“It’s a movie for kids, they’re not going to dig it, man!”
Peter Tork, Head
The story is, by now, familiar. Amidst dwindling cinema attendance and the migration of the mass audience to television, Hollywood’s major motion picture companies began to recalibrate their production and distribution strategies in the late 1960s in an attempt to court the tastes of the elusive and newly-discovered youth audience. Most accounts of this period lionise the figure of the triumphant auteur, and the consistent subversion and revision of generic conventions. However, prior to the consolidation of these critically and (intermittently) commercially successful strategies, a number of altogether stranger films emerged. Between the years 1968 and 1970, Hollywood’s major motion picture companies produced a range of films displaying a formal and thematic adventurousness that far exceeds the ambition of the films now typically identified with the New Hollywood canon, exhibiting an unhinged mode of stylistic maximalism that has never really been matched. These films are dense, stylistically complex, and thematically ambiguous works of satire. In both form and content, the films of this proto-New Hollywood offer a politicised self-critique of American consumer culture and the spectacle of the medium itself, often outstripping the more celebrated narratives of masculine alienation that make up the conventional New Hollywood canon. They are also geographically dispersed works, often set not in Los Angeles but in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, offering pseudo-documentary depictions of these locales, often inadvertently capturing moments of historical significance. To revisit a sample of these prototypical titles is to encounter strange configurations at the outer limits of the American commercial cinema – and films now peripheral to most accounts of the New Hollywood moment.
Conventional accounts tell us that the New Hollywood as we now know it crystallised around Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn) and The Graduate (Mike Nichols) in 1967. The former proved a particularly volatile cultural object, as its contentious depictions of violence engendered heated debate that was typically split along generational lines. While the film represented a long-percolating attempt to bring a European sensibility to American cinema, Penn’s earlier Mickey One (1965) borrowed so heavily from Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) it borders on plagiarism, while its location-based shooting in Detroit and Chicago, and strange appropriation of defamiliarised real-world settings and technologies also closely resembles the contemporaneous Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965).
Penn may have been one of the first Hollywood directors to acknowledge the influence of Godard, but this line would be trotted out with increasing regularity by Hollywood filmmakers throughout the 1970s. Actual evidence of this influence is much more difficult to perceive. For the most part, Godard’s influence on Hollywood seems to have ended at a general loosening of intellectual shackles, while rare attempts at working with Godardian style rarely move beyond what Chris Dumas dubs “decorative frills”.1 In Un-American Psycho, Dumas posits that Brian De Palma was the American filmmaker to most comprehensively employ “thoroughly Godardian” narrative and stylistic techniques, beginning with The Wedding Party, which was shot in 1965.2 The Wedding Party would not be released until 1969, and De Palma continued working not in the Hollywood system, but in an independent capacity in New York. His films of this period like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970) display the kind of formal fragmentation, mixed modalities and pop-cultural pastiche that are pure Godard, but De Palma didn’t make it to Hollywood until relatively late, with Get to Know Your Rabbit in 1972.
De Palma wasn’t the only New Yorker to be making stylistically and thematically radical independent films in the period. Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969) remains one of the most savagely satirical depictions of race relations and the advertising industry. Under the auspices of the studio system, but still on the streets of New York, wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola pre-figured The Graduate with You’re A Big Boy Now (1966), another tale of a young man’s tentative attempts at sexual initiation under the thrall of over-protective parents. Like Mickey One, You’re A Big Boy Now appropriates the French New Wave’s lexical hallmarks of realism, setting much of its action on the streets of New York, shot in handheld, pseudo-documentary style, with lengthy sequences following its characters walking on actual streets and talking. Like many of the titles of this proto-New Hollywood group of films, You’re A Big Boy Now lacks a traditionally coherent narrative structure, instead following a series of episodic, purportedly comedic scenarios in which its protagonist Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) bounces from situation to situation in his obsessive pursuit of sex. Beyond its attempts to capitalise upon the more salacious desires of the youth audience, it also represents the personal vision of its own, 26-year old director, with Coppola directing from his own screenplay – albeit one adapted from David Benedictus’ 1963 novel, much as The Graduate too was adapted from Charles Webb’s novel of the same year.
