Lucy in the Sky
There’s a point at which this joke stops being funny and turns sad, and it’s very early in its over two hours runtime.
Alongside all of the classic "canon" movies of the 1970s, movies like "The Godfather," Taxi Driver," "Chinatown," "Five Easy Pieces" (the list goes on and on), there were a host of second- and third-tier movies, movies that were, at times, dismissed or ignored by critics because they were not deemed "serious" enough, movies that were unloaded into second-run theatres or drive-ins. What happened to the movie industry in the 1960s and 1970s, following the collapse of the behemoth studio system, is well-known. For audience members who thrilled to the avant-garde, the opaque or ambiguous, the '70s were some kind of high watermark. But it's those other movies, the weirder and even more experimental movies, that are the subject of Charles Taylor's wonderful new book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You. Taylor's writing about film, music, and pop culture has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Observer, Los Angeles Times, and many other outlets.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a book-signing event at a small bookshop in Jersey City, followed by a Q&A afterwards with Taylor, hosted by Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek. One audience member prefaced her question with, "I love reading you because I never know what you're going to think about something. I can't predict it. Even when I disagree with you, I always want to know what you think." I mention that comment because it's one I share. It's very rare that you come across a critic whom you can say any of that about. People like that should be treasured. It is the mark of an original mind, a mind that is naturally immune to groupthink pressure.
Taylor's writing is sharp and insightful, funny and thought-provoking, and in his book he shines a spotlight on 15 films that—in their own "disreputable" ways—speak deeply about the era in which they were made.
I was happy to sit down with Taylor recently (I should disclose that he and I are friends) and talk about Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.
Let's start by talking about the word "disreputable," the word you use as the common denominator of the films you chose to include in the book.
I don't know that it's a word I would apply to any other art. Maybe rock 'n roll. But I've always thought that there's a special thrill to movies that have some sort of visceral charge, whether it's an erotic charge, whether it's a violent charge, material that isn't considered "nice," isn't considered refined. Which doesn't mean that I can't enjoy Ozu movies, of course. But I wanted to talk about movies that had that charge, whether because of their subject matter, their execution, whether because of the way they were received at the time. I didn't want to falsify them by saying, "Well, this was seen as sleazy but it's really not." I didn't want to falsely elevate them.
How did you pick the movies to include?
Some of them I had stayed away from because I was fearful of them as a kid. There are still things I won't see. I don't enjoy outright sadism, for example. The reviews of "Prime Cut" I read when I was a kid made me think that you actually saw a man ground into sausage in the movie. I watched these movies with no book in mind until I started thinking, "There's something here." There are things in these movies that are hard to shake off. And probably I wouldn't have thought that there was something there if the commercial movies of this age weren't so bad.
You talk in the book about the impact "Star Wars" had at the time, an impact now so total that the entire industry caters to the adolescent boy.
By the time "Star Wars" came out, the audience for '70s movies was already shrinking. There were things coming out that people were staying away from. But we're essentially talking about two film-makers that brought about the change, George Lucas and Ronald Reagan. Lucas stood in opposition to the '70s filmmakers. Francis Coppola makes a gangster movie and gives it a tragic realism, an ending where the bad guys don't get captured. But all Lucas cared about was reproducing those old Buck Rogers cliches, and he does it and it's really successful. 3 years later, America elects a President who wants to reproduce another set of cliches about American life and he's got big box office too. He does really well. So the two work in tandem.
And that leads to now, where mainstream movie-making is almost completely catered to the adolescent boy. Superhero movies, sequels, like our colleague Gene Seymour said, movies where no matter how good they are initially, at some point they become a product. Around awards time come the movies where they decide, "This is what we put out to show that we're still interested in making quality movies." The thing is, though, that those movies, a movie like "Spotlight," for example ... In the '70s, "Spotlight" would have been the hit that "Wonder Woman" is now. In the '80s, there were movies that pretended to be adult movies. Like "Field of Dreams," which is all about how the '60s rebels regret how bad they were, and they apologize to the generation they rebelled against, and they realize that baseball is going to save the soul of America. But now, there's no pretense.
Let's talk about the first movie you cover in the book, a movie it is literally impossible to think of being made today, the great "Prime Cut."
