Constant, revolutionary speculation (on ‘Something In The Air’ by Olivier Assayas)

If you have a mummy or a daddy, you might be able to get them to tell you a story at night that will get you into a relaxed-yet-imaginative state of mind which seems to be conducive to sleep. If you don’t have someone to tell you a story you can read a book or watch a movie, and I have found that this can be almost as helpful.

Last night I watched ‘Something In The Air‘ directed by Olivier Assayas. I choose a lot of my movies, not by reading reviews or looking in the university library, nor as friends’ recommendations. I don’t have any ‘streaming’ services, but for years now I have been finding little gems on the DVD shelves at my local library.

I’m not sure if ‘Something In The Air‘ is a ‘gem’ but it was a good film if by a ‘good film’ we mean something that has qualities that both touch you emotionally and stimulate you intellectually.

I recognised Assayas’ name and recalled that I had seen another of his films, titled ‘Summer Hours‘ several years ago, again gleaned from the local library, and that I still had a copy of, having subsequently bought one, thinking I might use it in teaching. Both films struck me as being very strong and culturally distinct depictions of French middle-class life, and anyone who knows me and my writing (and talking) will know that ‘class’ is something that fascinates (in a good, constructive way) and perhaps also ‘obsesses’ me (in a less good, less constructive way).

In ‘Something In The Air‘ (2012) the director basically rebuilt some memories of his formative teenage years circa 1968 – 1972. And so we see riot police and students fighting running battles in the streets. We see the same students petrol bombing, graffitiing, and fly-posting hurriedly designed and cheaply printed militant political posters.

The film deftly and quickly gives a glimpse of various politically technical splits and factions regarding the potential for a Marxist, Trotskyist or Maoist revolution, before settling-in to describe a more flower-powered counter-culture that all of the above seems to meld into and exist within,. The central idea is to ‘drop out’ (and drop LSD), i.e. refuse all given and inherited, pre-WW2 social structures of law, property, parental, governmental and pedagogical authority, and replace them with fearless experimentation with drugs, sex, travel, art, music, literature and endlessly intense speculative conversations.

In the accompanying interview given by the director (one of the ‘extras’ that make me loyal to the DVD culture) Assayas points out that the people depicted in the film truly and wholly believed at that time that their revolution (perhaps ‘revolutions’ is more accurate) would and must eventually succeed. Furthermore, he also pointed out, those same people had truly taken the risk of trying to set everything expected of them aside, and had determined, at almost whatever cost, to create themselves by their own, individual or collective means.

Actually, some characters in the film are eventually seen to rescue themselves from the revolutionary pyre and, after all and despite all, begin to pursue professional careers, not uncomparable with those pursued by their middle-class professional parents.

Nevertheless, the director adds in his reflection, their daring experimentation with a kind of Nietzschean self-deconstruction and self creation is something that does not seem possible today, in a world where such radical creativity, freedom, adventure and discovery now comes commodified and prescribed, something we literally ‘buy into’ – perhaps via an app, a brand, a gap-year etc., as a kind of revolution ‘off-the-peg’ (revolution-pret-a-porter perhaps) while unerringly focused, primarily on an all-important ‘career’, something wholly anathema to most of the characters in this film and to the truest spirit of their times.

The movie left me intellectually stimulated, thinking about just how important this period in cultural history was and is for ‘us’ or at least for me, if we (or I) want to understand who we are by such means.

At the same time the movie left a kind of ache in my heart, partly because of the well represented sense of lost and irretrievable idealism, and the ways in which it triggered my (now) middle-aged empathy with and for all the danger and carelessness into which those unprecedented (post Hisroshima, post-Holocaust) young people threw themselves in an almost sacrificial manner with the aim of not just rejuvenating but replacing the world wholesale.

Their ‘sacrifice’ does however seem to have provided us today with a greatly expanded permissiveness and a far more free and playful society, in which the model (albeit commodified – as above) seems to be a kind of ‘forever young’ teenage mentality.

As someone who grew up in the strange ‘wake’ of psychedelia and post-’68’ etc. I found myself in 1976 (just after the time this film depicts) aged 16 with long hair, experimenting with drugs, wearing flared patchwork jeans, playing in a band and reading Herman Hesse, but living on a council estate on the dole with very little chance of ever hitch-hiking to Marrakesh. My own acid trips led me, not to Asia in a magic bus but only deeper into a fractal-ised vision of my parents’ choice of wallpaper patterns, paving stones illuminated by sulphorous lamposts, night-time school playing fields, and David Bowie performing on a B&W TV after my family had all gone to bed.

Soon Punk, with its ‘No-Future’ anti-utopian antiphilosophy came and swept away a lot of hippie cobwebs, and then we encountered 80s Thatcherism and found the only adequate response to it within the brand new counter-culture of Hip-Hop’s infinitely inventive and irresistably funky realism.

I went to sleep last night feeling quite emotional after watching Assayas’ movie. I dreamed of a Donald Trump rally, and I also dreamed that the radio announced the death of Bob Dylan (which, I suppose, sadly, is bound to happpen soon).

Today, Assayas’ carefully wrought depiction of an important piece of cultural history allowed me to wake up feeling a little surer of who I am, even though, in terms of class and culture, nationality, and identity in general I still like to think that I am always, and always will be, in a state of constant, perhaps even revolutionary, speculation – perhaps as a legacy of the ’68’ generation.





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