Cinema of Cynicism

In a 29-film series, Oak Street Cinema puts Hollywood's most complicated decade, the Seventies, onscreen

My guests straggled through the door, some in tears. A few embraced silently. It was May 4, 1970, a date I've never forgotten. In New York I was giving a party for a London editor; arranged long in advance, it was a semiprofessional gathering. Shortly beforehand we'd heard that four students had been killed on the Kent State campus, shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. Two had been in a group protesting the war in Vietnam, the others were merely walking to their classes.

Shock surged through millions of Americans; whether you supported the war or hated it, there was no neutral ground where emotions could be buried. Some pro-war citizens declared that the students had provoked their own deaths. Rumors spread swiftly: They were riddled with venereal diseases and hard drugs, they were a menace as well as a disgrace to the nation.

Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter
Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter

My phone throbbed. In choked voices the writers and editors I'd invited to meet the Englishman told me they couldn't possibly go to a party. I wanted to cancel it, but felt an obligation to the visitor, whom I knew only slightly. I expected almost no one to appear and that he and I would dine on the leftover appetizers.

Then everyone came. As they entered, shaking their heads or wiping their eyes, they said they didn't wish to mourn alone on this vile day, that they needed to be with kindred spirits. So the party became a memorial for the murdered students. Grief collided with rage: at the government, at Richard Nixon, at ex-President Lyndon Johnson, at the general widely known as Waste-More-Land (William Westmoreland, the U.S. Military Commander in Vietnam). Some talked about leaving the country, about settling in Europe or Canada. Two even spoke of Fiji. An ordinarily mild publisher said that the next time he saw a police helicopter hovering over an antiwar demonstration, he would figure out a way to bring it down. Nobody drank much. And almost no one ate the hors d'oeuvres: The bits of salmon shriveled, the celery went limp--most appetites had died with the Kent State students.

Not long ago, when I described that scene to a 26-year-old friend, he remarked that people hadn't reacted that way to last year's massacre at the Columbine High School, horrible as it was. The difference, I said, was Vietnam: The Kent students were killed in the war as much as the GIs dying overseas. Individuals who opposed our nation's policies were surrogates for many of us, and the random victims were like draftees who hadn't chosen to fight.

For six weeks this summer, the Oak Street Cinema will be presenting scenes from that decade. Their series "Out of the Seventies" will present younger audiences with an opportunity to see some of the rarely screened, seminal works of one of Hollywood's most fertile periods. Those who remember those years will be able to view some movies again--Altman's bleak comedies, Spielberg's downbeat debut--at a clarifying remove from their background. In either case, the 29 films in this series stand out as among the most original and most melancholy in studio history.

Hollywood hardly approached Vietnam until our helicopters pulled away from Saigon in 1975. And when Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter was released in 1978, there were fierce arguments about it even among people who hadn't seen it--due to the depiction of the Vietnamese and because it seemed to uphold the value of war. Therefore I was startled by the appealing first hour of the film, which establishes the decency of its blue-collar characters without patronizing them. The bonds between the young Pennsylvania steelworkers--as they sing along with a jukebox while playing pool or erupt in horseplay in cars and bars--are touching, and so are their female counterparts: long-skirted bridesmaids hastening through the streets, dropping wedding presents and laughing. The Russian Orthodox wedding sequence unfolds so skillfully that even those who are skeptical of marriage can be moved by it, as the guests revel in the songs and dances of their forebears.

So I wasn't prepared for the preposterous episodes that follow. Since both the South and the North Vietnamese are portrayed as vermin--gleeful torturers in wartime, foul criminals thereafter--the movie recalls the yellow peril that cackled through the crudest movies of World War II. The Deer Hunter is certainly racist. Yet Cimino insisted that wasn't his intention (if not, he must have lunched on obtusity every day). He also said he wanted the war scenes to be surrealistic, rather than accurate--thereby defending the bouts of Russian roulette that his Vietnamese villains force others to play. But Cimino ultimately had to admit that those atrocities were fictional.

