The following is largely about Hollywood in the late 60s. Obviously I would’ve liked to be more inclusive, and there was so much more happening around the globe, but most of what I read and researched for this year was Hollywood-centric. My observations in the What I’ll Remember post cover a lot more geographic territory. And my Top Ten write-ups will feature films from Japan, Spain, Britain, and Italy.
American cinema was embarking on a self-reflexive era. For indisputable proof, look no further than Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which aims to reflect the seismic social and political upheaval of late 1960s America. A loose tapestry of documentary and fiction (documentary and fiction walk past each other in the above photo), the film employs cinema verite techniques to position us in the eye of the storm. It openly speculates on the camera’s function. What is the inherent power of the images that artists and journalists choose to use? What is their responsibility in using those images? What should film do? Who should film represent? Because it turns out we can’t trust “them” to speak for us; we must speak for ourselves. Hollywood had, until this point, a history of reflecting its values through romanticized fantasies of glamour or conformity. Now, the question and the quest, for producers looking to bank and directors looking to express, had gradually become about authentic reflection. As we will see, this quest would be short-lived. But for a brief time, in the uncertain chaos of the very late 1960s and very early 1970s, “’different’ had become a genre” (Mordden, 155).
The candid recognizability of the images onscreen were still relatively new to audiences. Slowly but surely, they were beginning to see characters question and defy their place within social, sexual, and political norms; not on studio lots, but out there, in the US of A. It was as divergent and turbulent a time as there ever has been in American history. Authority had become openly suspect. Sudden acts of violence and countless flash cuts mirrored the times, where assassinations, riots, and Vietnam, had birthed widespread disillusionment. Movements and activism of all kinds were everywhere, from Civil Rights to campus and anti-war protests, to second wave feminism and environmentalism. It was during this period, between 1967 and 1971 (but most unmistakably from 1969-1970), that the main impetus of American filmmaking could be found in a genre-free ennui, a search for the real (but still white) America in countercultural youth and aimless adults. Film was no longer seen as “normative above all”, but as “an agent of transformation…defiant of the ruling interests” (Mordden, 241). Cinema is always behind the present. For Hollywood, this goes double. It had long been clear that spectacle and escapism, at least the kinds they’d been making, had temporarily reached their expiration dates. Audiences were now clamoring to look inward. The industry was in dire straits, its very survival dependent on catching up with the revolution and connecting with the now-dominant youth demographic. And in 1969, this key transitional year, before the counterculture burns out and evolves into something less trippy and more hopeless, they kind of do.
It’s difficult to grasp the cultural and financial shift that took place in Hollywood during the sixties (for an idea of what was happening in the movies, try tracking Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, or Natalie Wood). Hollywood was at the bottom of the pack in pinpointing what was cool and modern. World cinema, if you’ll excuse the blanket term, was coming off of, but not cooling off from, a “furious springtime” (as described by Cahiers du Cinema in 1967), well-entrenched in a myriad of trends, waves, innovations, transgressions, and modish cultural impact. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there were more moviegoing options, more regular exposure to international imports and independent productions (I Am Curious (Yellow) and Z are the 11th and 13th highest grossing film of 1969). The Bonds, the Blowups, the Beatles. That is where it was at. And besides, the myths and legends of the sixties were primarily borne from music, not film. Music accounted for the tastemakers, the time markers, the dignitaries.
Younger generations both escapist and rebellious were fueled by drugs, free love, music, and anti-establishment philosophies. But the energy of the free love lifestyle was already starting to exhibit the slightest signs of waning. Brains would soon be fried from psychotropic tripping, and it turns out the sexual revolution carried with it all the hypocrisies, misogyny, and manipulations of “the system”, just under the guise of liberated ideology. The pervasive bloodshed and destruction of the era had been injected into hippiedom and the entertainment sphere with Charles Manson and Altamont. These happened far too late in the year to be reflected in film. But on top of all the killing that came before, and the barrage of icons about to drop drop dead and form the ’27 club’, the comedown had begun.