Richard Schickel, writing in Life magazine, recognised that a significant degree of creative freedom had been afforded to the realisation of Coppola’s personal expression in You’re A Big Boy Now. In its distinctive stylistic outcomes, Schickel acknowledged that the film potentially represented a significant moment for Hollywood, even if he was less than impressed with the final result:
Unfortunately the result of all these good intentions is a movie that is probably eligible for federal relief as a disaster area. This is principally because while everyone was busy turning each other on, no one remembered to ask Mr. Coppola if, in fact, he actually had a personal statement to make or a personal style in which to make it. He does not. His story is a compendium of clichés partially disguised in fancy dress and his style is an anthology of what used to be new among the avant-garde pussycats, tricks and gimmicks that have now been so thoroughly absorbed into film language that you can see them any night on the television commercials.3
What is telling here is Schickel’s identification of “avant-garde… tricks and gimmicks” – the very kind of superficial appropriation that Chris Dumas later critiqued. Schickel demonstrates his exhaustion with the apparent over-familiarity of such techniques a year before the New Hollywood is generally considered to have begun. Such criticisms are a recurring feature of many of Pauline Kael’s criticisms of similar gestures of artistic self-consciousness throughout he period. For instance, she accused 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), of transparently “using ‘artistic techniques’ to give trash the look of art”.4 While both critics recognised “newness” in production and aesthetic practices, they considered such innovations hollow gestures pitched cynically at attracting the fickle attentions of the youth audience. There was no suggestion from either that these films might be the products of an incipient “New” Hollywood. There is a trend here that recurs throughout the criticism of the period: many of the titles that have gone on to become key texts of the New Hollywood were consistently dismissed by critics at the time. The very idiosyncrasies that would go on to be lionised by subsequent generations of critics were often dismissed in the historical moment as gimmicky attempts at “newness”, or mere facsimiles of recent innovations in European art cinema.
Yet the triumphs of 1967 would demonstrate the success of these commercial strategies, if correctly packaged and positioned, and marketed with more vigour than what was applied to Mikey One or You’re A Big Boy Now. The following year heralded two very different dispatches from the countercultural ground zero of San Francisco: Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968) and Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968). Both of these films explore the tension between the complacency of the emergent middle class and the rebellious spirit of the encroaching youth-culture.
Petulia depicts the stateside homecoming of native Philadephian Richard Lester, turning his attention from the youthful anarchy of his two Beatles films – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) – and The Knack… And How to Get It (1965), focusing instead on more domestic affairs. The onscreen presence of rock band The Grateful Dead offers another commercial lure to youth, although one with admittedly less universally beloved appeal than the four Liverpudlians.5 Adapted from John Haase’s novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia (1966), screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus transplants the setting from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This was done, Pauline Kael presumes in her scathing critique of the film, to show “that even the best the country has to offer is rotten.”6 The film follows the halting relationship between George C. Scott’s harried, middle-aged surgeon Archie Bollen, and Julie Christie’s impulsive titular character, as their respectively unhappy marriages fall apart. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg brings his unmistakably sharp visual sensibility to bear upon San Francisco, glimpsed in telephoto through the suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge, or as serried rows of modern houses cresting the contours of the Frisco hills.
