What Was Film?
n October of 1967, Pauline Kael contributed an article to The New Yorker (she would become the full-time film critic there in 1968) in defense of a gangster movie she had enjoyed, but which almost nobody else had seen. Released in a small number of theaters in August, the film had received a bad review in the Times, where critic Bosley Crowther called it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’” The film’s director had a few films under his belt, but the young female lead was entirely unknown, and the male lead, though good-looking, was generally considered a bit wooden as an actor. By the time Kael sat down to write, the studio was preparing to end the film’s limited theatrical run and accept that it was a critical and commercial failure. “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” Kael asked in the article’s opening line. “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” She was writing about Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the work within it of the film’s stars, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
On the other kind of screen Americans watched—they called it the “small screen” back then, before those screens, too, started taking up entire walls—there was a new hit television show that was a bit of an odd project, at least for network television: the show cashed in on current pop music fashions while simultaneously satirizing them. Talented songwriters were hired to write songs for a television show about a band whose members (in the beginning, at least) couldn’t actually play the songs—they were young men who didn’t know each other, but had answered an ad in the newspaper. Shows were filmed and records were recorded and released anyway, and sold like hotcakes—for two years, the group outsold The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The actors worked to learn their instruments so they could go on the road and do concerts—real concerts, at which young people did scream with earnest joy, despite the fact that the show’s creators understood the show primarily as a media experiment, when it wasn’t just silly. The show and the band became an American teen-dream pop culture bubblegum phenomenon, money rolled in, and it became apparent that Bob Rafelson had annihilated the last vestiges of a line that had already become pretty thin (The Beatles had been erasing it from the opposite direction), leaving two equally unsatisfactory answers to the question of whether this group was a real or a fake band: the Monkees were both, and neither.
What was more important was that the Monkees—tv show or recording artists, real or fake—were a hit, and the project’s success convinced Columbia to give the Monkees’ co-creators, Rafelson and his friend Bert Schneider, a generous motion-picture development deal. A joke can only last so long, though—especially when a large swath of the audience isn’t in on it—and when Rafelson was asked to deliver a movie about the Monkees, nobody involved wanted to keep sounding the same note. Rafelson decided he could benefit from the help of someone who shared his oppositional-defiant orientation toward increasingly media-controlled mainstream American life. He knew a young actor who was thinking about giving up acting—he was tired of being cast in cheap motorcycle movies—and concentrating instead on directing and screenwriting, so Rafelson invited this actor/screenwriter/aspiring-director to hole up with him in an office over a weekend and consume whatever substances they felt it was necessary to consume in order to write a movie about the Monkees.
The result was the burn-it-to-the-ground meta-movie Head, which is not about the Monkees so much as it is about how ridiculous it is to pretend there is a thing called the Monkees, and that this thing might conceivably be dropped into any recognizable American movie genre. The movie was (deliberately) so surreal and angry that there was no possibility of it actually appealing to the Monkees’ actual fan base, so Columbia decided not to include the Monkees in the marketing materials for the film about the Monkees. The result was that only a handful of people—Rafelson says it may have been fifteen, counting his parents—showed up to the premiere. Rafelson had escaped the Monkees by torching the concept, though, and you can see both Rafelson and his co-writer in Head’s diner scene, which devolves into chaos as Peter Tork argues with Rafelson about whether it was okay for Tork to punch a transvestite waitress. Rafelson is the man in sunglasses telling Tork that it’s fine, really, and could he please move to the next set? His co-writer is the man who walks up and joins the argument for a moment, and whose presence causes viewers unfamiliar with the film’s backstory to blurt some variation of “Wait—is that Jack Nicholson?”
arren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were not alone in inaugurating the brief and—if you’re into downbeat personal films, conspiracy-theory stories that dissolve in existential confusion, or drug-fueled road- or head-trips—beautiful period of American filmmaking that came to be known as “New Hollywood.” The name is at once a reference to a generational changing-of-the-guard and a riff on the films of the French “New Wave” that inspired so many of Hollywood’s young writers, actors, and filmmakers. Like the once-common parlor game of sorting people based on whether they preferred The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, one could probably sort most New Hollywood titles on whether they operate in the mode of Godard/Breathless or of Truffaut/The 400 Blows. Though the canonical story of the New Hollywood suggests it begins with Kael’s defense of Bonnie and Clyde and the movie’s subsequent storm of America’s movie-houses and box office (it grossed over $50 million in the U.S. alone), there were certainly other portents of the shift. Midnight Cowboy pounded the last nail into the coffin of the Motion Picture Production Code by accepting its X rating and winning the Oscar for best picture anyway. The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock slept with a mother and then her daughter—and was celebrated for doing so—decades before anyone coined the regrettable terms “cougar” or “MILF.” The Wild Bunch was more violent than Bonnie and Clyde, and one would never suggest that Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was made under the influence of fewer drugs than was Head. And Easy Rider, at least, was seen—it cost less than a million dollars to make, and pulled in roughly $100 million.