Meanwhile, Hollywood was consumed with dragging itself out of an inherited recession. Hard lessons with no solutions were passed down from the outdated Old Guard to the outdated New Guard. It had been a decade of declining audiences (attendance was down 40% from already the meek 1965 turnout), annual losses, conglomerate buyouts, and the abysmal failure of an all-in strategy of overinvesting in bloated epics and roadshow musicals. Industry-wide unemployment ran as high as 80% and almost every studio was posting significant annual losses. The new owner of MGM even went so far as slashing their staff in half and auctioning off countless priceless ephemera from movie history in the hopes of making up for a 1969 loss of $35 million. The way of the future pointed towards two new objectives; first, realign focus to distribution and finance, allowing independent producers to be contracted. International co-productions were now common, and it was increasingly hard to say which country some films called home. Second, to capitalize on the oversaturated industry buzzword of the time, the phrase on everybody’s lips: “the youth market”.
The new studio heads were desperate. Jack Valenti had recently reported that 65% of audiences were under 24 (Ramaeker). In the 1960s there was growing awareness that ‘The Audience’ was a multifaceted and influential entity. And the colossal hits of Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate signaled a sense of the “now”, films defined by anti-establishment or existential ethos, and a provocative point-of-view. Sure, some old-fashioned films were still making bank, but their bloated budgets meant that even hits were often still losses. And winners like The Love Bug and Oliver!, assessment of quality aside, didn’t exactly electrify the atmosphere.
It was time to ditch the mega-productions and invest in small and personal films shot on-location. Only 16 of the 72 films in production by major studios in 1969 were shot on sound stages (Ramaeker). These new films would be entrusted to up-and-coming directors, or auteurs du jour; those who could bring a more authentic voice and intimate vision to the screen. Dennis Hopper. Paul Mazursky. Frank Perry. Michael Ritchie. Francis Ford Coppola. Arthur Penn. Haskell Wexler. Break through the divide by letting the storytellers shape and tell the stories. Invest in promising filmmakers interested in working within conventional moviemaking yet also looking to disrupt, rebel, defy, and challenge authority. Remarking on this strategy, Orson Welles observed that Hollywood “needs youthful hands to guide her. The trust is rather touching, slightly ridiculous, and very hopeful for the future of American movies” (Welles). The timing of this worked particularly well because most of the major censorship battles had been fought in the 1950s and 1960s. After a decade of films both stateside (The Pawnbroker, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and beyond (Blowup, Victim, countless others) challenging censors, there was a much freer range of the kinds of stories that could be told and the kind of content that could be shown. A fascinating paradox was taking hold. As Hollywood became folded into the larger corporate food chain, the industry itself adopted a much smaller and altered focus. In short, Hollywood was being run by syndicates and hippies.
By 1969, Hollywood is at its starkest cross-section of the past and present. Going from film to film can cause whiplash, yet it all feels so distinct you could never mistake it for any other year. It’s as if the remnants of old and new are but particles in the air, thrumming with a strange kinetic dullness often at odds with itself, about to realign in some still-forbidden form. This old-new concoction often presents itself in quaint and awkward ways. LSD pictures are populated with aged stars like Jackie Gleason, Lana Turner, and Groucho Marx. Overblown productions still linger as ‘No Name City’ is entirely constructed to adapt a stodgy musical, refurnished with polygamy and hip stars (Paint Your Wagon). Hippies are to Cactus Flower what beatniks are to Bell, Book and Candle: harmless and amusing caricatures. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie looks and feels old-fashioned but is actually about the dangers of romanticizing. Bob Fosse throws everything he can think of at Sweet Charity, but for every spirited stylistic device, it still feels safe for sticking with the musical’s regressive re-imagining of Charity’s line of work. True Grit saw the mythic simplicities of Western iconography still demanding attention. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice advertises open marriages and orgies, but shows that propelling yourself into a progressive lifestyle in order to be “with it” can just force you into another set of constraints. These components of old and new had been detectable before this, (Valley of the Dolls is, more than any film I’ve seen, the example of Hollywood’s inner conflict at the end of this era), but by 1969 the new was starting to win.