When the movie opened, Vietnamese refugees had already been abused in different parts of this country, and I wondered if the cruelties of the movie torturers made trashing the newcomers' homes and beating up their children seem justified. Because the film plays havoc with history, the refugees may have appeared all the more like enemy aliens to their American neighbors. (We don't expect people to take Hollywood movies literally, but sometimes they do; a young man told me that after seeing JFK he would never vote, because he could never again trust the government.) The heroic Robert De Niro (largely a wooden performance) is presented as superior to his closest friends: He was brave in Vietnam while they crumbled. With a lunge of archaic machismo, The Deer Hunter punishes those who weren't tough enough to take it. To that extent, it's a very judgmental film, even though it's mindless about the war.

While madness as a byproduct of war has been explored in numerous movies, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is one of the few films I know that makes you feel that warfare can truly be maddening. One of the key lines is "Every man has a breaking point," and in this war, the participants must accept lunacy as the norm. As a tranquil green jungle flares into flame, as helicopters rise and weeping peasants run and the landscape explodes, you're alert to the likelihood of death at any moment. Several scenes are almost unbearable, as when harmless civilians are killed for no reason at all, or when a flock of helicopters amplifies "The Ride of the Valkyries" to "scare the hell out of the slopes," and the music soars while guns blaze and the dying drop.

Like a soldier, you hope desperately for a lull, for a breath of quiet, while knowing it won't last; you simply want a few minutes' peace. But when there is silence, you're ravaged by suspense, awaiting the next bullet or grenade--from what direction? After the horrific immensity of a battle, you become numb, as GIs do, and the war seems endless, as it did to them.

In this movie, Americans aren't evil--but our war is. Everyone suffers. No one is heroic. Given the superb war scenes, I can forgive the muddled and pretentious last hour. Lurching out of a tribute to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlon Brando as a crazed Green Beret colonel in Cambodia has little to do aside from croaking out "The Hollow Men" as though he knows he reads it badly. His speeches are burdened with a fuzzy moralism that undermines the concept of the military gone mad. No matter: Coppola has already given us a collective experience of the war, and I recommend seeing this picture soon after the distortions of The Deer Hunter.

 

The Vietnam movies take me back to the anguish of the spring of 1970, when two black students died of bullets and twelve were wounded at Mississippi's Jackson State, when the killings abroad accelerated and a good many young Americans felt endangered at home. After Kent and Jackson State, a Yale student told me, "Everything we thought and feared had come true. It felt like us against them: a personal attack on students and nonconformists. It showed that they were going to shoot us down if we got in the way." The campus slayings were, of course, accidental. But as a national milestone, Kent State caused many of the young to feel hopeless about change--that those who tried to alter society could very well lose their lives.

The late Sixties had been a festival of changes: in sex and music, design and dressing, ways of living and learning, convictions about war and peace. Caution seeped into many souls during the Seventies. But because making a movie takes at least two years (and usually longer) after its first conception, the liberated styles of the Sixties suffused the films of the next decade. Only the themes--as conspiracies build and assassins stalk their unwitting targets--were different. Expecting the worst, as in the brilliantly ominous Parallax View, was a ground note of the age.

Still, decades don't start on schedule, and that particular period seems like a series of three distinct eras. The beginning of the Seventies was an extension of the late Sixties (university strikes and antiwar activity), except that the civil-rights movement had lost momentum after Martin Luther King was murdered, and Black Power militancy was fading. Then Watergate, which some found heartening--because the crimes of our leaders were so dramatically exposed. Then the Jimmy Carter years: quite conservative but not confident. The movies were wonderfully diverse, but most of the best--even the comedies--were pessimistic, dispensing a dark view of this country and the experiences of its citizens. Look at Klute and The Parallax View and The China Syndrome and remember that All the President's Men was one of the few optimistic pictures of the time, offering the prospect of a ruined presidency as a source of hope.

As Jack Nicholson splendidly blows his stack at a waitress in a coffee shop in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, you realize that many of the Seventies films highlight rebellion against authority or at least contempt for it. Defiance of the law--as in The Godfather, Sugarland Express, or the sublime scene in Dog Day Afternoon where Al Pacino strides to and fro, waving a white cloth and yelling, "Attica! Attica!", baiting a crowd of cops with the memory of 43 Attica hostages and prisoners killed by New York state police--and the urge to unmask the corruptions of power (Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor) animate the anger that streams across the screen. The mutinous instincts are inherited from the Sixties, but hippie sentiments are scarce. Instead many of the characters possess a post-Aquarian cool: Even when they lose their tempers, cynicism blends with calculation and a letch for control.