"Prime Cut" is a gangster movie set in the American heartland, the place where Nixon said the silent majority of America lived, the people who supported the war. But of course it's also the place where when bodies started coming home, when people started seeing footage from Vietnam on Walter Cronkite or those weekly spreads in Life magazine - these same people started saying, "We don't know why we're there." Nixon lost the heartland. But in "Prime Cut" you enter that heartland. There's a sequence at a county fair and it's so beautiful. The director Michael Ritchie is not looking down on it. There's the pie contest, there's cattle, games and rides, and it looks like a fun day out. It's not presented in a condescending way.
But this is also a place where there is a drug and prostitution business and it's run by this guy whose cover for it is a meat business. What I got from this movie is a sense of rapaciousness. That America is eating its own. Obviously it's eating the soldiers, and you can't say that the people who were on the homefront went through what the people who fought in Vietnam did - but I think people on the homefront during that time were chewed up in their own way, too. Psychically chewed up. In some ways it was worse for people who had been taught that when your country goes to war you support it no matter what, who were taught to never question the President because he's the President. And here are people who sense that something is obviously wrong. What that did was that it shook the foundations of everything that they had grown up with. You have to feel something for those folks. I see "Prime Cut" as a wicked satire on silent majority America.
A lot of current political/social commentary is so on the nose you can't miss it. But you suggest in your book the complexity and depth in that scene at the county fair, people having a good time, innocent fun, but then there's Lee Marvin strolling through it.
Yes, Lee Marvin as a Chicago mob enforcer strolling through this country fair. "Prime Cut" opens with a sequence of cattle being led to the slaughter, and you don't see the slaughter. And there's Muzak playing over the scene, Muzak that they probably played in factories to soothe the workers, and it seemed to me that this was the point. That the war was being sold, not reported but sold, in a way that wanted to take the blood and horror away from it. When the reality of it started to come back in terms of eyewitness accounts, newsreel footage, the image that was sold of the war wouldn't hold. You could say the same thing for a just war like WWII. Paul Fussell writes about British soldiers being on leave and seeing "Mrs. Miniver" and laughing at it. One of the things I was drawn to about "Prime Cut" was that the social stuff is in the texture of the movie, it's soaked into it. No one's making speeches.
I loved your discussion of the Stones' album Some Girls, connecting it to the chilly terror of "Eyes of Laura Mars." That cold perfect glamour but with shit all around it that was New York at that time.
When the Stones made Some Girls they had to prove themselves because the punks were dismissing them. So they made the best record they'd made in years, a record set in New York which was all about, "Let's revel in this sleaze." You listen to people now waxing nostalgic for that era in New York and a lot of time they leave out how dangerous it was. At the same time, there were great things going on. I love that "Eyes of Laura Mars" embraces the sleaze, saying This is part of the city, this is part of what gives it its energy. I didn't even think of this when I was writing the book, but one of the things about that movie that has resonance today is its attitude towards New York. "Remember 9/11" has become a right-wing rallying cry. And of course we should remember 9/11! But it's a rallying cry made often by people who talk about the "real America" which most certainly does not include New York. It's like the Woody Allen line: "I think of us as Jewish homosexual pornographers, and I live here." These people forget where 9/11 took place. I thought, "You can't be upset about that event and hate us at the same time." You really get sick of being told that if you love your country and you live in New York you're not a "real American."
Look at the demographics of this country. If you are living in a place where you see only white faces and you think you don't know any gay people—let's just say that New Yorkers aren't the ones living in a bubble.
My friend Mitchell and I have discussed this. He calls it the "cultural mainstreaming of the Jewish persona."
He's right. It was the mainstreaming of Jewishness. Streisand and Hoffman would have had careers in the 30s and 40s but they would have been supporting players. In the '60s and '70s, they were charismatic movie stars. Sexual. Desirable. Stars who weren't told to go get their noses fixed. For all this talk now about the evils of standardized beauty, that revolution already happened in Hollywood in the '60s. People like George Segal. Sandy Dennis. Karen Black.
Eileen Brennan. What a great broad. You started seeing more room being made for people who didn't fit into what was thought of as the star mould. They were people like you'd see in your actual life. But I've never seen anyone like Barbra Streisand in my actual life.
