The Return of Radical Innocence: New York retrospectives revive the '60s spirit

ScreenerBlog

For many Baby Boomers, the ongoing 50th anniversaries of so many key cultural and political moments in American history are reviving a mixed brew of memories. For those who weren’t around all those years ago, the repertory houses of New York City are filling in the blanks.

Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives and the IFC Center are all looking back at the 1960s. The movies of that decade decisively broke from earlier traditions, whether because more independent films were being produced or because the breakdown of the studio system forced aesthetic and thematic changes upon even Hollywood’s output. All of these winter-spring programs are being promoted as part of Carnegie Hall’s city-wide “The ’60s: The Years That Changed America.”

The most comprehensive, if jam-packed, of the series starts on Friday, Jan. 19 at Film Forum: “60s Verité,” a 19-day, 64-film festival. As the Film Forum title suggests, we are far afield from neatly packaged Hollywood, focusing on the documentaries that took a new free-form approach (called cinéma vérité or direct cinema). This style—pioneered in part by journalist Robert Drew—includes long takes of subjects, sometimes caught off-guard, in their own milieu (no talking heads in studio setups, no post-dubbed voiceover narration). The camerawork alone was shockingly different: handheld cameras following people around or aimed through car windows—no tripods or attempts at expert framing. We are so used to this form today, especially with news specials and “reality TV,” it takes some effort to comprehend how unusual this type of shooting seemed to viewers at the time.

The Film Forum selection extends beyond American titles and wisely counts at least a few released in the 1950s and 1970s as theoretically “’60’s films,” since slicing a decade into a strict ten-year length has never been a very helpful way of looking back at or understanding history. Another bonus: Several films will be introduced by special guests or the filmmakers themselves.

Though neither Robert Drew nor Jean Rouch were the first directors to employ handheld cameras, the impact amongst their cinéma vérité peers could be rightly attributed most of all to the French documentarian. It is fitting then that many Rouch works (nine total) are a major part of the lineup, including his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (1961, co-directed by Edgar Morin), concerning a diverse group of individuals dissecting the very movie in which they are partaking. Just as intriguing: The Human Pyramid (1961), where the participants suggest varied endings to the unfinished film (which, thus, becomes the “ending”); plus the earlier, anti-Colonial rarities The Mad Masters (1955), Mammy Water (1955), Jaguar (1968) and Jaguar’s bizarre sequel, Little By Little (1970), all films set in Ghana, and Moi, Un Noir (1958), on the Ivory Coast, and The Lion Hunters (1968), in the Songhay region; and, finally, Punishment (1962), about a Parisian teenager’s traumatic experience as she records her interactions with a succession of men.

Clearly, Rouch was influential. In America alone, filmmakers Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman also used this "fly-on-the-wall" technique. Drew’s works cover both entertainers and politicians of the era, trying to capture them in unscripted, more transparent ways than had been standard practice up to that point: Jane (1962, co-directed with Pennebaker and Hope Ryden) involves 25-year-old Jane Fonda’s backstage preparations for her flop Broadway debut, The Fun Couple, while On the Road with Duke Ellington (1967, co-directed with Mike Jackson) invites us on a wistful late career tour with the jazz maestro.

Drew’s better-known political portraits are also on display: Primary (1960), a combined endeavor with Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, trails after various candidates running for President during the Wisconsin Primary; Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963, co-directed by Gregory Shuker), starkly contrasts the agendas of racist governor George Wallace and the Kennedy administration; and Faces of November (1964), catches impressions in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination.

Pennebaker’s solo efforts include his music documentaries: the much-parodied Don’t Look Back (1967), a Bob Dylan concert film and unstinting peek behind the scenes of the iconoclastic if arrogant folk-music hero, and Monterey Pop (1968), more concert this time with less peeking plus a Who’s Who parade of ’60s rock stars; and Pennebaker’s lesser-known but equally interesting One P.M. (1971), the real-time collapse of a Jean-Luc Godard project, with Rip Torn and Jefferson Airplane among its casualties; and an early work, Yanki No! (1960, co-directed with Richard Leacock and the Maysles Brothers), looking critically at Fidel Castro shortly after the Cuban Revolution.

