- Desires for Reality: Radicalism and Revolution in Western European Film by Benjamin Halligan
This new history of radicalism and revolution in 1960s Western European filmmaking opens with a deceptively simple question: ‘What was the progressive cinema of the [End Page 155] 1960s?’ (p. 1). The author points to a surprising lack of critical consensus around this concept, and suggests that evidence from scholars and filmmakers has complicated, rather than elucidated, our understanding of the decade in which, on the crest of the wave of auteurism, film form became definitively politicized. Benjamin Halligan’s position is that, with historical scholarship largely limited to national frameworks, and many militant films lost to either the circumstances of their production or the selective authority of ‘the canon’, the question of what constitutes 1960s progressive European cinema remains to be explored. Thus, he sets himself the task of identifying the ‘essential terrain’ of a period steeped in the mysticism of the zeitgeist and defined by vague ideas about political opposition and sexual liberation; a terrain that he describes as ‘seemingly everywhere, in evidence, and nowhere, in detail’ (p. 4). His aim is to uncover and assess the deep connections between text and context, revolutionary film and revolutionary sensibility, cultural production and revolutionary activity within the time of their occurrence, when the historical outcomes could not be known. Conscious of the immanence of the condition of failure inherent in both the revolutionary project of the 1960s, and the narrow audience reach of much radical film of the era, Halligan’s approach is theoretically informed by the Derridean concept of the aporia. As a history of aesthetic priorities, formal shifts, and creative possibilities in broadly leftist cinema in Europe of the 1960s, the book is authoritative. The early chapters about the pre-history of the film production in question offer valuable insights into the influence of neo-realism on European post-war cinema, and the importance of concepts of Bazinian realism on the French New Wave specifically. Halligan is confident in his sifting of the canon, and when advocating the importance of ‘orphan films’ lost to censorship, limited exhibition, or simply difficult or dry content. Bernardo Bertolucci and Philippe Garrel are given as examples of filmmakers of the era who tacitly disowned films made in the late 1960s, only to revisit their subjects with a large dose of nostalgia in the twenty-first century. The quality of the film analysis throughout is excellent. But the book is much harder work when it comes to written style, where the commitment to dense theoretical models and to extensive footnotes that read as self-contained essays (Chapter 4 has twenty pages of small-print notes, and some individual notes are a page or more in length) alienates the willing reader every bit as much as some of the more obscure late modernist films that Halligan discusses. Key terms, such as those in the book’s title, would have benefited from being more carefully elaborated at the outset, thereby enabling the curious (or student) reader to feel as confident as experienced academic specialists in assessing the history, scope, and conclusions of the book.