Many films during this era broadly fall in categories of Daring or Tame (not also known as Good or Bad). There’s tame: Elvis in his final year of film performances with Charro!, Change of Habit, and The Trouble with Girls. There’s daring: the raw and angry satires of Mr. Freedom and Putney Swope. There’s tame: scandalous yet digestible schlock thrillers and Grande Guignol leftovers Eye of the Cat, The Mad Room, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting. There’s daring: the oppressive hopelessness and monstrosities of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Damned. There’s tame: the tedious teeny-bopper boredom of Hello Down There and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
The seeds of the hypermasculine cinema “that would dominate the indefinite future” were also being planted during these years (Kennedy, 125). The most meaningful romances and bonds were now between men. Joe and Ratso in Midnight Cowboy. Butch and Cassidy. Wyatt and Billy. Enter the listless and/or bastard hero, and examinations of “the masculine arts of war, crime, and meditations on violence” (Kennedy). The Wild Bunch would shock with its barbarism and allegorical use of vicious violence. Model Shop saw Gary Lockwood cruise around Los Angeles, completely adrift as a man of his time. The list goes on. The women’s picture, long essential in previous decades, had been largely phased out. There are certainly plenty of exceptions of men, and women, making female-centric films in the New Hollywood. 1969 has Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People, with Shirley Knight speaking directly to dissatisfied married women everywhere when she abruptly abandons her life, explaining to her husband on the phone “I used to wake up in the morning and it was my day, and now it….it belongs to you”. But notably, the year accurately foreshadows a decade of emphatically male disillusionment. Not unlike the protagonists of Britain’s relatively recent kitchen-sink dramas, the cruelty and callousness of men was used to signal challenging character psychologies and insights into the human condition.
Cruelty was becoming its own language, for both characters and creators, everywhere. A girl is bullied and ultimately raped in the woods by her peers in Last Summer. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? shows the impoverished as sideshow entertainment during the Depression. A hedonistic Aryan beauty ascends to power by forcing himself, and suicide, on his mother in The Damned. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service leaves Bond in a rare pitiless place of sudden loss. In Boy, a young son is visible to the adult figures in his life only when they need him to risk everything, so they can con and dupe. The kestrel that has given young Billy purpose and connection is unceremoniously killed and dumped in the trash in Kes. Carroll Baker, the main character of Paranoia, is heartlessly tossed off a ledge as if she were the trash. A maniacal cremator systematically slaughters his family in the name of his new love; Nazism (The Cremator). In documentaries, marriage and the law are shown as unsafe structures as a couple play at misery and passive-aggression in A Married Couple, and police have so little shame they openly assault and brutalize people of color in Law and Order in the known presence of a camera. Gang-rape, suicide, and murder populates the high-rise agony of Go-go Second Time Virgin. A captive and captor amputate themselves to death in order to feel something, anything, in Blind Beast.
Characterization had started to take the form of unknowable-as-depth. Robert Redford in Downhill Racer (and his other Michael Ritchie collaboration, The Candidate) is uncharacteristically cold, but this unreachability often registers as female. Shirley Knight in The Rain People. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love. Sandy Dennis in That Cold Day in the Park. Catherine Deneuve in Mississippi Mermaid. Dominique Sanda in Une femme douce. The post-Belle de Jour remove of bourgeois forbidden desire is represented by Haydée Politoff in Check to the Queen. We are made to be at once closer and farther from characters. Closer because there is heightened interest in weaving character subjectivity into the very fabric of a film. Farther because in trying to grapple with human complexity or the senselessness of the times, characters are often made into ciphers who challenge our ingrained sense of straightforward character motivations. In Check to the Queen we often get lost in Politoff’s S&M fantasies, drifting with her to the recesses of her mind. We’re closer. But she is blank, impossible to read from the outside, and a puzzle to us and those around her. We’re farther.
Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, unchecked and in plain sight, the B-movie was revolutionizing moviemaking. It had long been a second feature and staple of the children’s matinee until the early 60s when maverick filmmakers started mining its potential for low-risk experimentation. Young upstarts using bare bones resources, and mind-expanding drugs, learned and honed their craft, and other adjacent creative facets, simply by going in and getting their hands dirty. These films were “nonconformist thus virtuous” and possessed a vitality regardless of their wide range of quality (Mordden). During the 1960s, low-rent genre fare had a relatable sleaze that you couldn’t, and weren’t, seeing elsewhere. It was relatable because it dared to exist. And in this time, in this medium, recognizable is revolutionary. It is here you find Jack Hill’s Pit Stop. A film with admittedly grander aspirations than the average b-film, it is the existentialist picture of 1969. Made for very little, and under the skids and screeches of a racing film (pair it with Speed Racer for something opposite in tone but similar in theme), a greaser loner careens through Figure-8 tracks while in danger of losing himself to ambition, the racetrack, and capitalism. It’s thrilling and intimate, inarguably on-the-level, and fucking cool. For every Pit Stop, there are ten The Babysitter’s, a sleazy exploitation film about a nymphomaniac babysitter with motorcycle gangs, blackmail, lesbians, nude go-go dancing, garage bands, and suggestive taco-eating. But even a cheapie like The Babysitter is alive and inventive. Tasteless, yes. But also, a lot of fun.