Petulia’s visual style is marked by Lester’s delirious rediscovery of the possibilities of cross-cutting, employed to suggest a kind of exploded subjectivity, rather than the kaleidoscopic exteriority of his earlier films. Richard Combs has recently stated that Petulia is often taken as “a watershed in [Lester’s] career, the first time he had taken on fully rounded, three-dimensional characters after the skittering, two-dimensional cartoons of his earlier films.”7 While it is a more character-focused work than Lester’s more madcap earlier work, it remains peppered with rapidly-cut, chronologically asynchronous inserts, often depicting Scott’s character preparing for and performing surgery, and providing flashbacks to Petulia’s inadvertent adoption of a Mexican child at some indeterminate point in the past. The latter set of flashbacks continually revisit moments in Petulia’s relationship with the child, suggesting an involuntary psychological return to a traumatic event. This moment is eventually revealed as the child’s demise, as we see him struck down by a car; one particularly ghoulish repeated shot depicts his legs crushed beneath the car’s tyres. For Pauline Kael, Lester reveals his ghoulishness in his use of these inserts, leading her to declare that she has “rarely seen a more disagreeable, a more dislikable (or a bloodier) movie than Petulia”.8 Kael attributed such gruesome intrusions to directorial irresponsibility, deeming it, “the most insanely obvious method of cutting film ever devised; keep the audience jumping with cuts, juxtapose startling images, anything for effectiveness, just make it brilliant – with the director taking, apparently, no responsibility for the implied connections.”9 Beyond offering an unflattering point of comparison to Mondo Cane (Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, 1962), Kael also sees Lester’s use of inserts as an opportunistic appropriation of Alain Resnais’ similar punctuation of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Yet it is the very same kind of cutting which was routinely praised in Resnais’ work. It is as if for Kael, the transplantation of such editing techniques to an American context immediately blunts the possibility that the director might be deliberately fostering such a sense of ambiguity.
Kael also took issue with a different kind of extra-textual allusiveness, taking offense at the Vietnam War coverage overheard on the film’s soundtrack and glimpsed on television screens in the corner of the frame.10 Yet viewed from the vantage point of almost five decades on, it seems that this isn’t another mindless mashup from Lester, but a deliberate attempt to embed the film’s narrative within the cultural fabric of its historical moment, again in a manner not dissimilar to Resnais’ celebrated incorporation of documentary footage in Hiroshima mon amour.
Resnais may be a less prominently cited reference point than Godard, but he too was a source of fascination for Hollywood filmmakers, not least his L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad,1961). The scrambled chronology of the otherwise conventional Twentieth Century Fox film Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967) is heavily indebted to Resnais, as Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney fall in and out of love over the span of a decade unstuck from time while sojourning across Europe. A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom, 1971) represents a more extreme attempt to apply Resnais’ stylistic techniques to evoke a fragmentary journey through memory and exploded subjectivity, coinciding with similar developments in Eastern European art cinema in the form of films like Szindbád (Zoltán Huszárik, 1971). Chronologically asynchronous inserts also mark scene transitions in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), while The Night They Raided Minsky’s (William Friedkin, 1968) features relentless archival inserts, a device which Kael found “fatiguing,” “because their purpose is so shallow.”11 Modulation of the flow of cinematic time was also prominently linked with depictions of violence throughout the period, most definitively in the orgiastic, protracted dénouement of Bonnie and Clyde, and Sam Peckinpah’s persistent fracturing and dilating of violent moments .
While Kael generally approved of Peckinpah’s temporal gymnastics, she was unconvinced by Lester’s stylistic flourishes in Petulia, which she deemed narratively unmotivated: “We never find out why: he’s too interested in making a flashy case to examine what he’s doing.”12 Arthur Murphy, in an overwhelmingly positive Variety review, similarly acknowledged superficiality, but saw this as a symptom of the new value placed on stylistic self-consciousness: “As with most modern pix, particularly from Lester and other new directors, plot kernel is just a springboard for the style in which the story is told.”13 Kael levelled a charge of intellectual inscrutability at critics who praised Petulia: “the reviewers seem unwilling to ask questions which might expose them to the charge that they’re still looking for meaning instead of, in the new cant, just reacting to images.”14 In these comments, both Kael and Murphy acknowledged that a new style had emerged within Hollywood, yet Kael’s judgement is qualified by her cynicism, and both reviews position the film as a ploy to capture the youth audience. This overlooks the fact that neither Petulia nor Scott’s Bollen are themselves kids.