Pauline Kael said in her review of "Funny Girl" that Streisand arrived just when movies needed her the most.
When "The Way We Were" came out, people were saying "She's beautiful in this because we see her through Robert Redford's eyes." No. He's human in this because we see him through Streisand's eyes. She didn't need the Goyim to make her seem beautiful. It's so weird because now, I'm standing in line at the supermarket and I see a person on the cover of a tabloid and I think, "Who is that?" There's less quirkiness now which makes me value even more the people who come along who have classic star power. I don't know why Chris Pine isn't getting every leading role there is. He's gorgeous, he's charming, he's got a great level-headed presence, and what he does in "Wonder Woman" is amazing. He is there to show her off. That is really the mark of someone who knows how to act in front of a camera: I am going to step back a bit and let my co-star shine.
Robert Redford said—and I'm paraphrasing—that Streisand was so feminine that he got to be his most masculine—but she was so powerful—i.e. masculine—that he got to be his most vulnerable. I wonder how that would play on social media today.
I teach, and I'm not applying this to everyone, because I have great students and a lot of my former students have gone on to become friends, but aesthetically, right now, we are dealing with the most conservative generation I can remember. It's a generation that expects art to act out parables, not just in the content of the art, but in the making of it. They care about the correct—not politically correct—but correct attitudes, which they seem to think is something we have all agreed on and established.
A friend of mine years ago taught Tess of the d'Urbervilles in junior high and had to explain to his students that “No this is not a sexist book because she is raped.” But there is this attitude that if something bad happens in the film, the movie endorses it. It's baffling. It's one of the reasons I quoted that Tavis Smiley interview with Viola Davis in the book. Davis said that life is messy and art is messy too. It's very frustrating, this idea we have that art has to solve problems, or it has to hit these notes right every time. That's not what art does. I was asked by two very intelligent young interviewers why, when I wrote about blaxploitation movies, I chose two movies directed by a white man, "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." But I chose them because I wanted to write about Pam Grier and, by extension, what roles black women haven't gotten in movies.
Talk about Streisand being what the movies needed the most! Same thing with Grier! The movies needed her desperately.
She has real presence, real power on the screen. She never had the roles that sustained it. There was a review of the book that said I didn't write about female points of view. Well, as a colleague of ours pointed out to me—a female colleague—one of the reasons Molly Haskell wrote From Reverence to Rape around that time was because she thought, "Gee! There's not a lot of women represented in the movies!"
Speaking of these issues, the section on the TV series "I Spy" was so much fun. My first experience with Robert Culp was when he was on "Greatest American Hero," and my brother and I were kids, but we could tell that he was riffing, brilliantly, all the time. The dynamic between Culp and Bill Cosby in "I Spy" and "Hickey & Boggs" is fascinating.
I had an interesting response to this from Gene Seymour. He grew up in public housing in Hartford, Connecticut and everyone watched "I Spy." And he said that everyone was excited that the white guy was as hip as the black guy, because it meant the the white guy wanted to emulate the black guy. This was a demonstration of the enduring style and power of black culture. Now it would be seen as cultural appropriation. I didn't say anything about Cosby's travails in the book. No matter what that jury finds, I think he's guilty, I think he should spend the rest of his life in prison, but I don't think that negates the work he did. I understand that people don't want to look at it, but I don't think it negates his work. I thought "Hickey & Boggs" was an important movie to talk about.
What movies would you say now have this "disreputable" quality?
"John Wick" does in a way, but I don't think there's any social content behind it. I may sound like I'm contradicting myself. I don't know if I could write about "John Wick" the way I write about the movies in this book. Maybe in 30 years I could.
You wrote a beautiful essay in the book about "Two-Lane Blacktop"—which I think is a masterpiece.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" is the odd man out in this book because it was presented as an art film and it is an art film, in a way. You can't just throw that up in front of an audience. An audience really has to tune into the mood of it.
There's a silence around those characters, even with the roar of the engines. There's so much space in that movie. What movies now have that kind of space, do you think?