America was getting used to the salacious. Between the B-movie and the 1,000-plus arthouse cinemas across the country, sex had become a semi-fixture of controversy. The need for guideposts was unmistakable when in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America implemented the rating system. And thus, the X-rating, the mark of smut, was born. Court rulings over the years had opened the door for “nudie cuties” and “roughies”, and by this time, sexploitation was here to stay. Abroad, sadomasochism was becoming a taboo of choice for titillation and exploration. Radley Metzger (with his Audubon Films production company), Russ Meyer, Jess Franco and the like, were thriving. Softcore tropes, like bodies and faces passively and awkwardly rubbing up against each other, groovy tunes, and casual sex-less nudity, would give way to the more explicit pornography boom of the 1970s. But for now, sex is graphic because it’s casual and somewhat newly capable of being the very reason a film exists. More critically, “it’s when the commercial start to authenticate the breaking of taboos then you know the times are changing”, and that is exactly what was happening in 1969 (Mordden, 44). Perhaps this is why the sudden cut to Pamela Franklin’s breasts, in an extended scene in broad daylight, as she poses nude for her teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie feels more sexually transgressive than anything I watched from 1969 (save Women in Love’s primal openness). After all, “the controversial films are controversial because they are not trash”; they are “cultural touchstones in the making, a hint of the future, where things are going” (Mordden).
Before addressing the new look and various techniques of the Hollywood film, let me talk a little bit about two types of film elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ deserves way more attention than I can give it here. It’s admittedly much easier to focus on American cinema because it is in such a critical fascinating moment during this time.
“The Continental Op” film: In 2012 Tim Lucas, co-founder of the recently deceased Video Watchdog, coined this issue 168. He is, to my knowledge, the only one to bring together, define, and consider these films as a collective group. In watching films from the mid 1960s to early 1970s, you may encounter one overtaken by abstract or highly stylized retro-futuristic production & costume design, encapsulating the era’s various modes of pop art, mod, camp, kitsch, and psychedelia. A film that “belong to the past yet looks forward to a future that never happened”, that seems “poised on the very cusp of insanity – but a fine madness” (Lucas, 17, 18). This is the “Continental Op” film. These garish artificial trappings were rarely present stateside (1965’s The 10th Victim is a rare example). It was too conceptual, too aesthetically cartoonish, and the total opposite of the realism American cinema was striving for. This was exclusive and unattainable hyper-mod. In Camille 2000, characters fuck and lounge on inflatable furniture and have a high-concept prison party orgy filled with gold foil interiors and themed attire to match. A pop-art fashion line and boutique in London called “Mr. Freedom” was inspired by William Klein’s anti-war superhero satire. Femina Ridens features a reproduction of Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Hon-en katedral”, used for deliciously blunt metaphor. Check to the Queen showcases stars Haydée Politoff and Rosanna Schiaffino in dozens of costumes, each more opulent or wacky than the next. The Continental Op is one of my new favorite subgenres. It’s an approach that could, and did, crop up anywhere, from giallo to sexploitation to comedy to spy capers, linked across the globe by their geometric abstractions, turning poor taste into chic irony, and the near-guarantee of boobs and kitsch. This was en vogue surface-as-purpose. Dive into a world that is extravagant and indulgent, with haute couture that characters don as if they were prêt-à-porter. While tricky to define and link, and with many films of the time that fit this in spirit but only in spirit, there is immediate recognition when watching one. They have the best music, the best fashion, the best women, the best production design. They are moving pop art, films that construct their identities by committing to the kind of in-camera pizzazz that no longer exists.
During this time, Japan possessed the world’s wildest cinema. By 1969, they are far into a unique and radical New Wave. The sixties saw modern Japanese filmmakers moving up in the studios in the 1960s, breaking free and rejecting austerity and convention for heavily political or stylistic postwar tales, collectively tackling taboos with brazen abandon. Color filters and film stock shifts were common. There is a focus on scavengers and fringe members of society. Disquieting sexual and violent content were par for the course. These films could be deliberately hostile or aggressive in their mix of visual anarchy and politics. Anything could, and should, be possible. Funeral Parade of Roses demonstrates this boundless energy best, using ellipses as a throughline to reinvent itself every minute, employing farce, horror, and avant-garde techniques in its depiction of Tokyo’s gay underground from the inside looking out. Other key Japanese New Wave films from 1969 include Boy, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Go-go second time virgin, Eros Plus Massacre, Double Suicide, and Aido: Slave of Love.
