When Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a retrospective of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas in 2010, they hailed him as a “post-punk auteur.” The moniker reflects how the restless, omnivorous director is most often understood: as a stylist with roots in the ’80s subculture from which his first films emerged. (In an otherwise eclectic filmography, Manchester-inflected music and androgynous, Schiele-thin actors seem to be his most consistent mainstays.) But what the post-punk tagline neglects—and what has become increasingly clear—is the extent to which Assayas’s early formation took place in the decidedly pre-punk years of the early 1970s as part of a generation that still held far-reaching political hopes.
Except for one early film, Cold Water (1994), where ’70s counterculture appeared as an out of focus background to the intimate drama of two teenage runaways, Assayas had for years shied away from direct representations of the decade. In 2005, however, he published a short autobiographical text, Une adolescence dans l’après-mai. Printed by Cahiers du Cinema and dedicated to Guy Debord’s widow, the book recollects the filmmaker’s early ambitions as a painter and involvement with the post ’68 revolutionary vanguard. Five years later, in 2010, his six hour film Carlos dissected the idealism, pluck, and monstrousness of the era’s militant politics. This year, Assayas continues his cinematic reflection on the decade with Something in the Air, a partly autobiographical coming-of-age story about a group of teenage artists and activists.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Assayas turned first to writing about the ’70s before filming it. As with the Young Turks of the ’50s, Assayas began his career as a critic—also writing for Cahiers—and continues to use criticism as a testing ground for his artistic identity. And as with the films that resulted from Cahiers’s heyday, Assayas’s cinema can be seen as an extension of his criticism: not merely exercises in stylistic panache but also treatises on the dialectics and contradictions of recent history.
Joshua Sperling (Rail): With Carlos and Something in the Air you’ve single-handedly reanimated the radicalized atmosphere of the 1970s. This is a period that has faded somewhat from collective memory. I’ve heard you refer to the decade as a “black hole.” Why do you think it’s been shied away from—at least cinematically—as a subject?
Olivier Assayas: Well, it’s been either caricatured or fantasized—or both. It’s simultaneously a reference point in terms of fashion and pop culture—because of the music, the clothes, the hair; yet it’s never really represented honestly.
I think this is because the 1970s are scary. It was a time, unlike today, when people put their ideas into practice—pretty much put their lives on the line. They decided there was a parallel universe called “the counterculture” with its own codes, its own communication channels, its own values, its own places—which you could inhabit. You stepped out of the old world and into a parallel one where you could be yourself and do something no other generation has done since: experiment with your own life, your own fate. And there have been a lot of casualties. So the 1970s are actually not that funny. The obsession with the revolution, the brutal overthrow of modern capitalism, with personal, spiritual searching. It was a violent rejection of everything we’d been taught. Of course it was crazy; of course it was utopian and had its huge limits. But at the same time there was something heroic, courageous about it. And there was a beauty to it.
Rail: Something in the Air is a much more personal look at that time than Carlos. It combines your strength as an intimate, almost memoiristic filmmaker with your interest in the broader historical canvas. Do you see the two films together?
Assayas: Carlos was a deconstruction of 1970s politics. It’s a historical view seen through the lens of the Cold War—and specifically the end of the Cold War. It has a perspective that would have been impossible to grasp at the time.
Something in the Air is a companion piece to Carlos because it’s not deconstructing the 1970s; it’s immersed in the 70s. It’s the 1970s seen from the angle of the 1970s. It’s about reviving those times through my own eyes. And that’s why I used a lot of autobiographical elements—to try to have a solid reference point in recreating the moods and emotions of the time.
Rail: While watching Something in the Air I thought not only of Carlos but also of your earlier autobiographical film, Cold Water. What struck me was how much brighter and more expansive this newer film is. We have sun-dappled afternoons, crane shots that float up above the trees; in Cold Water, by contrast, the camera is very trapped, very claustrophobic. The ending of Cold Water—with the implicit suicide of Virginie Ledoyen’s character—is almost unbearably heavy. In this new film there’s a weightless feeling—of hope, not desperation.
Assayas: Cold Water was an extremely important film for my development. But it sort of happened to me; I didn’t theorize it. It was done with no money; we had four weeks to shoot it, and certainly we didn’t have the budget to even remotely recreate the historical milieu. It was a more abstract, poetic take on what the 1970s were about. It was a concise representation of emotions rather than actual facts. Finishing Cold Water, I was very proud of the film because I knew it was a turning point for me. But at the same time there was a sense of frustration because there were things at the core of whatever the 1970s had been that were missing from that film. By which I mean politics, art, the counterculture. That was the fabric of the time and it stayed with me, in the back of my mind. I thought one day, after the poetic version of the 1970s, I would do the more novelistic, or realistic, version of the decade.
Rail: The personal and the political seem to be on equal footing in this new film—which is very rare in the cinema. In your formation as a critic at Cahiers were there directors or specific films that managed to capture that mix of life and politics?