 

"Where were you when Kennedy got shot?"

"Which Kennedy?"

"Any Kennedy."

That quick exchange in Arthur Penn's Night Moves mirrors the deadpan directness of the Seventies style: no blinking. The acute self-possession of some Seventies antiheroes--Gene Hackman abruptly confronting his wife's lover in that movie, Warren Beatty slipping into a new persona in The Parallax View, Jack Nicholson circling Faye Dunaway in Chinatown--conveys the you-can't-surprise-me attitude of the era. Nicholson himself provides some exhilarating surprises, as in Five Easy Pieces, where he moves smoothly between the role of a hardhat and an upper-crust pianist: How rarely you see an actor inhabiting two classes--and how few would be capable of switching. Here and in Chinatown he's at his mood-swinging best, both sensitive and truculent, and it's so rewarding to see him before he started doing his fish eyes (a lazy habit of the last decade).

In contrast Robert Redford is refreshingly uncool in Three Days of the Condor, which frames one of his finest roles--a CIA researcher on the run from murderous members of his tainted agency. Like Richard Widmark, Redford is gifted at looking genuinely frightened. The movie reminds you how much our vision of espionage has changed: In films of the Thirties and Forties spying was often noble and romantic, even if one was on the wrong side. By the Seventies, the glamour had turned to rot.

Robert Altman's California Split and Roman Polanski's Chinatown were released in the summer of Nixon's resignation, and I've always associated the president's departure--quoting Wordsworth, waving bitterly--with those two stygian fables of 1974. California itself is a leading character in both movies, complete with all its craziness, its contradictions, its charms, and its brutalizing fantasies. Altman's Californians are revealed through what strangers say to one another: the man who reasonably admonishes, "Lady, you don't throw oranges on an escalator," the bus rider who worries that the passenger next to him may throw up, the doctor who's so hooked on cards that someone says, "He'd rather lose a patient than lose a hand," and two dulcet prostitutes--one of whom keeps searching for her TV Guide.

George Segal, as a taut depressive who can nonetheless relish moments of pleasure, and Elliott Gould, a cozy clown with a vein of malice, both excel in their roles as fanatical gamblers. While playing, Segal has a way of sucking his teeth behind closed lips, which distills immense anxiety. His drawn and chalky face can suddenly age ten years when things go wrong--and then shed that decade just as swiftly. Gould is the jester who can lighten Segal's angst. Chewing imaginary gum or a real toothpick, he appears as a bright person playing dumb.

Gould's casual loopiness both exasperates and beguiles Segal. And while we saw many movies about boyish bonding in the Seventies, this picture really is concerned with friendship in a way that's unusual on the screen. Much of the time Segal comes on as an adolescent, while Gould is a huge child. But Gould becomes a soothing parent figure when Segal tenses up before a big game. After Segal wins abundantly, dejection closes in: He's one of those people who has trouble with success, who suspects that good fortune means bad luck. One of Altman's specialties is fragmented lives, often flavored with foreboding.

Like Altman's M*A*S*H, California Split moves at such speed that you couldn't follow it if you were stoned--as some of the audience was the first time I saw it (they kept clamoring for explanations). In Altman's world things happen very fast: Milk overwhelms a bowl of Froot Loops just as rapidly as strangers attack one another in parking lots. As in most of Altman's films, voices overlap on the soundtrack: Words are deliberately sacrificed to the mood, and individuals' compulsions are featured instead of their utterances. Segal and Gould are comic versions of the wanderers--often failures--you frequently meet in California, the strugglers who swarm through motels and drive-ins and Pizzaburgers. Meanwhile the Boom State withholds its prizes from them, and references to the Gold Rush sound like a real estate flack's lies.

There are no friendships in Chinatown. Yet the movie does dwell on loyalties: detective Jack Nicholson's loyalty to the truth, to finding facts, to learning what really happened--and his belated loyalty to Faye Dunaway, the widow he finally comes to respect. Polanski's California is characterized through its landscape rather than its inhabitants. The focus is on the crimes that some will commit in order to control the land, to make it yield the promises of the early days, when the West seemed to guarantee riches.

