We often label and lump the turmoil that swept America and the world with a series of assassinations, Civil Rights, the antiwar movement, Black Power, China’s Red Guard, the Prague Spring, feminism and so on under the broad rubric of “the ’60s.” Auteur Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air sets the record straight, showing that the era’s radical fervor continued well into the 1970s. Air opens with the title “After May,” referring to what Assayas calls in press notes “the aftermath of May ’68” — France’s student-worker uprising, which came the closest to overthrowing capitalism in a Western nation since 1871’s Paris Commune.
Assayas adds that “a revolutionary experience lingers,” and this is the starting point and overriding theme of Air. The film follows the trajectory of a number of French youths as they wend their ways through the tumult of this insurgent hangover, when it seemed there was a world to be won. At the center is Gilles (Clement Metayer), a high school student whose life alternately intertwines with various friends, comrades and lovers, played by Laure (Carole Combes) and Christine (Lola Creton). Along the way is street fighting with the CRS/SS pigs; tossed Molotov cocktails; and the factional infighting that those who believe in “workers of the world unite” often specialize in. (It’s truly astonishing how people who profess solidarity frequently fight with one another, as if the revolution is their private property.) Air chronicles the faction fights between various leftwing tendencies — anarchists, Maoists and what the subtitles unfortunately refer to as “Trotskyites.” (To use a racial analogy, this is akin to using the “N” word to describe adherents of Leon Trotsky, denigrating them as fifth columnist saboteurs. Whereas “Trotskyist” is a respectful term like “African American” is; it simply refers to followers of the Bolshevik apostle of world and permanent revolution. Two demerits for counterrevolutionary nomenclature, comrade translator!)
Along with extremist leftist ideology, youth of that generation also grew their hair long and contended with the counterculture’s bohemian influences in the form of drugs; Rock music (Air has a good period soundtrack); psychedelic light shows; underground newspapers; etc. There is even a strain of mysticism, as Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) and Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), an American diplomat’s daughter, make the journey to the East, seeking enlightenment and what Leslie calls “the sacred dance.” Did any other revolutionary generation have to deal with such intense alternate lifestyle stimulus and choices?
Gilles, an aspiring artist, manages to keep his cool and not lose his head by pursuing painting and then filmmaking. An independent thinker, Gilles takes both his screenwriter father and a collective of militant moviemakers (a la Jean-Luc Godard during that period) to task for the same cinematic sin: Bourgeois pictures. Gilles criticizes the latter for using conventional film forms to try and render revolutionary subject matter and consciousness to the masses, which reduces their artistry (or lack of) to trite sloganeering. As Gilles pursues his destiny, does the not so proletarian protagonist sell out in the end?
The gifted Assayas also directed 1994’s Cold Water (a sort of forerunner to Air); 1996’s Irma Vep; a segment of the 2006 omnibus film Paris Je T’Aime; and the riveting five and a half hour Carlos, about the ultra-left hit man, which flew by without a dull moment. Air is, of course, a feature film with actors, Assayas’ script, production values, etc., yet it is among the best chronicles — fictional or nonfiction — of that heady heyday of radicalism and the young revolutionaries who tried, albeit imperfectly, to change the world for the better. Although I of course had nothing to do whatsoever with this work and grew up in New York, not near Paris, Air is probably the closest thing I’ve seen onscreen to “my” own biography. Indeed, on the exact day I left America to pursue my destiny (I’m still waiting, BTW) in the South Seas, Chairman Mao died.
In any case, if you weren’t alive or of age then to experience those days of rage and hope, when world revolution seemed imminent, the highly recommended Something in the Air will vividly, brilliantly bring that era alive for you. And if you did participate in that period when for a brief moment all things seemed possible, you can relive them during this movie masterpiece that helps us to remember when we were able, perchance, to dream…