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The Sixties in the Cinema
Not Nature's Way
Referring to the Beatle's song, a handful of films being made in Italy as well as in the United States, are, in general, saying the same thing: something's wrong. 20-20 hindsight proves that they were on a justifiable path. But these were not documentaries. They were highly personal works involving characters, situations, and all the artistic endeavors that feed into the movies such as music, choreography, and cinematography. It is hard to go back in time. In fact, the foreign movies I am thinking of were much too over my head when they were released. European narratives are not made specifically for U.S. audiences. The way they are shot can irritate them. But Europeans are nonplussed. Were their directors confronted, they might, in reply, simply shrug their shoulders. Americans, then as now, are more fearful: will the audience get it? What if, God forbid, they don't? Word of mouth will kill them! Nobody will buy tickets! By now, from 1960-1970, even Hollywood has graduated from film noir and easily ends movies without a kiss and fade. But they are still missed -- those happy endings. The audiences of the Sixties are not so very different from those of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. First and foremost on their minds is the question, everything is going to be all right, isn't it? If it isn't, then all they ask is that they will be able to cope. That is to say, since they are half in, half out of the movie, as it were, they have questions. Today, maybe, we wonder, were the movie a flawless reflection of reality, if we would survive.
Siegfried Kracauer 1889-1966
The sense that films matter has not always been the case. But the potency of the medium is beyond dispute. If a madman controlled the cinema, s/he could produce a spate of movies involving nuclear bombs such that, after a while, a large segment of the population would want them launched so badly no opposition leader could talk them out of it. But this was not what was happening in the Sixties. Then, the same overarching theme, perfected in the 1930s, of a beautiful future to look forward to, still obtains. Certain breakdowns, however, no longer escape attention. Also, the idea of infinite progress, so dear to our hearts, comes under scrutiny. Unfortunately, the films in which these themes were highlighted are not numerous. For the most part, the films of the Sixties are unlike the Fifties before them and the Seventies after, but no blatant, clearcut transition from one type of film into another is apparent. The segues are fairly seamless. How would Fifties audiences have viewed Planet of the Apes (1968)? Or, what would Seventies audiences have made of Spartacus (1960)? I have always been curious about the executives who make the calls. By and large, however, they are correct (in terms of box office). As is their timing.
When I look at the "best" lists, I see timeless classics: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and homages to the Allies in WWII -- Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Great Escape (1963). But there is also Rosemary's Baby (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Valley of the Dolls (1967). These are not the regular stuff. Things are, to a degree, happening, though more off-screen than on. Siegfried Kracauer claimed to have traced the emergence of Hitler, in a famous, sequential study of 20th century German films. But to sample any fifty or a hundred films from the Sixties would probably not give the viewer much sense of what was going to happen a few years hence. Eventually, movies will change. So much so, in fact, that many people will bitterly complain and stay home. It is not that the backroom boys are liberal, extremely leftwing, and graphic. It is more the case that they are smart and know where the money is. Also, the Conservative Revolution had not yet materialized. But the moviemakers will deal with that, too, when it comes.
Rumblings of a world in turmoil, in the process of being metamorphosed, are few and far from dominant. Lists show that the Sixties, almost from beginning to end, were mostly either fun, gritty, or of a serious nature that did not appear to reflect anything too urgent outside the screening room. There are those who like to politicize everything. They will have a hard time with My Fair Lady (1964) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). Easy Rider (1969) is different, expressing an opposing viewpoint. There are also movies that will take one half the way there, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which deals with an unrecognizable Middle East -- in a state of upheaval as always, but not like today. Or, take Dr. Zhivago (1965). It made the viewer yearn for the old Russia, even if all s/he knew was Passaic. It is impossible to sum it all up in a few pithy sentences. The Sixties was quite a hodgepodge. But here and there are movies that spoiled the mandatory thought of what to eat after the final shot. Still, it was easy enough to forget any movie, as so many did and still do, virtually within seconds.
It was not until the Seventies that I came across academics from all sorts of unrelated disciplines who would not let go. It was not music, politics, literature, painting, photography, socio-economics, nor anything else, at least in comparison to films, that was going to force radical changes. Films were popular, mass marketed, highly commercialized vehicles, and, in the final analysis, inscrutable. Nobody really knew what was going on. Films were using images in a darkened, cavernous space. It was Plato's Cave. The unconscious. The unknown. For ninety minutes or so, no one saw reality nor wanted to. Moreover, everyone went to see the same movies, regardless of race, religion, creed, or economic bracket. But the Seventies did not have the raging counter-culture that had been worked into several, Sixty-ish, ivory tower theories. People listened to fusion, talked endlessly about modern art, and saw whatever the cinema had to offer. All in all, the Sixties sputtered out and the Seventies had no slack to take up.
From the Show to the Bowling Alley
The Critics Didn't Do It
Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris come readily to mind. If only their arguments were as far as it went. At some point, not just films, but pop songs and pulp fiction forayed into forbidden territory. The creators themselves were not the problem. There is no way to control any work of art, no matter how classic or cheap. If one hears "kill" over and over on a Beatles record played backwards, and it seeps in somehow, there is no telling what will happen. All the same, none of this is what I am getting at, which is simply that looking back, one should be able to sense from movies alone, given a certain amount or product, the progress or non-progress or a discrete, mini-era. Nonetheless, it is just not the case. The changes are minuscule and mostly technical, such as louder gunfire, fancier camerawork, and (now) dated dress and hairdos. Only occasionally did movies make an impact. There were many other critics as well (Rex Reed, Bosley Crowther, Vincent Canby, J. Hoberman)), mostly from newspapers and journals that are obsolescent in terms of being read regularly by an avid multitude. Some were much bigger than the pair originally mentioned above. They had influence. They had followings. People paid attention. It is just that a certain span of time has vanished during which films, possibly like theatrical plays, really meant a great deal.
In conclusion, however sketchy, with the exception of Easy Rider, and a few others, which stand out amongst the rest, the films of the Sixties reflect upon a country that was essentially going nowhere. Whether fighting in Vietnam or agitating for the ugly war's termination at home, it was all pretty much for naught. There was nothing to gain in a war destined to be lost, or in protests that served nearly the same purposelessness. The North Viet Cong were too tough, numerous, cunning, well-armed, -motivated, and -assisted. They were hardy, stalwart, mono-maniacal anti-Americans -- not unlike what we face today. It did not faze them how many of their uniformed kinsmen were killed in battles. They were unaffected by civilian deaths, too. After the notorious fiasco in Ohio, where flower power went up against the National Guard, it was all too apparent, that despite everything, the Sixties was pure guerrilla theater or American Grand Guignol. Peace signs versus loaded guns -- totally ridiculous.
There was, however, a lot of discussion from the Sixties that the movies did not incorporate into their final products, if for no other reason than that it was not suitable to the common denominator. Today, it would probably be more interesting. Today, ultra-realistic, cutting edge dialogue is more often than not deadly. English is splintering into strange dialects. As I look over the best of the bunch from the Sixties -- Psycho (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Haunting (1963), etc., it seems as if the movies constituted a parallel universe. Today, the situation is almost identical. Movies are a private matter, holding social currency mainly between friends and acquaintances. It is difficult to make sweeping statements about them. Now, movies are downloaded and streamed. They are part of the technological revolution, about which much could be said, both positive and negative. Still, this article makes use of the broad stroke. Break it down, and many tinier topics will reflect as many contrarian views. This is only the expression of an opinion, that from the late Fifties to the early Eighties, there was only a very exciting gap, lull, or paralysis.