Albert and David Maysles get a few slots of their own, in particular Gimme Shelter (1970), about the infamous Rolling Stones Altamont concert, climaxed by a murder in the crowd; the comparatively conventional Showman (1963), about producer Joseph E. Levine (with cameos by Sophia Loren and Kim Novak); the more revealing Meet Marlon Brando (1965), with the actor at his testy yet charismatic best; and the funny short, A Visit with Truman Capote (1965), featuring the author celebrating his In Cold Blood success by treating the novel’s Midwest cop hero and his wife to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in Manhattan.

Fred Wiseman’s ’60s institutional studies were showcased in last year’s Film Forum tribute to the director, but they deserve a second look in the context of his contemporaries, including his powerful first film, Titicut Follies (1967), a onetime banned film about subhuman conditions in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Also on tap: Wiseman’s High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), and Basic Training (1971). For more details, see our earlier post

What is extra-special, though, about this particular series are the collection of long and short documentaries by little-known filmmakers that have not been seen in years—if ever at all. Look out for: Dick Fontaine’s Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (1968), with the peripatetic novelist making movies, giving interviews and demonstrating against the Vietnam War; Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a pre-Paris Is Burning drag queen contest; Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1968), about the ordeal of the Troubles (with a cameo by John Huston!); Allan King’s A Married Couple (1969), a Bergmanesque “actuality drama” starring a free-spirited Canadian couple; Thomas Reichman’s Mingus (1968), a searing look at jazz artist Charles Mingus—in the midst of being evicted from his home; and most surreal of all, two late career (1965) last hurrahs for Buster Keaton, Gerald Potterton’s The Railrodder and John Spotton’s Buster Keaton Rides Again.

Not many women broke through during this era of supposed emancipation, but a few of their works are represented here: Shirley Clarke’s controversial Portrait of Jason (1967), a tragicomic on-camera confessional; Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), a preview of today’s Resistance Movement (with Coretta Scott King leading the way); and Charlotte Zwerin’s unheralded co-direction on the Maysles’ films.

It is notable, too, that Film Forum does not distinguish between documentaries and mockumentaries or fiction films made in a documentary-style. After all, as Godard once put it, “If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), and William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) are all mind-bending in their manner of recreating both material and psychological “realism”—at least the way we think we know what those terms mean—and often fooling us in the process.

The influence of cinéma vérité on fictional work is so often associated with Cassavetes above everyone else that Anthology Film Archives has created a long-running series of its own, “Beyond Cassavetes: Lost Legends of the New York Film World.” Every month or so, filmmakers less famous than actor-turned-director Cassavetes get their due—usually with projects that are so rare they are not available on DVD or online and haven’t been screened since their brief showings decades ago. Yes, there have been relatively “big name” titles, like Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, but most are complete obscurities. On Feb. 2, it might be worth a trip downtown to Anthology to see one of only two films directed by Asphalt Jungle screenwriter Ben Maddow: An Affair of the Skin (1963), a study of marital discord starring Kevin McCarthy, Lee Grant, Viveca Lindfors and the unjustly forgotten Diana Sands.

Previous discoveries by “Beyond Cassavetes” curator Michael Bowen have included Rick Carrier’s lone feature, Strangers in the City (1962), about Puerto Rican immigrants struggling in the big city; Robert McCarty’s Light Fantastic (1964), an offbeat love story with Jean Shepherd in the supporting cast; and Raymond Phelan’s Too Young, Too Immoral (1962), a thriller starring future Warhol Factory celebrity Taylor Mead.

In the meantime, the IFC Center has already started its series “Uneasy Riders: ’60s Hollywood” (Jan. 12-April 1), centering on standout mainstream films of the era. Though the group is a limited, well-recognized one, it is hard to argue with the selection, including Psycho (1960), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Blow-up (1966), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and three from 1969: Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy. Each film had or has had a tremendous impact—even if some hold up better today than others.

If nothing else, these productions—with the benefit of hindsight—allow us to see history in a big picture, something vital for survival given our political climate today.