And the numbers are important—it bears repeating that these were studio pictures. Unlike bands who could survive by playing gigs primarily in their own cities (or, in the case of bands from New Jersey, possibly even only weddings) or writers building a regional reputation (a “Southern writer,” for instance, or the dreaded “writer of the Pacific Northwest”), the American film industry had no viable second- or third-tier distribution or exhibition system: you were national or you were nothing. Men like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, then—wait, that is nonsense, there are no men like Beatty and Nicholson, they are peerless—possessed a unique concatenation of charm, guile, talent, looks, passion, and ambition that made them the perfect match for an industry in which the capital was badly confused. By the mid-1960s, the vocabulary and attitudes—if not the lifestyle—of 50s Beat culture had spread from the coasts to middle-America; a young novelist named John Updike had written a novel in which a disaffected former high school basketball star shacks up with a prostitute across town rather than stay with his pregnant wife, and the novel was considered good; and as if Elvis Presley’s gyrating hadn’t been enough, when The Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan with outrageous haircuts, the nation’s girls screamed and fainted. The energies being released by these and other cultural moments were coalescing into something increasingly referred to not as culture, but as “counterculture,” as if there were some kind of dark, second energy in the country whose goal was nothing more than negating standard American values.
Blind to the tumult going on around them, however, Hollywood’s aging studio owners continued to offer the public only small variations on what had worked before. In 1967, 20th Century Fox spent $18 million making the happy kid-picture Doctor Dolittle. It made only $9 million, the studio lost a $4.5 million lawsuit to a rejected screenwriter whose plot point had been used in the film, and the whole disaster nearly bankrupted the studio. After Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar before acid-dropping frolickers at Woodstock, the traditional sunny Hollywood musical also appeared a bit square. My Fair Lady cost $17 million and grossed $72 million in 1964, The Sound of Music cost $11 million and grossed $286 million in 1965 and ’66, but in 1969, Hello, Dolly! cost $25 million and pulled in…$33 million. That’s a profit—technically—but not enough, and critics and the audience joined the studio in being fairly disappointed.
It began to look like the old genres—those dependable templates that simply needed to be filled out with slight variation from year to year—were dead. The aging studio owners had no idea what kind of movies young people wanted to see, and dismal box office returns were proving this to them. “The Monkees” tv show and records were a hit, Bonnie and Clyde was a hit, and Easy Rider—a film Rafelson’s production company had delivered, but which was so embarrassingly sloppy that it was obvious everyone on set had been on drugs—had just pulled in $100 million. It appeared there was a generation of Americans who wanted something entirely different, but the studios had no idea what that was. These young people, though—Penn and Beatty, Rafelson and Nicholson—seemed to know.
hat happened next was that American theaters were witness to the most extended and radical European-inflected or New York-based attack on the glitzy Southern California Hollywood aesthetic ever seen, and it was funded by Hollywood. Hal Ashby tickled audiences with a teen who played suicide games before sleeping with a (doomed) grandmother in Harold and Maude; Nicholas Roeg doomed Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie to a gothic Venetian time loop in Don’t Look Now; Alan J. Pakula matched a (doomed?) Asperger’s-ish Sutherland with a (doomed?) icy call-girl Jane Fonda, threw in a killer, and called it Klute; Peter Yates made Robert Mitchum sad and deluded (and doomed) in The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Sidney Lumet stole the young star of The Godfather and had him portray first the (doomed) counterculture costume-artist cop in Serpico and then the sexually-tormented (and doomed) bank robber Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon; and Robert Altman had Elliot Gould mutter nearly incoherently throughout the arch adaptation of Raymond Chandler that was The Long Goodbye. Gould’s Marlow is not quite doomed, probably because he was able to shrug off the insanity surrounding him, on account of it was okay with him.
