offer itself up as a petri dish for the future's fishers of the past. It will be up to them to sort out what truly made its mark and what was merely flotsam."
The re-release of both Le Joli Mai and Far from Vietnam may be seen as an attempt to answer this question. Or, as a return to the conversation, the "wrinkles" intentionally left in the images through restoration, adding nuance and inflection to the cinematic voice.
The restored version of Le Joli Mai opens theatrically at New York's Film Forum on September 13, then tours to Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Houston and other select cities. Far from Vietnam, which premiered August 28 at New York's Lincoln Center, screens next at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston from September 25 through October 3.
Justin Ridgeway is a Toronto-based writer and art consultant.