Skidoo is an altogether different kettle of fish, viewing the activities of youth with the bemused confusion of an onlooking alien. Laden with all of the extra-textual associations of director Otto Preminger’s Old Hollywood lineage, it is nonetheless incongruously out of step with his narrative preoccupations.15 Much of Skidoo’s narrative conflict, and indeed cinematic style, emerges from this collision of old and new. It is unclear to what extent the film is a deliberately camp work of kitsch. It is easy to envisage some of Preminger in Jackie Gleason’s Tough Tony Banks, a man curmudgeonly out of step with changing times; yet Preminger plays on the gleeful possibilities of these oppositions, casting the film with stars of yesteryear, including Groucho Marx in his final outing.
Skidoo’s ensemble cast and madcap zaniness resemble It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963) and The Great Race (Blake Edwards, 1965) – titles typically held to represent the protracted last gasp of the expiring studio system. Skidoo diverges from these earlier films by colliding with the hippie subculture. Where the Haight Ashbury is only fleetingly acknowledged Petulia, in Skidoo it takes centre stage. The centrepiece of the film is a psychedelic acid trip which afflicts Tough Tony after he accidentally ingests LSD while in prison – the kind of sequence that was becoming de rigueur across a range of genres, from exploitation cinema to relatively lavish studio films, such as Chappaqua (Conrad Rooks, 1966), The Trip (Roger Corman, 1967), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) Psych-Out (Richard Rush, 1968), Lana Turner’s brush with the lysergic in The Big Cube (Tito Davison, 1969), and Easy Rider. Roger Ebert labelled Skidoo’s drug sequence a mere “excuse for the psychedelic photography that seems obligatory in every other movie these days” – although the visage of Groucho Marx’s disembodied head, cigar in mouth, rotating on a giant floating screw and descending down a plug hole, is unique to this film.16 Roger Ebert deemed the film’s story “almost ferocious in its attempt to be contemporary.”17 At one point in the film, Groucho Marx’s crime kingpin God hatches a plan for a national drug syndicate, espousing the importance of the youth market; “Half the country is under 25. A billion dollar market!” Perhaps similar remarks provided the inspiration for this unlikely film. In another sense, Skidoo’s paranoid evocation of a shadowy, all-encompassing criminal organisation – The Tree – casts it in the company of conspiratorial visions in Mickey One, Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967), and indeed that latter film’s source material, Richard Stark’s Parker series of novels.
Elsewhere, Skidoo is largely consistent with Preminger’s well-established stylistic mode, eschewing Lester’s quick-cut sensibility, favouring long takes with complex, mobile staging and subtle camera movements. In a dispatch from the Skidoo set, Roger Ebert recounts the 21 attempts required to successfully execute a complex single-take sequence, on a shoot dominated by Preminger’s perfectionism.18 Of his directorial method, Preminger would tell Ebert that, “a shot like this looks completely natural… It will call no attention to itself, the way a lot of unnecessary editing and many shorter shots would. If you can do it all in one shot, you can tell your story more smoothly.”19 In his subsequent review of the film, Ebert described this directorial approach as fundamentally out of step with the film’s subject matter, writing that,
[A]s always, Preminger has produced a technically superb film. The well-designed shots and the carefully planned scenes are there, but this style of directing seems more suited to weighty subject matter. The new style in comedy, for better or worse is toward a looser camera style, quicker cuts and a certain amount of improvisation. I have a feeling that it chills Preminger’s very soul to imagine he might ever ask an actor to improvise.20
Variety was similarly unenthusiastic about Preminger’s “dreary, unfunny attempt at contemporary comedy.”21 Jonathan Rosenbaum has mounted a qualified defence of the film, finding fascination in the “bizarre manifestations” of Preminger’s vulgarity.22 The film floats away after an improbable concluding maritime musical number, but its most memorable sequence may be its opening, a parade of television commercials that functions as an incisive parody of advertising culture. This surreal clash of images, leaping from a rerun of Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) to a dog smoking a cigarette, remains the funniest sequence in the film, one-upping Schickel’s earlier criticism that Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now relied too heavily on the visual language of television advertising.23 This kind of simultaneous appropriation and subversion of broadcast aesthetics would be a point of fascination for other films of this period – Altman’s Nashville (1975) also opens with a phony television advertisement.
