Seven cult films chronicle the collapse of ’60s idealism.
The ’60s Myth is one of the great cults of our time. We all know the story. If you don’t, watch PBS tonight or any other night. It goes like this. Across America, a revolution led by the young, creative, idealistic, and fearless vanquished a stultifying and corrupt Establishment, thereby inaugurating a glorious New Age of truth, freedom, and authenticity.
From the perspective of the losers, those who didn’t consider the society depicted in “Leave It To Beaver” risible, the myth is just another example of what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of history. But what is curious about the ’60s is that, from the perspective of the winners, it was an opportunity squandered.
Tom Wolfe, the great social historian of that epoch, has dined out for years on his response to doom-mongers Allen Ginsberg and Günter Grass at Princeton in 1967. He recounted the tale in a 2008 interview with The Observer:
‘They, and the audience,’ he says, still slightly affronted by the memory, ‘were all making not only anti-war statements but malign statements about the American government—as some people are now, freedom of speech and all of this…’ Wolfe heard himself shouting: ‘Ah! Come on! This is a happiness explosion! People are flush with money! They go dancing in these discotheques all over the country!’ And the thing is, he says now: ‘I was right and they were wrong.’
Wolfe is right only if one accepts his chronology. Now, defining the length of the ’60s as a cultural age has become something of a cottage industry. Wolfe plumps for 1964 to 1968. This is too narrow and too self-serving. A more accurate length would be from the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 to either the resignation of Nixon in 1974 or the fall of Saigon in 1975. In any event, Christopher Booker is surely right when he writes in The Neophiliacs, “As the Sixties came to an end, not even the most dispassionate survey of the decade could disguise the almost universal suspicion that something had gone with this great unleashing of expectation. In all sorts of ways, the golden age had lost its gilt: above all in America.”
As Danny says in “Withnail & I,” set at the end of 1969, “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over, and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Or as Peter Fonda’s Captain America concludes in “Easy Rider,” “We blew it.”
“Easy Rider” is one of seven movies collected in a set from the Criterion Collection called “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.” Aside from its value as art, this set will serve historians as a primary source demonstrating how the Happiness Explosion dissolved into bitterness, regret, rage, and paranoia.
BBS was a filmmaking collective active from 1968 to 1972. Its members were writer-director Bob Rafelson and producers Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner. It was spawned, strangely enough, by The Monkees. Inspired by Richard Lester’s Beatles films, Rafelson and Schneider conceived the idea of a weekly television series featuring the zany antics of two actors, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, and two musicians, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork.
The Monkees were not an organic pop group, and for this they were mocked mercilessly by musical purists. They were chosen, after open auditions, for two qualities: likeability and malleability. The second quality was essential as they were owned by Columbia Pictures and RCA Records, who weren’t having any nonsense about artistic temperament. The Monkees were puppets, but their strings were pulled by the best tunesmiths around—including Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart—and the best studio musicians, LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew.
As it turned out, as a musical group The Monkees were rather good. Cognoscenti have come to realize that their greatest hits can withstand comparison to any of the top ’60s combos, even the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Their popular appeal was immediate and sensational. They made their owners a lot of money, and still do.
By 1968, however, they were burned out and fed up. They were called phonies so often they came to believe it. They didn’t play on their records, you see. Of course, the Beach Boys didn’t play on their records, either; they used the same musicians as The Monkees. Somehow this didn’t detract from Brian Wilson’s godlike genius.
The Monkees quit their show and looked for respectability. A grateful Columbia Pictures gave Rafelson and Schneider carte blanche to make a feature, and so we got “Head,” an art film starring the Prefab Four, directed by Rafelson and co-written by an actor ready to graduate from Roger Corman’s school of poverty-row exploitation: Jack Nicholson.
There comes a point beyond which whimsicality becomes torturous. This was true of The Monkees’ TV show, and it is true of “Head.” The difference between two is that while the TV show was all good vibes, the movie is very much bad vibes. “Head” asks by what right can we grin and sing while our soldiers are dying in Vietnam (or insert contemporary calamity here). It is a question that has long tormented those afflicted with the artistic temperament, and one that is answered definitively in Preston Sturges’s masterful “Sullivan’s Travels.”
