By Ed Sanders
May ’68: Revisiting Revolutionary Anniversaries & Reassessing Jean-Luc Godard’s Currency
Anniversaries are big business. We use social media to mark birthdays for vague acquaintances; we look at history as a sales tool for whatever products can tag on to our vague sense of what happened 50, 25 or ten years ago (centuries being a bit more difficult, especially now that they involve world wars and worse).
This month marks the half century mark since Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Ed Sanders — the former Fug, prolific Beat poet, and longstanding Woodstock eminence who once came close to winning a seat on the Ulster County Legislature — has a new book out on this grand marker. Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy is a graphic biography, epic poem, and conspiracy-theory reconstruction of Robert Kennedy’s murder with illustrations by former DC Comics artist Rick Veitch. It’s a big work, maddening at times in its shotgun-style approach that mixes various viewpoints, including the author’s own, as we watch RFK’s entry into the 1968 presidential race, lead up to his fateful killing on June 5, 1968, and explore various open ends left after. Yet it’s also hugely impressive in the 40 years of research Sanders has pulled together, the book’s attention to detail and objectivity, and the personal element that rides through it all via the man’s attentive lyricism and sparingly-used elements commentary and emotion. The book leaves one with a keen sense of just what was lost when Bobby died in a hotel kitchen after winning the California Primary that year Nixon would eventually win in a squeaker.
One also comes away intrigued by 1968’s other anniversaries. There’s the Chicago riots from later that year, of course, but also the specter of angered students finding a moment of solidarity with unions and leftist politicians from May of that year, when strikes and activism brought Paris, France, and the rest of Europe to a stunned halt. But where to capture what happened? Because the actions of May ’68 involved filmmakers, journalists and writers, and ended in a surrendered aftermath of sorts, no definitive statement’s come forth as yet. Chris Marker’s essay film, A Grin Without A Face, gets at the promise revolution had at the time, and why it was lost. Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air captures rebellion fading away into “real life.” There are multiple books, from at-the-barricades accounts to more scholarly works. But in the final round, the most stirring rendering of what it all was, and how it still resonates, may lie in radical filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy For The Devil, made a few years after the events themselves occurred. In it he juxtaposes staged set-ups where Black Panthers read Marxist treatises in a junkyard and other crazy fictional elements with the Rolling Stones’ recording sessions that ended in the infamous title song. As effective now as the day it came out, Godard shows us how history can get lost in its own entertainment elements, and revolution tends to get subverted, these days, by pop culture.
Ah, the tricky allure of anniversaries.