But no film of the period more fully appropriates the structure and form of the televisual experience than Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968). While exhibiting the playful naïvety of the Monkees’ television personae and showcasing several of their songs, the film also exposes the constructed artificiality of the manufactured pop group, in turn aggressively and didactically critiquing not only the motion picture industry, but also general consumer culture. This intention is apparent in the film’s aggressively subversive marketing campaign, which featured neither the known star commodities of the Monkees, but the unknown and distinctly unglamorous advertising executive John Brockman, who never appears himself in the film. This typifies Head’s hectoring tone of relentless mockery. From the deliberately unrealistic sets to the ceaseless pastiche of genres such as the war film, the western and the musical, the film is as anarchic as a Looney Tunes short. Every reverse cut threatens to transport the Monkees to new locations, situations and narratives – or even transform them into plastic mannequins. In the process, Rafelson very deliberately exposes the artifice of continuity editing, the invisible bedrock of streamlined Hollywood narrative convention.
While such self-reflexivity had long been a hallmark of film musicals and variety television – and was indeed a recurrent feature of The Monkees TV show itself (1966-1968) – to structure an entire feature film around such devices was largely unprecedented. Unmoored from narrative, Head deliberately mimics the experience of channel surfing, or perhaps flipping through the pages of Mad Magazine. At times, the rapid cutting and unmotivated inserts recall Petulia, while elsewhere, as in Head’s lengthy opening shot, Rafelson deploys elegant long takes, with complex staging and movement in tightly framed space. This more restrained style would come to the fore in Rafelson’s subsequent Five Easy Pieces (1970). Elsewhere in Head, Rafelson strengthens the film’s aesthetic resemblance to television by incorporating material from televisual sources. Most prominently, Head incorporates the famous Vietnam War news footage of the execution of Viet Cong guerrilla Nguyễn Văn Lém on a Saigon street, which appears in the film on three occasions, at one point being replicated on multiple split screens, reducing this moment of grim reality and reducing it (quite literally, in terms of screen size) to just another component part of the pop-cultural cornucopia. The cinematic visage of actual death becomes just another image to be consumed, and Rafelson makes this link clear by cross-cutting images of enraptured fans at a Monkees concert with graphically-matched newsreel footage of huddled Vietnamese families. While Head would test the arbitrariness of narrative in New Hollywood, it remains one of the more sophisticated deconstructions of consumer culture to be committed to celluloid, a fact that was lost on critics and audiences alike in 1968.
Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) represents a similarly bracing self-assessment of cultural affairs, emerging from a very different set of stylistic concerns. Wexler applies the loose, observational mode of contemporary documentary to a fictional narrative of a news cameraman reorienting his political compass in a moment of dramatic upheaval in Chicago. Wexler’s noteworthy intervention is his insertion of his characters into actual unfolding events, including the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention and candid shots of massed police presence on the streets of Chicago. This moment has now become an important milestone in the doomed fantasy of the end of the left, and the death of the 1960s, and Medium Cool remains, in passages, a fascinating primary historical source. Wexler’s engagement with social reality as a documentarian isn’t in question: his earlier documentary The Bus (1965) revealed his commitment to the Civil Rights movement, and some of the most fascinating moments of Medium Cool are its depictions of racial antagonisms, on one occasion opaquely depicted through direct address to camera. Wexler deepens the film’s ambiguity by juxtaposing its socially-engaged documentary content with its narrative concern with Robert Forster’s hedonistic cameraman John Cassellis. His apolitical personal stance is sharply juxtaposed with the realities of the subject matter that he depicts. Wexler’s wry stance is typified by a prominently placed piece of production design, echoing Head by adorning Cassellis’ apartment wall with a blow-up of Eddie Adams’ famous photograph of the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém. This image is seen in a sequence in which Cassellis pursues a naked Marianna Hill around his apartment, having been whipped into a sexual frenzy by the spectacle of a violent night at the roller derby. For Wexler, sex, violence, and social reality merge into a pseudo-documentary whole. It is all fodder for the ever-watchful camera.
