As the 56th New York Film Festival winds down this weekend, I wanted to look back half a century to the 6th edition of the festival. Uppermost in everyone’s minds in September 1968 was Czechoslovakia, which, after a brief seven months of liberation known as the Prague Spring, had been invaded less than a month before the festival began, by Warsaw Pact tanks and troops intended to suppress reforms.
Whether it had been planned before the Soviet invasion, the 6th New York Film Festival notably opened and closed with Czech films: Jiri Menzel’s Capricious Summer and Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball. It also featured Jan Nemec’s previously banned 1966 film A Report on the Party and the Guests which had been released in ’68 under the reformist president Alexander Dubček and shown as a special event on Czech national television the night before the invasion: a fact noted on the text-heavy US poster, seen below, which proclaimed it “the most important Czech film ever made.”
However, the introductions to the 1968 festival program make no mention of Czechoslovakia. Amos Vogel wrote about the vagaries of art film distribution and the problems of getting people to accept film as high art. He talked about how “video home recorders” (which must have been in their absolute infancy at the time) will soon “allow the copying of thousands of feature films for one’s private library.” And that “the day is coming when—just as we buy Dostoevsky for 85c at the drugstore—we will purchase a Fellini feature to play it back through our TV set.” Very prescient, though you’d be hard pressed to find Dostoevsky at any price at a drugstore these days.
Richard Roud, on the other hand, chastised arthouse audiences for ignoring American cinema. “Perhaps, after all, the road to Bresson, Straub and Godard first passes through 42nd Street” he wrote, encouraging people to see the new Boorman, Lumet, Hawks and Wilder movies currently playing in Times Square at the same time as enjoying the high-falutin stuff he and Vogel had programmed at Lincoln Center.
There was one American film that just played in the Revivals section of the 56th festival, that should have played in the main slate of the 6th. J.L. Anderson’s Appalachian romance Spring Night, Summer Night, was invited to the 1968 festival but was, as the current program has it, “unceremoniously bumped for Cassavetes’s Faces.”
Apart from Faces and Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law, the 6th festival was entirely Euro-centric. 19 of the 21 main slate films were from Europe (aside from the three Czech films, there were eight from France, three from Germany, two from Italy and one each from Sweden, Hungary and Yugoslavia). So no films at all from Africa, Asia or South America (although the Italian-made Tropici is set in Brazil). Even the three revivals—Renoir’s Toni, Ophuls’ Lola Montes and L’Herbier’s L’Argent—were all French. Very different from today’s much more US and Asian-centric festival, though there were still more French films in the 2018 fest than from any other single country except the US.
Many of the 1968 selections are now regarded as deathless masterpieces: Straub’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Forman’s Firemen’s Ball, Bresson’s Mouchette, Cassavetes’s Faces, Rivette’s La Religieuse, Godard’s Weekend and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and Jancso’s The Red and the White. And there were many less well-known films by great directors like Bertolucci, Welles, Chabrol, Pialat, Herzog (with his debut film), Kluge and the aforementioned Nemec and Menzel. And then there were four films that have not stood the test of time, by directors whose names are mostly forgotten: Kjell Grede’s Swedish childhood reverie Hugo and Josephine, Gianni Amico’s “fictional documentary” Tropici, Dominique Delouche’s WWI Stefan Zweig romance Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman and the experimental Yugoslavian WWII small-town drama Kaya, I Will Kill You made by former animator Vatroslav Mimica which the festival billed as “one of the most unusual color films ever made.” Kaya is the film in the selection I would be most curious to watch right now, but, as well as being near impossible to see, it is one of the two films, along with Mailer’s, that I could not find a single poster for.
Apart from the belated re-instatement of Spring Night, Summer Night, there are only two overlaps with the 2018 festival. In J. Hoberman’s brilliant, no-holds-barred report on the 1968 festival (an absolute must-read), written when he was about 20 years old and published four years ago by Film Comment, he writes about Welles’ French TV film The Immortal Story which he described as “solid” despite the fact that it “has a script (by Welles) so awful that had anyone save himself directed it the damage would have been irreparable.” He goes on to say, however, that “I would give the entire Festival proceeds towards the production of Welles’ next film.” That next film was to be The Other Side of the Wind which Welles started filming two years later and, for a myriad of reasons, never finished. Fifty years later the posthumously-completed The Other Side of the Wind finally played at the 56th New York Film Festival.
And then there is Jean-Luc Godard, who had two films in the 6th festival and was supposed to have another, his brand new One Plus One aka Sympathy for the Devil which was “cancelled due to difficulties in processing the color print.” Godard is the only one of the 1968 crew to have a new film in the 2018 festival: The Image Book. Hoberman wrote that “the press showings, ⅔ empty for every other film, were packed for Godard & even Andy Warhol was there. Though the man himself never came people awaited his rumored appearance the way those at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival hung around hoping for Dylan.” Some things, like Godardian no-shows, never change.
Above and below are posters for all the new films in the 1968 festival in the order in which they played. I hope it will provide an illuminating snapshot of a moment in time.