Assayas: In Bresson—in the latter films of Bresson: The Devil, Probably and Four Nights of a Dreamer. I think it’s also present in some of the films of Philippe Garrel. But Bresson, to me, is the one filmmaker who really captured the 1970s. The Devil, Probably is possibly the greatest film about the decade; it kind of sums it all up. And Garrel was, for me, another great filmmaker from the epoch. But he’s off on his own; he was the only one still doing this underground, abstract cinema that was part of the spirit of the times. Art, politics, the cinema—it’s always present in his work.
Rail: The two love-interests in Something in the Air reflect a split that befell radical cinema after the 1970s. One goes off to make militant documentaries while the other embraces a more aestheticized avant-garde. Is that how you see cinema’s bifurcation?
Assayas: They were two opposite poles, two magnets that defined the relation we could have at the time with cinema. But they also embodied the conflict between 1970s leftism and 1970s counterculture. From the point of view of leftism, anything having to do with the counterculture was petite bourgeois—or whatever the insult was they chose to dismiss it. Modern music, drugs, sex, art in general: it was all entertainment, petite bourgeois individualism. It was evil! And the antagonism grew more and more violent as leftism became more and more dogmatic before it all blew up.
So yes—there was a conflict between a straightforward political cinema and something that had more to do with the poetry of the time—with leaving the city and reconnecting with nature (an obsession best embodied by British folk rock). In the ’70s you felt the presence of those two opposite magnets. It was very hard to make sense of the nature of the conflict. You were pulled in both directions. As a kid in high-school it was difficult to see why it was considered so bad to listen to rock music or smoke dope or whatever. Especially as the counterculture and the leftists both dreamt of revolution.
Rail: They had the same enemy.
Assayas: Exactly. So this conflict was really defining for anyone who lived through that period. And although it wasn’t that conscious, I suppose the two girls in my film do embody those two tendencies. If you were attracted to the cinema it was either experimental cinema or militant cinema. There was no middle road.
Rail: At the end of Something in the Air, the protagonist is faced with three distinct visions of what the cinema could become. There is the Sanjinés film Courage of the People (El Coraje del pueblo), which leaves him cold; the Hollywood kitsch for which he works as an apathetic assistant; and then there is the experimental film in London, almost a proto music-video. In this last cinema he finds his true home. Was that what you went through in your own life?
Assayas: Oh yes.
Rail: And then came punk rock?
Assayas: Punk rock is like the next chapter.
Rail: It’s very curious to me. Because part of the sense I got from this film was a nostalgia for a time when aesthetics and politics could be kept together in the cinema, before they went their separate ways. Do you miss that?
Assayas: Well, I miss it and I don’t miss it. There was such a dogmatic weight to the politics of the time. You had Trotskyism, Maosim, and their variations; and you had the anarchist-influenced kids. I was in the last group, which had less to do with anarchism per se than with anti-totalitarian leftism. Meaning opposed to the violently totalitarian temptations in the other leftist groups.
Rail: In the ’80s and ’90s, American politics was dominated by the so-called culture wars and identity politics. And in terms of individual liberty—what you can do with your body, who you can sleep with, what drugs you can take—most American cities permit more freedoms now than ever. Only since 2008 has class as a category really re-entered American political discourse. So what was shocking about Something in the Air wasn’t seeing kids shooting up or having orgies but rather passing out anti-capitalist pamphlets. And yet if my generation is accused of being disenchanted with politics it’s partly because we’ve inherited a confusion and pessimism from the fallout of 1970s radicalism. There are paradoxes many of us are still working through. Can you be at Occupy Wall Street and also make avant-garde poetry films? Are the two things compatible? Do they go together?
Assayas: What I was trying to say in this film was that it was perfectly compatible, but it was only a minority who understood it. The others were locked into a very dogmatic Marxist theology that refused to see how the world was changing. They were obsessed with the notion that there was only one revolutionary class and it had to be the proletariat—which they had such a hard time connecting with. This ultimately meant failure. A revolutionary movement must have a clear understanding of the social forces at play. That, for me, was the beauty, depth, and intelligence of Guy Debord’s writing. Although largely ignored by the dogmatic leftists, his was a modern reading of what modern revolution could be about.
But to answer your question, we are dealing with a pre-communication age. The TV channels were state-owned. Any media that had to do with the old world was suspect. Your information did not come from TV or the bourgeois media or the radio. It came from the free press, from what you heard in meetings, collective gatherings very similar to Occupy Wall Street—disturbingly similar I must add. So you were building your own channels of communication. You not only read the newspapers, you sold the newspapers. It was not about doing business but about being part of the channels of the counterculture. And because it was so difficult to access, the newspapers, the books, the music: everything became extremely precious and fetishized—not as an object but as part of the bigger picture. These were your connections to a generation that was in France, in England, overseas—and it was going to change the world.