The fingerprints of Godard’s influence are all over Medium Cool, and the film ends with more Godardian window dressing, a direct visual quotation of Le mépris (Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), in a sequence that is also an uncanny facsimile of Easy Rider’s conclusion, with a camera lens replacing Easy Rider’s firearm in the fatal concluding drive-by. Writing for The New Leader, John Simon stated that Wexler’s allusions to Godard cheapened his film, suggesting “a certain in-group, cineaste snobbery that clashes with the broad political and humanitarian values Wexler is after.”24 Andrew Sarris’ response to Medium Cool echoed Kael’s comments on Petulia, when he deemed Wexler’s film “a movie that is almost all interludes”, overlooking the fact that this episodic narrative function was becoming a distinctive hallmark of the period.25
Medium Cool received an X-Rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. In the same year, a different set of provocations was finding acceptance when couched in a more stylistically conservative format. The 1969 Academy Awards proved that an X rating and a Bob Balaban blowjob would be no impediment to Midnight Cowboy’s (John Schlesinger, 1969) Best Picture Award. The following year would herald two nightmarish Hollywood spoofs – both excoriations and symptoms of the same bloated system, emerging to the revulsion of critics, and similarly branded with the X rating. The first of these titles, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970), defies logical description, once again employing a highly fragmented, episodic narrative structure as Russ Meyer’s frantically-paced film follows the travails of rock band Kelly Affair (a considerably more muscular combo than the Monkees) as they relocate to Los Angeles and race through a series of button-pushing scenarios, from omnipresent marijuana consumption and nudity, extreme violence, homosexuality, transvestism, pregnancy, abortion, a televised suicide attempt, and a Nazi stabbed bloodily to death on a beach in the film’s climactic massacre and moralising conclusion. Yet all of this material is tempered by an over-riding veneer of schmaltz, which Paul Zimmerman characterizes as typical of “Meyer’s 1950s puritanism”, the flipside to the director’s trademark prurience.26 Yet Meyer was not the sole visionary behind this work. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls also represents Roger Ebert’s first screenwriting credit. While it is amusing to note that Ebert penned such lines as “this is my happening and it freaks me out” and “you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance”, it is also worth noting that Paul Zimmerman claimed that Ebert’s role on the film was “to give the screenplay a now-generation gloss” – another attempt to tap the whims of the youth audience.27
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was really just a preview of coming attractions. The following week, on 24 June 1970, Twentieth Century Fox released Michael Sarne’s adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. Another a boisterous assault on, and unmistakable product of, Hollywood excess, Myra takes the gender-bending subplot of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and places it front and centre in thoroughly incoherent form, as the titular character surgically transitions from Rex Reed to Racquel Welch for reasons that are left largely unexplored beyond a vaguely articulated notion of revenge. Myra wreaks havoc across Los Angeles, intent on “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars.” Myra Breckinridge shares with Skidoo an uneasy mix of Old and New Hollywood, including the return of a vociferous Mae West (her first appearance since a guest spot on Mister Ed in 1964, itself coming after a twenty-one year absence following The Heat’s On [Gregory Ratoff, 1943]). John Huston also appears, as the ridiculous Technicolour cowboy Buck Loner, patriarch of an acting studio, chewing the scenery and spitting homophobic insults. These appearances butt against incessant references to Classical Hollywood, both in Myra’s film-buff dialogue (delivered occasionally by actual film critic Reed, who interchanges and sometimes shares the frame with Welch’s Myra) and in a variety of inserts from Fox Studio films that frequently provide ironic commentary on the narrative. David Scott Diffrient has recently argued that the use of these cutaways achieve a more complex function, creating a kind of,
textual density, suggesting not only that the main character – a film critic – was living with these images but also that an alternative history of Hollywood could be and, indeed, would be written once gay subtexts and camp sensibilities were lifted to the surface.28
