21 March 2009

They Made Me Who I am Today: Six Films Present at My Creation

At the end of my last writing here I said: "In my next post I’ll examine the aftermath of 1968 Oscars in film as it related to yours truly." I've got every right to change my mind and I am so doing. This post will be about six films that influenced me as a young man and a movie goer beginning with two that received nominations for best picture in 1968. These two, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, were at the core of Mark Harris' book Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood ,which was the subject of my last post. That being said, here are the six pics in the order I saw them.

Bonnie & Clyde (1967). I'd never seen anything like it on the big screen. There was graphic violence. It was neither revolting nor glorified, it was just there. When Clyde shoots his pursuer in the face I had this instant, wow, gulp reaction. It was startling. It was not pretty. It was the way to tell a story -- realistically. Buck Barrow's death and his wife's blinding similarly made powerful impressions on me. This was the real face of violence. It seemed important to see it that way. The movie also featured sex, sort of. Clearly Clyde had, shall we say, issues. As someone just entering his teens this was amazing. Obviously sex was far more complicated than I had imagined why it even included malfunctions. I felt for the guy and had something to think about other than the action. Most significantly the clear heroes of the film were the criminals. This did not make me aspire to robbery. Like a lot of young folks I was deeply immersed in the rebellious attitudes and actions sweeping our country. There was real Robin Hood and anti establishment elements to Bonnie & Clyde. I felt that through this film there was a cool cinematic face to what was going on.

The Graduate (1967). Talk about anti establishment! There was no wanton criminality. There were no protests. There was no illicit drug use. But Ben Braddock seemed to me the ultimate rebel and never mind whether he had a cause. What a totally cool guy. He'd just finished college with honors but wasn't going to take what was then called the "straight" route. No "plastics" for him. Never mind that he didn't really doanything, save sleep with a much older woman. Ben did what hewanted to do and if that was nothing, well cool. Of course he ultimately goes to any and all lengths to get the girl he wanted. What could be cooler than that? Especially the way they haul off together, her having just married another dude and still in her wedding dress. Screw social conventions! That Simon & Garfunkel's sounds accompanied much of the story made seem even cooler yet.

If...(1968). If this list were in order, If...would have been first. You start off with Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis. My first film idol was Steve McQueen, then came McDowell. He was really really cool and really really British (like the Beatles!). McDowell was perfect because he wasn't a perfect specimen. Not too handsome. Not too strong. Not too tough. Just totally self assured and totally of his own mold. Mick Travis listened to classical music, for chrissakes. Who does that? Travis does because he's totally comfortable with being who he is. If.... was set in old English private school (is there any other kind?). So you've got a mix of different lads. As young men we can all relate to being thrown in together with a mixed bag of other chaps. There's the bullies, the geeks, the jocks, and then there's guys like Mick. The whole allegorical business of the mass killing at the end was endlessly fascinating. Mick and his friends (followers?) including his girl, seemed to be taking their protest to the logical extreme. The movie was saying something profound. I wasn't so adept at interpreting it as I was at enjoying the fact of this improbable kind of story telling. McDowell was hero to me but I should have known to credit the film's director Lindsay Anderson for the way the story was told. I was utterly thrilled by If... as were my friends. We discussed it for hours and hours.

Midnight Cowboy (1969). I was absolutely bowled over. Dustin Hoffman's acting, the Harry Nilsson song, the realism....I felt somehow empowered that I could see serious stories being told on screen. No romance, comedy, action or adventure. A story about the way life really was. The kind of stories I'd just become acquainted with through novels. Midnight Cowboy made me want to tell stories of humans struggling with life. It made me want to be an actor and give a riveting performance that made people gasp. It made me want to make a movie using profound songs like "Everybody's Talkin'." It was so thrilling to see a story populated with so many strange characters and happenings. When Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture I cheered. The Hollywood establishment had gotten it right. (Little did I know how seldom they'd do so in the future).

MASH (1970). Sticking it to the Vietnam war! Sticking it to the army! Sticking it to the government! And with sex, booze and football. Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland were regularly featured stars during my teens. They were oft times irreverent and never more so than in this Robert Altman film. This was a buddy picture. A bunch of guys, led by Gould and Sutherland, hanging out, thumbing their noses at the army while having fun and sex. But get this, these guys were also highly competent doctors. They were saving lives in the bargain! How cool is that? You can be of service to humanity but not to the bureaucrats and you can swill martinis and fornicate in the bargain. Life could be fun!

A Clockwork Orange (1971). It's scary how totally into this movie, indeed this story I was into. Saw the film a half dozen times. Read the book. Bought the soundtrack. Had a poster from the film. And last but not least, I bought a derby from a San Francisco gentleman's store. Yes, a derby just like Alex wore. A Clockwork Orange the book was a great piece of literature from Anthony Burgess. Stanley Kubrick's cinematic version was bravura film making. But why my obsession? Well there's McDowell again. Watching a hero go through all manner of experience and come out okay in the end is fulfilling. Especially when he doesn't play by any rules but his own. I was NOT inspired to violence by the story. I WAS inspired to live. Really live. This is part of the impact of these films. They made me want to be true to my essence. I knew there were certain boundaries, social niceties. But if I was going to march the straight and narrow, I'd do it to the beat of my own drummer. A Clockwork Orange was an extension of what was started for me by If...Life as full of endless possibilities and subject to our interpretation. What did Alex's story mean? what were Kubrick or Burgess or McDowell saying? Imagine putting your own spin on a story. Seeing it through your own eyes. The point of A Clockwork Orange wasn't to engage in violence but to engage in your own life. Violence was a choice Alex made. It wasn't real. Living life as you saw it was real.

All these movies thrilled me. They also challenged me to learn more and be more and understand more. They fueled my own irreverence, my sense of humor and my questioning of authority. That movies questioned the establishment convinced me that art could be an integral part of social change. I wanted to be part of change. I wanted it in myself and I wanted it for the world.

Other influential films for me were Play it Again, Sam (1972), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Little Big Man (1970), O Lucky Man! (1973), Getting Straight (1970), Serpico (1973) and Zabriske Point (1970). Yeah, no foreign films, those came to me later.

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