“Head” was a flop, but BBS still had street cred at Columbia, so they were given another chance, which was “Easy Rider.” The thing was, their movies never cost much money. For the benefit of younger readers, it is necessary to explain that there was a time when Hollywood allowed movies to find their audience. It was a given that some would be hits and others misses. Left to their own devices, BBS’s record was four (modest) failures and three blockbusters, a ratio that Hollywood would kill for today.
“Easy Rider,” which appeared in 1969, was the brainchild of Dennis Hopper, an evergreen nutter, and Peter Fonda, son of Henry, father of the lovely Bridget. The plot, such as it is, is simple. Fonda and Hopper ride their iconic motorcycles from LA to New Orleans with a view to selling a large amount of cocaine. Along the way, they pick up a drunken, clownish, but amiable lawyer played by Jack Nicholson. They are all murdered by rednecks.
Save for Nicholson, “Easy Rider” is relentlessly grim, which makes his death particularly hard to take. Nevertheless, it captured the American zeitgeist as few movies ever have. And not just American, either. One recalls the venerable Canadian pundit Allan Fotheringham gushing in the Vancouver Sun that having seen “Easy Rider,” he now knew what the Kids were on about.
But what was that? Peter Fonda’s character concluded that “we blew it.” Fonda was assumed to be the voice of his generation, but the “it” that was blown remains as enigmatic as his Captain America.
“Easy Rider” had something for everyone. The reactionary cartoonist Al Capp, of L’il Abner fame, said it was his favourite movie. When a shocked interviewer asked why, he replied, “Because it has a happy ending.” The inscrutability of “Easy Rider” also gives it a lasting appeal. It can be read as the death of freak power or as punk revolutionaries getting what they deserve. Or it can be regarded as a paean to the glory of the open road. That’s certainly how Albert Brooks’s hopelessly bourgeois but helplessly romantic adman regarded it in his exceedingly amusing 1986 quasi-parody, “Lost In America.”
Exquisitely photographed in available light by László Kovács, “Easy Rider” can also be enjoyed as a travelogue showcasing the beauty of the American Southwest—especially as director Hopper was clever enough to show the motorcycles roaring down the highway without forcing us to listen to their attendant racket. Thus it is also the first rock video. Hopper rejected a proposed score and used only prerecorded music, much as Stanley Kubrick did to such great effect in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film that was rescued from box-office oblivion only after it was adopted by the same young people who flocked to “Easy Rider.” Of course, Kubrick programmed the classics, while Hopper employed Hendrix, the Byrds, and, most notably, Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” which was adopted as the biker anthem. (It also popularized the term “heavy metal,” which was adopted as the generic tag for a burgeoning new form of rock, especially violent and mostly gloomy.)
What a difference a year made. “Monterey Pop” (also available from Criterion), released in 1968, is the dawn to the dusk of “Easy Rider.” A concert film shot in 1967, it celebrates the triumph of the gentle hippies whose spirits were so beguiling that attending policemen looked on and smiled as the longhairs placed flowers in their gun barrels. Even here, however, we note the darkness coming to the fore, with the bittersweet symphonies of the Mamas and the Papas supplanted by the anguished caterwauling of Janis Joplin and the then shocking violence of The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
By 1969, Thunderclap Newman was warning us to “lock up the street and houses, because there’s something in the air.” And Elvis Presley sang mournfully of the horrors of life “in the ghetto.”
Christopher Booker, in his Jungian analysis, identifies five stages in the “dream cycle” that characterized the ’50s and ’60s. They are the Anticipation Stage, the Dream Stage, the Frustration Stage, the Nightmare Stage and, finally, the Death Wish Stage or “explosion into reality.” In “Easy Rider” we witness a literal depiction of this explosion, when Captain America is blown off his motorcycle into martyrdom. The Kennedys were dead, Nixon was president, and the dream had become a nightmare.