That’s just a small sample of the films that came flying out of Hollywood in these years, and a sample that doesn’t even consider Beatty and Nicholson’s highlights—and within the New Hollywood movement generally, Beatty and Nicholson both went on runs of particular daring and achievement. Beatty followed Bonnie and Clyde with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (dir Altman), The Parallax View (the Pakula conspiracy film par excellence, which has been lifted from over and over and whose power is only accentuated by the fact that as of this writing, it is somehow not available for purchase on DVD—and I am writing this in 2012), and then Shampoo (dir Ashby). And these are of course the years that made Jack Nicholson Jack Nicholson—he’s the best part of Easy Rider, then turns out Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson), Carnal Knowledge (Nichols), directs Drive, He Said, acts in The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson again), The Last Detail (Ashby), Chinatown (Roman Polanski), The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni), Tommy (Ken Russell), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman).
Hal Ashby, Otis Young, and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Last Detail.
And that is still a small sample of what was going on. The Godfather ran in some theaters for over a year—there was no reason a fan of that or any other film might not go back and see it a second, third, or fourth time. The power of scarcity was still an operant and central component of the act of moviegoing during these years. Before the advent of home video or cable television, once a film left the theaters, there was no reason for a fan to feel any particular guarantee that he or she would ever see it again. Audiences could buy the soundtrack album to Mary Poppins and relive the film, to a certain degree, by putting the LP on their turntables. They could not, however, buy a soundtrack album of Jack Nicholson cursing his way through The Last Detail. (This may account for the way in which the decline of people doing impressions of their favorite movie stars is suspiciously correlated with the rise of home video. The only things digital in the late 1960s and early 1970s were calculators; the only things available on-demand were pizza, Chinese food, and, if you were lucky, the police. Average citizens may have entertained each other so often with their impressions of Bogart, Brando, or Jack partly because that was the only way they were going to get to hear Bogart, Brando, or Jack that day. But no one does impressions in the office or at dinner parties anymore—we play YouTube clips on our phones.) Filmmakers with sensibilities firmly beyond the scope of commercial viability were given the opportunity to direct features anyway. Henry Jaglom, Monte Hellman, and Barbara Loden received budgets and directed films that entirely subverted Hollywood and audience expectations. Altman got so weird in Three Women that no one had any idea what Shelley Duvall was doing or why. Terence Malick launched himself with the flattened-affect film Badlands, and even something as ostensibly popcorn-friendly as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was sexually confusing, because who is with whom, or are all three of them together, or what? What is going on?
t’s difficult not to look back at the era sentimentally, and to thereby imbue it with more aesthetic virtue than it may have possessed. (Anyone seeking correction regarding the level of virtue in Los Angeles in these years need look no further than Peter Biskind’s gossipy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for evidence that, regardless of the filmic virtues they may have possessed, the era’s players maintained equal enthusiasm for their vices.) It’s crucial to keep in mind that the holders of capital, though they agreed to fund all of these further attempts at spinning the Bonnie and Clyde energy into golden box office receipts, did not turn over their position as the holders of capital. With a few exceptions, these were not independent films—they were, in fact, highly dependent films. A significant layout of cash was required, for instance, for Robert Altman to go up into the mountains in British Columbia and build, by hand, the small town that would serve as the set for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. These filmmakers may have been inspired by Breathless, but they certainly weren’t using wheelchairs for a dolly like Godard did. So it’s not surprising that when studio executives saw footage of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and it looked like fogged film of the cast wearing expensive costumes while mumbling and stumbling through soft-focus rain and mud, they were less than excited.
The story of the first half of the New Hollywood, then, is that of the unleashing of tremendous creative energy that resulted in fantastic films, but with no changes in ownership of the means of production. In other words, it was great, but on someone else’s dime. Studios are famously agnostic about aesthetic achievement. It’s fine if a film is profitable while also being good, but only one of those things is absolutely necessary. Many of the early New Hollywood films may have been supremely human, but there were a couple films on the horizon—one was about to come out, and the other would soon be dreamed up—that were going to be mechanical, and were going to destroy box office records. And though Beatty and Nicholson—and many of the other New Hollywood filmmakers—may have been talented and beautiful, they were not mechanical. That was going to be a problem.
Dan DeWeese’s story collection, Disorder, was published this fall. This article is part one of two, both of which are a part of Propeller’s ongoing "What was film?" series.