1969 has four titles, three of which I’ve seen before. We’re getting into a time period where quality is matching up a little with Academy Awards, though there’s still a bit of a schism. In any case, all the titles on this list were nominated for Oscars, and most of them won awards including Best Picture. I’ve been even more aware of the schism because 1969 was being talked about a great deal by film critics as I was watching these titles. The new version of True Grit by the Coen Bros. was just released and, coincidentally, the original was released in 1969. While groundbreaking works such as the ones on this list as well as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch were released, True Grit seemed like a bit of a throwback by many accounts. Truthfully, I’ve seen the new one which I enjoyed very much, but I’ve never seen the original. Opinions of the original are merely an unscientific sampling of data based on…uh…stuff I’ve read. So this schism led to Midnight Cowboy winning Best Picture, both brilliant performances being nominated for Best Actor, and John Wayne winning for True Grit, seemingly to be primarily for sentimental value. I know I said I was losing interest in the Oscar side of this, but I never promised I’d be consistent.
Costa-Gavras’ Z is the first title of ’69. It’s based on an actual incident that happened in Greece, directed by a Greek director, but was shot in Algeria and France, in French, using primarily French actors. Because of this, it is allowed to be about more than merely the events the film is loosely based on, but also about all the other political conspiracies and coverups happening in the ‘60’s or, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, “It is no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria.” A charismatic leftist candidate is attacked at a political rally and later dies of his injuries. It’s very clear that the attacker as well as the rest of the angry “counter demonstrators” are put up to it by the local police. I say clear in the sense that we’re given enough information in the beginning to know this to be true, but the details as to the breadth and depth of it are unfolded over the course of the film. In one of my opening posts, I made my disdain for critic Armond White clear, but I must give him credit for crafting a brilliant and thorough essay about Z included in the liner notes of the Criterion edition. In it, he refers to Z as “not a whodunit but a how it was done.” There are so many parallels to situations in the ‘60’s as well as today, so I’m just going to refer to the ones that struck me the most. I’m especially intrigued by the guerilla organization hired by the police to put down the demonstration. Rather than just making them hired thugs, they’re working stiffs convinced that they’re working to suppress Communism. But the tenets of Marxism taken out of context and not labeled as such are very appealing to working people. So they’re taken to meetings, told they’re fighting Communist, and then spoon feed them Communist propaganda to keep them interested. It hearkens to our present day Tea Party. Insurance companies fund them, send them to disrupt town hall meetings, and they sputter with outrage about how they don’t want government run health care to interfere with their Medicare, which, of course, is government run health care. This is the most direct analogy, but it also works in a general sense about how middle and lower class people are often duped into supporting policies that work against their own interests. I was very wary as the ending approached because it almost seemed as if the intrepid investigator who uncovers all the government corruption is actually going to see justice served. But, in the interests of reality, and, indeed, paranoid political films of this era that make them ring so true, the rug is pulled from under us in the final seconds of the film, reminding us that even when we think we’re making a difference, even when we think we’re gaining some ground, those in power rarely cede it even when you beat them using their own rules. Because, after all, they made the rules. And they can change them whenever they want.
The next title is Easy Rider and I invited my friend Matt P. to join me. I thought he might be a useful screening partner as he recently wrote a thesis entitled, “In a Blast of Trumpet Glory and Dust”: Bikers, Riders, and Motorcyclists in 20th Century Anglo America. Easy Rider is another one of those titles I first saw probably 20 years ago, and saw it at least twice. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, but it all seemed pretty familiar. I enjoyed revisiting it even if it didn’t make quite as much of an impact on me this time around. At the very least, it works as an impressive time capsule, perfectly capturing the counterculture of the time as well as the violent hostility towards it. I mentioned earlier about the way westerns, as a genre, were being redefined and exploded, the two extremes being True Grit and The Wild Bunch, but in some ways this feels a bit like a western as well, with the motorcycles as standins for horses. The plot is fairly simple. Billy and Captain America, also known as Wyatt(Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) make a big score on a drug deal and set about a cross country journey on their motorcycles, starting in southern California, wanting to make a stop in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and eventually to Florida. They start out in a commune, which seems an Eden like paradise. Wyatt seems tempted to stay, but, of course, they venture out of paradise, leading them to arrest in one small town where they pick up a local ACLU lawyer(Jack Nicholson). Nicholson is beaten to death while camping and the other two are shot and killed on their motorcycles by a redneck who just seems to think its good sport. They make it to New Orleans first and trip on acid in a graveyard with a couple of hookers played by Toni Basil and Karen Black. The next night over the campfire as Billy looks forward to their next destination, Wyatt says simply, “We blew it.” This is a line much discussed and I brought it up with Matt as to what it meant. We essentially came to the same conclusion, I think. Of course, in a larger sense, he could be speaking for the generation, indicating that they could have changed the world, but instead they just opted out for the easy pleasures. Or maybe, as the character, he’s simply saying that they never should have left the paradise of the commune. If it seems as if I’m struggling with this, I am. I know a lot’s been said about this film and it’s certainly iconic and I don’t know what else can be said about it that’s not repetitive and superfluous. Maybe I should end this one on a more personal note. My parents recently visited me for the late December winter holidays and joined me for a number of screenings. The subject of Jack Nicholson came up. My father noted that Nicholson, who had not crossed his radar before, really caught his attention and piqued his curiosity in this film and he made it a point to seek out his work afterward. The film really does come to life in a new way when Nicholson enters the film. Though he has credits that date back to 1956, this really was the beginning of Nicholson not only as someone to watch, but as a key figure in the new Hollywood movement. It’s his first of seven titles on this list and reminds me that there are a curious mix of figures on this list. Some are established figures who are more products of old Hollywood and would have flourished there and indeed had been, people like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Warren Beatty, who seemed to relish the idea of doing something a little more fresh and unconventional. And then there are people like Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman who no doubt would have worked, but because of the types of films that were being produced had their careers made. It’s a curious mix here as Hopper had a great deal of credits and Fonda was essentially, as the son of Peter Fonda, Hollywood royalty. Nicholson was also not even the first choice for the role. But here we see, in one moment, established names, rising stars, and a new style of filmmaking coming together to create something truly original.