Fittingly, “Drive, He Said,” which Nicholson directed and BBS released in 1970, portrays the effects of the aftermath on a student radical. He seeks refuge in Situationist follies, and after this proves unavailing is reduced to attempted rape and gibbering lunacy.
“Five Easy Pieces,” the 1970 Rafelson film that made Nicholson a star, is pure gall. His character, Robert Eroica Dupea, is in full retreat from his class, his talent, and any dreams he might have had. Abandoning his family of musical prodigies, he works on an oil rig. He takes up with, impregnates, and abandons a clinging, pathetic waitress, played by Karen Black, the ’70s icon with a face only Picasso could love. Her dream is to be the next Tammy Wynette. Rafelson demonstrates unusual critical acumen here. It seems that The People in whose name the ’60s radicals had fought had no use for the utopia found in Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement. Their only problem with the consumer society was that they weren’t getting enough of it. In “Easy Rider,” the rednecks are so ugly, physically and spiritually, as to be barely human; in “Five Easy Pieces,” they are more victims than victimizers.
Nicholson’s Dupea is solipsism personified: a worthless human being. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he is sexually irresistible to the white trash he beds in LA and to the sensitive artiste (engaged to his brother) he seduces in Washington state. A crasser Hamlet, he is the prototype of the “hero of suffering” that characterized ’70s male movie leads. In the movie’s most famous scene, Dupea, unable to contrive the construction of a chicken salad sandwich, humiliates another hapless waitress—who serves as a stand-in for The System—before dashing cutlery and tableware to the floor and storming out, to the shrieking delight of his female companions and contemporary audiences. At the end of “Five Easy Pieces,” Dupea hops into a trucker’s cab and vanishes, his destination being that of his wounded generation: anywhere but here.
In 1971, as a reward for editing “Easy Rider,” BBS released Henry Jaglom’s first film, “A Safe Place.” It was acclaimed as a “masterpiece” by the interminable Spanish pseud Anaïs Nin. Its characters, apart from a nice turn as a libidinous cad by Nicholson, are even more self-absorbed than Dupea. For 90 minutes we are treated to little more than oppressive close-ups of Tuesday Weld’s face, as she monologizes her affectless woe, and shots of Orson Welles performing magic tricks, as he spouts rabbinical paradoxes delivered in a Yiddish accent. “A Safe Place” resembles nothing so much as a series of outtakes from a documentary about schizophrenia. One guesses that Jaglom was influenced by the radical Scottish psychologist and ’60s intellectual superstar R.D. Laing, who posited that the cause of madness was the family, full stop.
Family, or the lack of it, is at the heart of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” also released by BBS in 1971. It was co-written by Larry McMurtry and based on his 1966 novel, a roman à clef derived from his childhood in Archer City, Texas, population 1,800. A teenage revenge fantasy, it bears a striking resemblance to that lurid multimedia phenomenon “Peyton Place.” It is set in 1952, anticipating the ’50s revival foreshadowed by the performance of “Sha Na Na” at, oddly enough, Woodstock in 1969. Its spirit, however, is undoubtedly contemporary, unless one is to believe that the sexual mores of Archer City were unusually depraved for the time and that Wichita Falls was the Sodom of the Texas Panhandle.
“The Last Picture Show” was a showcase for Bogdanovich’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, drawing not only from such obvious sources as John Ford but also from Robert Bresson’s genuine masterpiece, the then-obscure “Au Hasard Balthazar,” a key shot from which is reproduced in a rather different context. Indeed, if one cared to step out on a limb, it could be argued that the idiot child Billy is the film’s version of Bresson’s saintly donkey.
The critical and popular success of “Picture Show,” and its two supporting actor Oscars, established Bogdanovich as America’s cinematic wunderkind and invited inevitable comparisons with his mentor, Welles. The praise was deserved, as Bogdanovich rose effortlessly above his material, creating a picture show, by means of Robert Surtees’s austere black and white photography, of a town so denatured, so hollow, that at any point one expects the wind—a ubiquitous presence, almost a character in its own right—to carry it away.