Between the low-budget freedom of the B-movie, and directors like Arthur Penn (particularly with Mickey One), Richard Lester (particularly with his American feature Petulia), and Mike Nichols popularizing and adopting various art cinema techniques throughout the 1960s, the rulebook on American movie aesthetics was gradually being rewritten. Counterculture ennui and the transcendence of drug use were being fused with an elusiveness. Film had started to feel and look different. I like to think of this era (1967-1971) as a demo run of New Hollywood’s final form. Taut running times and conventional pacing are upended. Now films would float and glide, meander and explore (see: Model Shop). They hang out. Scenes often end abruptly. Fantasy and reality are blurred. Flashbacks have no visual coding; they are now imperceptible unpunctuated flashes. New trends of all kinds are becoming standardized, many already established elsewhere, include “subjective realism, documentaristic camerawork, discontinuous editing, abstract stylistic effects, restricted and elliptical narration, and depth of narration” (Ramaeker). This dogged effort for realism is often achieved with French New Wave devices that call attention to form. For most of these young filmmakers, realism meant scrapping the invisible edit. Endings are often unresolved or downtrodden.
Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement is a key text of 1969. Kazan, adapting his own novel about an ad-exec having a mid-life crisis, tries to stay up-to-date by cluttering his film with stubbornly mercurial editing patterns & an incoherent mish-mash between past and present, reality and fantasy. The Arrangement is one of these more common “digressive narratives built around goal-less characters” about people who feel alienated by society, or their successes or failures; people in defiance of authority, looking for meaning and identity (Ramaeker). It can read, within The Arrangement and beyond, as alternately invigorating and trying.
Images were just beginning to look soft and grainy, the aesthetic of 1970s cinema; a New Look for the Real America. Cinematographic trends developing around this time include hand-held camerawork, the ever-present zoom, long lensing, desaturation, fewer lights, illusions of “natural” lighting, and chemical film stock processes as “pushing” and “flashing”. The Kodak 5254 was introduced in 1968, proving critical for location shooting because it allowed for a reduction in lighting equipment.
The counterculture art film was having its short-lived heyday. Little did Hollywood, or these young auteurs, know that a few rebellious hits did not a trend make. Some were already calling bullshit on this trend. A Newsweek piece “quoted Dustin Hoffman, Arthur Penn, and Alan Pakula to the effect that studio-produced counterculture movies often coddled the young and their fantasies, simply substituting new myths for old” (Ramaeker, 110). Audiences wouldn’t be interested for long either. These largely forgotten films would prove too elusive, too similar, too formless. Audiences needed genre. They needed structure. A hook besides a reflection of the times they lived in. Andy Warhol said it best with “Too much sixties and not enough story”. Easy Rider ended up being to the counterculture film what Broadway Melody of 1929 was to the revue film of the early talkie era. Every studio gave rush greenlights to multiple counterculture art films. But within a couple of years many of these youth-oriented, or campus revolution, projects would be cancelled. In 1972, Variety accused Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant of spawning 23 flops. It was actually the unknowingly prescient Bonnie & Clyde that best reflected the next decade of American filmmaking, and the main momentum of the coming Hollywood Renaissance: the art-genre film. These were films that synthesized commercial genres (gangster, musical, noir, etc) with the subjective and aesthetic tools and lax censorship influenced by European cinema, and established in American cinema, during roughly 1967-1971. But in this uncertain and charged period of reinvention, “different” was the genre. Characters were out there on the land and on the streets, finding themselves. We followed as they danced, fucked, hallucinated, and failed. Soon it wouldn’t be enough, but for the time being, new was the now.
- Mordden, Ethan. Medium cool: the movies of the 1960s. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
- Kennedy, Matthew. Roadshow! the fall of film musicals in the 1960s . New York, Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Ramaeker, Paul Burkhart. A new kind of movie : style and form in Hollywood cinema 1965-1988. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2002.
- Welles, Orson. “But Where Are We Going?.” Look, November 3, 1970.
- Lucas, Tim. “Continental Op”. Video Watchdog, No. 168, May/June 2012