Chinatown is about coverups: about corrupt politics, betrayals, crooked deals, the harassment of enemies. Nothing is what it seems--not even for moviegoers. At first we don't realize that either Nicholson or Dunaway is a likable person. He appears thick-skinned, sarcastic--just a hack doing a routine job--and she seems snotty and guilty. John Huston, the villain, is rather childlike, benign. Layers of lies mount up until Nicholson is reminded of his stint as a cop in Los Angeles's Chinatown, where it was "hard to tell what's going on." In two different scenes, dim sunlight falls in bars through venetian blinds, and that striped light and shadow create an image of obscurity, an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Risking his skin near reservoirs and in orange groves, beaten up for his tenacity as an investigator, the detective discovers that he doesn't even know what he was hired for. (This made many spectators think of the original Watergate burglars and how little they knew about the reason for their errand; and there were recurrent references to Watergate when Chinatown was talked about in the mid-Seventies). Nicholson is admirably subtle as a man who feels confident enough to make hideous mistakes, to be trapped into doing the opposite of what he wanted to.

Nothing's what it seems--except, perhaps, Polanski himself, as the exuberant little monster who slits Nicholson's nostril. He makes the blood flow, as he did in his Macbeth. That and Chinatown were called "Polanski's revenge" for the sadistic Manson murders of his pregnant wife and her friends. Many viewers said they were shocked by the movie's conclusion: that the detective was wrong to chase after truth or justice, that effort and commitment are pointless, that it's best to do nothing. Chinatown states that disasters can occur because facts are elusive, and that it can be fatal to function in the dark. But who can tell Polanski to steer away from tragedy--when he knows more about it than most of us?

 

If you share my addiction to Altman's movies, the Oak Street Cinema's series will answer your craving, while expanding it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) brims with unexpected beauties: lyrical but deathly snowfalls, startling closeups (an egg, the iris of an eye), and above all the performances of the two stars. Until this film I found Julie Christie dull, a handsome hockey captain without emotional reserves. Warren Beatty was always graceful, yet he was often bland. But Altman got both of them to act, in ways we hadn't seen; they're not just relying on their marvelous faces.

As a rugged turn-of-the-century madam, fond of her opium, Christie displays a rueful sensitivity--which makes it seem possible that Beatty (an arrogant, naive gambler) could fall in love with her. As outlaws they seem partly like offspring of the Sixties, but they embody the ambitions of the Seventies: They want their illegalities to succeed. Despite the harshness of the Northwestern mining town where they meet and scheme, Altman surrounds them with a magical aura: They appear as spell casters out of a myth--a very American myth of the frontier and of profit and loss. Especially loss.

Nashville is probably Altman's greatest film (I think McCabe, Thieves Like Us, the underrated Kansas City, and Short Cuts are close seconds). First shown in 1975 but set in 1976, the Bicentennial and the year of the next election, Nashville radiates a post-Watergate sensibility: Nothing honest or worthwhile can be expected from politicians. A presidential candidate understands that he and his positions should be folksy and basically apolitical: "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" he asks. With its huge cast--which includes many Altmanesque aspirants and losers--the movie is both a satire and a celebration of this country, as the director said. He also referred to it as War and Peace with country music.

In a period when there weren't many imaginative parts for actresses, this picture teems with them. Ronee Blakley is a C&W star who looks happy only when she sings, yet performing doesn't save her from a crackup; Barbara Harris is a flake with laddered pantyhose who turns out to be amazingly resourceful; Lily Tomlin is a pensive homemaker and gospel singer seduced by a stud guitarist; Shelley Duvall is a relentless groupie; Gwen Welles is a waitress with a dreadful voice who yearns for stardom; and Geraldine Chaplin is an infuriating no-talent TV reporter. It seems astounding that they should all appear in the same movie.

The range of feelings among questing or desperate characters is thrilling, sometimes hilarious, potentially violent, always unstable; Kurt Vonnegut was right to call the film "an inventory of America." In the midst of gunshots and music, screams and songs, Nashville seems very much like home.

 

"Out of the Seventies" runs through August 23 at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.

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