Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French anarchist and arguably one of the most prominent public speakers to emerge during the Paris students movement of May 1968, becomes a strange locus for many of the ideas that make up João Moreira Salles’ IN THE INTENSE NOW, shown in Panorama Dokumente. Cohn-Bendit himself always stressed that the movement’s strength was in its spontaneous forward-motion, driven by an engine of widespread anger and idealism and containing no ordained vision for a future society. In one scene, taken from a contemporary television broadcast in which his charisma hijacked the ostensible agenda of the discussion, Cohn-Bendit berates his conservative counterpart for suggesting that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was carried out with a specific idea of a new society in mind.
But it would be misguided to call Cohn-Bendit the movie’s protagonist, just as it would to focus too much attention on his role in the context of the May ‘68 national strike. Both the film, about the plurality of revolutionary movements in 1968 around the world, and the historical student-worker coalition are and were defined by their lack of a recognisable centre. João Moreira Salles carefully suggests affinities and contrasts between the libertarian character of the aborted French revolution and the successful authoritarian revolution of China inadvertently documented by his mother in home movies on a business trip.
It’s a productive pairing, one well-suited to Salles’ calm style of historical overview. Other than those rescued from his mother’s own personal archive, this film consists entirely of historical broadcast or cinema images. But he uses the images with precision: a clip of Charles de Gaulle addressing the Republic is therefore, in Salles’ conception of things, not only a piece of historically enlightening material, or something useful structurally, but a portrait of gesture and performance, and the catalyst for a study of the role they play in captivating an audience.
Ultimately, the key conflict in Salles’ movie is between television spectres: between de Gaulle’s on-screen fatigue and Cohn-Bendit’s on-screen vitality. Along with the China footage, this pictorial face-off is at the heart of Salles’ interest in the mysterious inner life – political and otherwise – of filmed images.