Sunday, February 01, 2009

Back to the Awakening

Early last week I spotted Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the NewHollywood, by Mark Harris, which appeared last year. I have never met Harris, but he is, like the late Randy Shilts, a journalist who turns out to be a natural historian, one equally at home with interviews and with documentary research. He does not, sadly, seem to have any awareness of the works of Strauss and Howe, but to those of us who do, that only makes his work more valuable, because he has confirmed the nature of the Awakening they describe—the real nature of the “sixties”, but which actually lasted from about 1965 to 1984 or so—without exactly understanding what he is doing. It’s a wonderful read and a wonderful book, one which I can’t recommend too highly.
The five movies which he discusses were the best picture nominees for the 1968 Oscars: The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, and Dr. Doolittle. The decision to include the last, however forgettable it was, was a brilliant one, because Doolittle of all those movies was the one its studio counted on to be a hit. Movie fans forget that the biggest hits of the mid-1960s were musicals—including The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins—and then as now, studios knew how to take a good thing and run it into the ground. Doolittle became the reductio ad absurdum of the old genre; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was and In the Heat of the Night were relatively traditional “message” pictures which endures largely because of their extraordinary casts; and the other two began the greatest era in the history of American film, making the works of Coppola and Spielberg and Scorsese and Woody Allen and Lucas and many more possible.
Harris’s book goes into enormous detail about the gestation of all these projects, and thus begins around 1962, when a few oddball Americans were falling in love with the French New Wave. Robert Benton and David Newman, the original screenwriters, conceived of Bonnie and Clyde as a kind of 1930s Breathless, and actually courted both Truffaut and Godard as possible directors. And although Harris never analyzes the shift from one world to another, he describes it in a million ways. Thus, because Warren Beatty was dark, handsome, and rather sweet, Hollywood had jumped on him as a major leading man after he made Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood, while Dustin Hoffman—almost the same age—was desperately trying and failing to break into Broadway despite the disadvantages of short stature and a rather ordinary face. (Hoffman’s early career actually sounds a lot like that of Michael Dorsey, the character he played about 15 years later in Tootsie.) Censorship was an enormous factor in Hollywood films, and Harris follows its collapse beginning in the mid 1960s, beginning with the appearance of the first naked female breasts in an American movie in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, and escalating to include full frontal nudity two years later in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Hollywood’s image of America was white, conservative, and unthreatening, and violence was officially sanctioned, sanitized, and generally culminating in the triumph of truth, justice, and the American way. Studio heads like Jack Warner obviously remembered the Depression, but they had left its movies behind along with all of its bitter memories. When Warner finally saw the first cut of Bonnie and Clyde he recognized its debt to the gangster pictures of the thirties—and wrote it off for that very reason.
On the day after Labor Day in 1967 I was visiting a college friend in Los Angeles, and we picked up two blind dates with whom we were going to Disneyland, which I had never seen. As we set out for Anaheim, however, we actually heard an announcement on the radio that summer hours were over and the park had closed at 6:00 PM. A movie was the obvious alternative, and it turned out be a new one I had never heard of—Bonnie and Clyde. The theater was full and the whole audience was blown away—myself included. The script, the characters, the gun battles and the movie were out of control; the colors were as vivid as the emotional content. The gang was pathetic, but human. The Depression-dominated world they were living in was a Darwinian jungle (a nice contrast, in that respect, to Dr. Doolittle.) I realized that I had never seen anything like it.
What was more remarkable, as Harris details at length, was the reaction to the movie. Much of the older generation regarded it as a disgrace because they thought it idealized criminals. Like Jack Warner, they had survived the Depression as respectable adults and did not want to revisit those who had not. But the mindless, terrifying violence of the movie inevitably reminded much of the younger generation of the Vietnam War, which was also undermining the truths upon which our parents had brought us up. The movie vividly portrayed aspects of human life which society had been trying to forget, and that was something that many could not forgive. That did not apply only to the older generation. When the movie came to Boston my friend and I went again along with his roommate, the scion of a distinguished New York media family, who ranted on the way home that he had been rooting for Bonnie and Clyde to be killed. And when it finally opened in Harvard Square a few months later and I went for a third time, some lonely soul in the balcony actually began to clap after their climactic death—and the rest of the theater began to rumble like a lynch mob. The era in which spontaneous violence—physical and emotional—could be entirely swept under the rug was over.
The Graduate and its reception make an even more interesting story because even Mike Nichols, its director, did not seem to have realized what he had done. The casting of Hoffman (and of Ben’s parents) had changed the novel upon which the book was based in one fundamental respect: while Ben had originally been a WASP prince, now the family seemed to be assimilated Jews. Benjamin, Nichols recalled later, seemed to be an outsider in a strange world, and Nichols decided that he represented the director’s own struggles as a Jew. That however had nothing to do with the mass appeal of the movie. Benjamin, a Boomer by the time the movie appeared, has spent 22 years perfectly playing the part his parents have written for him. They think nothing either of giving him a coming-home party that does not include a single person of his own age, or of suggesting whom he might take out on a date. (Such parents were not uncommon in those days, either.) But like his whole generation, male and female, Benjamin was suddenly uncomfortably aware that he had had nothing to do with writing that script and had no idea why he was reading his lines. (The quasi-incestuous nature of his affair with Mrs. Robinson is another aspect of this problem—even his sexuality, it seems, belongs to the older generation—but Harris leaves that one alone.) That was how millions of actual Boomers felt at that moment, all the more so since the script also called for many of them to go off to Vietnam. That was why the movie immediately became iconic.
In the last three centuries our civilization has achieved an extraordinarily complex economic and social state, one which has allowed human population to expand by several orders of magnitude. To make the institutions upon which we rely work requires a cooperative spirit, the use of rational inquiry, and the capacity for self-restraint. Those are the virtues that make institutions go; they were also the virtues of the GI generation and will probably become the defining characteristics of today’s Millennials. But those virtues are often at war with the intensity of emotion that makes life worth living, and the tragic spirit that can alone make it bearable. The conflict between those two aspects of our personalities is one of the most fundamental in human nature, and it drives the generational and historical cycle about which I have written so much here. Forty years ago we were at an emotional turning point; today we are at an institutional one. They are equally necessary, but the Awakening, to me, will always be the greatest time to be alive. Harris has left a critical piece of it for the ages.

(See the other post from last Monday evening, below.)

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