The only thing I can think of in terms of something like "Two-Lane Blacktop" is "Somewhere" by Sofia Coppola. She is a quiet movie-maker. She works in inchoate moods, and shifting emotions, fleeting moments between people. I had a weird experience seeing "Somewhere." I went to the screening and I was thinking, "This is good, this is the kind of thing she does so well" and I was carried along with it, but then the credits came on, and I burst into tears. The movie just caught up with me. One of the things I wonder is if being aware of the moods that Coppola is aware of—how fleeting those moods are—how good she is at making emotionally articulate what is verbally inarticulate—I wonder if in some ways that doesn't lead you to an awareness, an unselfconscious awareness, of American loneliness, which is what I think "Two-Lane Blacktop" is about. Those landscapes. They're not pretty landscapes, but those people in "Two-Lane Blacktop" are caught in those landscapes. There are connections that feel like they're barely made even as they're together.
Also, the two cars. There's the '55 Chevy, a car that's basically empty in the back for aerodynamics and all their tools, and then there's Warren Oates' spanking-new GTO.
Cars are like pods. They're self-contained worlds for each of them. But the weird thing about "Two-Lane Blacktop" is that it's a movie about stock car racing, right? The director, Monte Hellmann, was supposed to bring in the movie under two hours. The rough cut's three and a half hours long, and he cuts out all the racing scenes! People went to see that for the drag racing and it's not there, it's just a series of these inarticulate scenes.
And the characters aren't hippies either. The film does not flatter its audience.
No, there's no "us against them" in the movie because everyone is so alone. But then, around the same time, you have a movie that I also wrote about, a movie which had plenty of car stuff in it—"Vanishing Point"—but "Vanishing Point" is weird in its own way. There's a lot of movement in it but it's movement that reaches a kind of Zen state. It's movement that is almost still because it's the norm. Kowalski—Barry Newman's character—wants to keep moving and he reaches a kind of movement that is the norm, and you relax into it, the way you relax when you're on a drive.
What was the reaction to "Vanishing Point" at the time?
It was a big hit. In Europe it was taken quite seriously.
One of the things we have today that does what "Two-Lane Blacktop" was doing is "Twin Peaks." "Twin Peaks" is so strange and it's so entertaining in its strangeness. This is a story I always think about when people talk about the accessibility of David Lynch, or lack thereof. Remember the scene in the second season of "Twin Peaks," first episode, where Cooper is shot and he's lying on the floor and this old doddering waiter comes in? That scene goes on forever. Cooper is lying there and this old waiter is acting as if nothing is wrong. I watched that scene and my Dad was at his home watching it and I called him afterwards and asked what he thought, if he thought that scene was strange. He said, "No. That's what it was like when I had my first heart attack and I had to crawl to the door to open it for the EMTs. That's what time is like."
In the final chapter, you discuss Manny Farber's famous essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," where he makes the case that "termite art" is often more effective at getting at issues like How We Live Now. Genre movies, B-movies, these work like termites. Who is doing "termite art" now?
Maybe not in the movies right now. I'm not one of those people who are like, "I don't like Hollywood movies." When there's a good Hollywood movie out, I'm thrilled. Someone called me two summers ago and said "Go see 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'" So I went and saw it and it's slick and fun, it has wit and style. Last summer, I loved "The Shallows" with Blake Lively and the shark, it's a really well-made B-movie. There are good things being made but increasingly they are not being made in the Hollywood system. I can think of 4 or 5 movies in the last year that I've loved, really loved.
I don't know how James Gray got "The Lost City of Z" made. I read some of the reviews and they're like, "There's no thrill to it, no grand passion," but it's not that type of movie. It's about the inner life of this guy. It's about a guy in opposition to his culture, even though he thinks he's upholding the values he claims to espouse. I really liked "Kedi.” I loved “My Life as a Zucchini.” I loved loved "Personal Shopper.” Olivier Assayas' movies, to me, are an expression of what I think modern life is like. The beauty of the world today and yet at the same time people feel out of step with it. There's a transitory quality to life now. Assayas gets that in movie after movie. He gives you a home in disconnection.
The movies in this book are loaded with nudity and guns and hot-rods, but they have this political and cultural resonance that, I imagine, will make people want to take another look at them. Or, at the very least, see them for the first time.
It was an era when the politics and the turmoil soaked into everything. So by definition these movies are going to have something analogous to their age, they're going to have some of the mood of their time in them.
To order your copy of Charles Taylor's Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, click here.
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