Sarne’s larger bag of visual tricks, mostly overly familiar by this point, include use of split diopter and superimpositions, more Lester-esque cross-cuts and jump cuts, and direct addresses to camera. Myra Breckinridge remains notorious mainly for the spectacle, played for laughs, of Myra non-consensually fucking Roger Herren with a strap-on – hyperbolically dubbed by the film’s trailer as “the most sensational scene in the history of the screen”, centering an act that still manages to generate news articles when depicted in television sitcoms in 2016.29 This was a tough act to follow, and the unmentionable source of much of the critical venom directed at the film. Joseph Morgernstern captures the tenor of critical responses when he deems it “the perfect picture of an industry that’s down for the count, flat on its back and playing with its sorry self.”30 Yet Diffrient has also demonstrated the film’s partial reclamation as a camp object in recent years, suggesting that the text is open to different readings which were perhaps obscured by enraged sensibilities in 1970.31 In fact, many of these reviews became performances of excess in their own right, as critics gleefully lined up to sink the boots in and outdo one another with increasingly vituperative snark.
Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are two late examples of the floundering, scattershot, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach that was deployed with increasing uncertainty into 1970, even as the more stylistically and narratively conservative Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970) and Airport (George Seaton, 1970) topped the North American box office for the year, demonstrating that a mass audience for conventional fare had not dissipated entirely.32 The following year would yield the great globe-trotting gaping black hole of The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971), an abyss that sucked in studio money, resources and an unparalleled scale of ambition, and spat out hateful reviews and broken careers, in the process forming something of a dress rehearsal for now-canonical exercises in auteurist excess like Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980).
The conventionally enshrined narrative of the New Hollywood centres around a carefully commodified brand of auteurism. A key case in point would be Bob Rafelson, who followed Head with Five Easy Pieces, a film that prominently focuses on the kind of alienated male protagonist that is now a central hallmark of the canon. Eschewing the bombastic tendencies of Head, the stylistic classicism of Five Easy Pieces contrasts with the stylistic self-consciousness of its youth-baiting forebears. This point was not lost on Variety, which noted that Rafelson’s sophomore effort violates,
virtually all of the current filmmaking trends… While various ‘serious’ young directors are indulging in such ‘cinematic’ techniques as quick cuts and bizarre camera angles, or making ‘movies about movies’ that make no attempt to disguise the raw materials of the medium, Rafelson and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs have shot straight-forward, gimmickless [sic] footage that attempts nothing else but to tell a story and illumine character.33
The previous year, the same production stable that produced both Five Easy Pieces and Head also turned out Easy Rider, which hit pay dirt by anchoring its episodic narrative structure around a series of self-contained montage sequences showcasing commercially successful and readily identifiable popular rock songs. Easy Rider set the template for Five Easy Pieces, allowing both their directors to graduate to the ranks of the auteurs. Indeed, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces helped to enshrine the alienated male protagonist that would become a key archetype of the retrospectively enshrined New Hollywood canon. The likes of The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdaovich, 1971) and American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) subsequently melded this thematic strain with an overarching sense of nostalgia, contrasting dramatically with the pointed contemporaneity of the proto-New Hollywood films. The retreat into nostalgia would help to pave the way for the rise of the blockbuster, a series of altogether wholly palatable films that further obscure the more radical manoeuvres of the proto-New Hollywood. The formal and political provocations of films like Myra Breckinridge and Skidoo are at once aberrations and yet thoroughly of their moment, moving woozily now to the margins of history and fading from view.