The inhabitants of the town have seemingly lost the capacity for unmediated experience. Their memories are transmitted to them by mass media: radio and movies. And the last picture show of the title, the close of the town theater, is the result of the remorseless advance of that new great alienator, television.
Bogdanovich’s star, like Welles’s, burned brilliantly and faded fast. And like Welles, Bogdanovich had famous difficulties with girls. He left his wife for “Picture Show” star Cybill Shepherd and later took up with Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, who left her husband, Paul Snyder, for him. After Snyder discovered the affair, he lured her back to their marital home and blew her head off with a shotgun. Just three months later, journalist Teresa Carpenter accused Bogdanovich of complicity in her death and mocked him as a man with a “puerile preference for ingénues.” Carpenter’s essay was unfair and a more than a little obtuse—the quest for beauty is never puerile—but it did supply the source material for Bob Fosse’s astonishing “Star 80,” wherein we are reminded of that most un-Hollywood of morals, the wages of sin is death. Bogdanovich married Stratten’s 20-year-old sister in 1988; they divorced in 2001.
The final BBS film, “The King of Marvin Gardens,” was released in 1972. One could be forgiven for thinking that Bob Rafelson wrote it as well as directed it. (The script is by Jacob Brackman.) It concerns two brothers who represent the two sides of Rafelson’s character: poet and hustler. Jack Nicholson plays the poet, a reserved all-night DJ with a good line in stream of consciousness. Bruce Dern, as always more bemused than lunatic, plays the hustler, a soldier in the “Black Mafia.” Just as Rafelson is uncertain about the leadership of American organized crime, he is unable to resist the temptation to conflate it with legitimate business. Paradoxically, Dern is the dreamer, while Nicholson has given up. A meditation on Hollywood, perhaps.
“Marvin Gardens” strains at surrealism and allegory but succeeds at neither. As in Rafelson’s other efforts, misogyny is never far from the surface. On the other hand, who would have guessed that Ellen Burstyn had such a handsome body? To its credit, Nicholson was allowed to manifest a subtlety later absent in his career until “About Schmidt,” 30 years later. Its greatest virtue is another outstanding effort by director of photography László Kovács. There are compositions here as gorgeous as anything in American cinema. It all ends in tears, of course.
After “Marvin Gardens,” Bert Schneider produced “Hearts and Minds” and “Days of Heaven.” Rafelson directed two more notable films, “Stay Hungry” and the remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” His alliance with Nicholson continued for many more years, but he is mostly forgotten today. Steve Blauner left the industry.
By 1973, the revolution had devolved into the desperation of the Weather Underground (an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society) and the madness of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Meanwhile, the ’50s revival was in full swing. Chuck Berry and Neil Sedaka made comebacks, and pastiches like “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and “Crocodile Rock” dominated radio. “American Graffiti” was the surprise hit movie of the year.
By 1974, as the nation wallowed in Watergate, the quasi-knockoff “Happy Days” debuted. Two years later, it was the most popular show on TV. “Leave It to Beaver” was no longer so risible. That year, a one-term Georgia governor called Jimmy Carter, formerly nicknamed “the honey badger” for his fearsomeness, was elected president after donning a cardigan and a sincere grimace and confessing to Playboy, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” It was as if the ’60s had never happened.
By 1978, with the unprecedented success of “Animal House,” which sneered at liberal pieties, the Jungian dream cycle was back to the Anticipation Stage. Two years later, Ronald Reagan was elected, and the Dream Stage was at hand.
“America Lost and Found: The BBS Story” is a typical Criterion product. That is to say, it is of the highest quality in every respect. The presentation is display worthy, and the supplements are exhaustive. Viewing the transfers, the decades fall away and we observe the ’60s not as the Myth has it but rather as the cultural vanguard did.
Kevin Michael Grace is editor of ResourceClips.com. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.