- Chris Dumas, Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), p. 101. ↩
- Ibid, p. 110. ↩
- Richard Schickel, “A Disaster Area”, Life (1967), reprinted in Richard Schickel and John Simon (eds.), Film 67/68: An Anthology by the National Society of Film Critics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 113. ↩
- Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies”, Harper’s (February 1969), reprinted in Going Steady (Boston; Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 117. ↩
- Petulia does conjure a ghostly echo of A Hard Day’s Night in the sequence of Scott and his children running through the abandoned corridors of Alcatraz. ↩
- Kael, “Trash, Art” in Going Steady, p. 118. ↩
- Richard Combs, “It’s Bound to End in Tears”, Film Comment, 51:4 (July/August 2015), p. 43. ↩
- Kael, “Trash, Art” in Going Steady, p. 117. ↩
- Ibid, p. 120. ↩
- Ibid, p. 119. ↩
- Pauline Kael, “Baggy Pants”, The New Yorker (18 January 1969), reprinted in Going Steady (Boston; Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 238. ↩
- Kael, “Trash, Art” in Going Steady, p. 119. ↩
- Arthur Murphy (Murf), “Petulia”, Variety (1 May 1968): p. 26. ↩
- Kael, “Trash, Art” in Going Steady, p. 119. ↩
- Canny viewers may also wryly spot the presence of assistant director Erich von Stroheim Jr. in the closing credits; he would also be an assistant director on Medium Cool, his final screen credit before his untimely death in 1968. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “Skidoo”, Chicago-Sun Times (27 December 1968). <www.rogerebert.com/reviews/skidoo-1968>. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “On the Skidoo Set with Otto Preminger: ‘Mr. Von Stroheim, Do You Hear Noise?’”, Chicago Sun-Times (16 June 1968) www.rogerebert.com/interviews/on-the-skidoo-set-with-otto-preminger-mr-von-stroheim-do-you-hear-noise. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Arthur Murphy (Murf), “Skidoo”, Variety (18 December 1968): p. 26. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Acid Test: The Curiosity of Skidoo”, Moving Image Source (20 July, 2011). <www.movingimagesource.us/articles/acid-test-20110720> ↩
- The fake advertisements in Skidoo were not directed by Preminger – John Urie earned a credit for “commercials”. ↩
- John Simon, “Medium Cool”, The New Leader (1969), reprinted in Joseph Morgernstern and Stefan Kanfer (eds.), Film 69/70: An Anthology By the National Society of Film Critics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 167. ↩
- Andrew Sarris, “Medium Cool”, The Village Voice (1969), reprinted in Morgernstern and Kanfer (eds.), Film 69/70, p. 170. ↩
- Paul D. Zimmerman, “X-Rated Mind”, Newsweek (1970), reprinted in David Denby (ed.), Film 70/71 (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971), p. 264. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- David Scott Diffrient, “‘Hard to Handle’: Camp Criticism, Trash-Film Reception, and the Transgressive Pleasures of Myra Breckinridge”, Cinema Journal, 52:2 (Winter 2013), p. 57. ↩
- Brian Moylan, “Sex and the TV: how television evolved from pregnancy scandals to ‘pegging’”, The Guardian (28 April 2016), < http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2016/apr/27/sex-tv-television-girls-sex-and-the-city-game-of-thrones>. ↩
- Joseph Morgenstern, “Down for the Count”, Newsweek (1970), reprinted in David Denby (ed.), Film 70/71: An Anthology by the National Society of Film Critics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), p. 64. ↩
- Diffrient, “‘Hard to Handle”, pp. 65 & 70. ↩
- Peter Krämer, The New Hollywood (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 107. ↩
- Gold, “New York Film Festival Films: Five Easy Pieces”, Variety (16 September 1970): p. 15. ↩