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Losers Take All: On the New American Cinema | The Nation

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Losers Take All: On the New American Cinema

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America Lost and Found
The BBS Story.
Criterion Collection.
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About the Author

Heather Hendershot
Heather Hendershot is Professor of Film and Media at MIT. Her most recent book, What’s Fair on the Air: Cold War...

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While big budget filmmakers like Leone and Kubrick undercut the classic rules of genre, exploitation and B-movie directors like Corman and Sam Fuller worked comfortably within the confines of various genres (horror, the western, the thriller), while also engaging with the shifting values and ideological crises of postwar America. Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959) shows a powerful female corporate executive who cracks under pressure; she runs a cosmetics company and has gotten too “old” (she’s over 30) to be its spokesperson. Special anti-aging drugs remedy the problem, until she turns into… well, the title says it all. Admittedly, The Wasp Woman is one of Corman’s better directorial efforts; many of his early films are visually flat and hard to watch. Corman made a bigger impact as a producer; although he was not inclined to venerate the “personal vision” cherished by BBS, he gave his directors a long leash (tied to small budgets). Virtually every director or star and a number of cinematographers of the New American Cinema—Bogdanovich, Fonda, Nicholson, Coppola, Scorsese, Kovacs, Bruce Dern, Monte Hellman and Robert Towne—cut their teeth in the business working for Corman.

Not aspiring to artistic greatness, Corman productions stuck to a formula of action, humor and sex, lightly seasoned with a liberal social message. “The liberal or left-of-center political viewpoint was…worth ‘exploiting,’” he explained. “It improved the films, too, because it added a coherence usually lacking on low-budget films.” In 1970 Stephanie Rothman made an exploitation movie for Corman called The Student Nurses; the female protagonists had to bare their chests a few times (a concession to the drive-in and grindhouse audiences), but they also took time out to rap about abortion. Gale Anne Hurd, who would later produce Aliens, The Terminator and The Abyss, says, “I never even realized sexism existed in Hollywood until I got outside New World,” Corman’s production company. “Roger had no problem…hiring women directors, women editors, women art directors, producers, writers.” Maybe he simply considered it good business to hire hungry young artists of either gender on the cheap, but Corman was certainly ahead of the curve where Women’s Lib was concerned.

Like Corman, but with a keener sense of aesthetic innovation, Sam Fuller also made genre films that broke with the old Hollywood morality. Because many of his best films were produced in the 1950s and ’60s, and because he was one of the last of the studio-contracted B-movie directors, Fuller is frequently described as a “predecessor” to the New American Cinema. Yet in their formal innovations and social critique, his films easily match, or even surpass, what the new kids would accomplish a few years later. The message of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) is that while women and men both like to screw around, men do it for fun whereas women do it for the money. In The Naked Kiss (1964), a glorious Blu-ray transfer of which has recently been released by Criterion, Fuller portrays a similar sexual dynamic but draws a very different conclusion: the male exploitation of women is just a goddamn shame.

Kelly, a prostitute who decides to go straight, is the film’s moral center. She’s tough, violent and damaged. The film opens shortly after Kelly’s procurer has swindled her, slipped her a mickey and shaved her head. The bald Kelly takes her revenge by getting the pimp drunk, clobbering him and taking back the money he owes her. Two years later, she’s ready to forge a new life for herself, but she barely survives the hypocrisy of small-town Middle America. In Fuller’s words, “Kelly has balls and a sense of justice.” The Naked Kiss shows the 1960s before Woodstock, before hippies, before the so-called sexual revolution. Just one year after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Fuller, a gruff, cigar-chomping World War II veteran, had articulated a critical vision of a politically corrupt, hypocritical and sexist America.

Although the New American mavericks recognized the genius of Fuller, he was wedded to the genre formulas they wanted to shatter. Similarly, while grateful to Corman, they kept their distance from his lowbrow version of “independent” cinema. Corman’s and Fuller’s genre pictures called for actors who played types; the new auteurs created character-driven films that demanded complex performances, an approach that could rarely be executed on the tight budgets typical of independent exploitation films and studio-backed B-movies. Scorsese, for one, was embarrassed by Boxcar Bertha, a weak film he made for Corman in 1972. John Cassavetes told Scorsese not to ever “do something like this again…. Make a movie about something you really care about.” Later, when Scorsese explained his daily battles to make Taxi Driver exactly as he wanted, he said, “I was going to compromise? I might as well have made another genre film for Roger Corman.” Corman—and the exploitation filmmaking he represented—was the embarrassing (if lovable) poor cousin to the mavericks of the New American Cinema.

The men behind BBS wanted to make art films as subtle as those by Europeans like Antonioni, but with a different sensibility: anomie, American style. Orson Welles had tried to make serious films within the old Hollywood system, and the struggle to do so tore him apart; the creator of Citizen Kane became an icon of the failures of the old Hollywood. (Down on his luck in the 1970s, he would take up residence in Bogdanovich’s spare room, and hawk jug wine on TV.) With the studios in disarray, maybe a new generation could succeed where Welles had been defeated.

Rafelson, director of three of the films included in “America Lost and Found,” was the New American cinéaste who came closest to realizing a high-art European sensibility, with Five Easy Pieces in 1970 and The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972. But his first film, Head, from 1968, was a pop art experiment. Schneider and Rafelson had manufactured the Monkees, a ludicrously wholesome American rip-off of the Beatles. They successfully exploited the “pre-fab four” for two years with a TV show modeled on Richard Lester’s episodic 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. Shortly after The Monkees was canceled in 1968, Rafelson decided to drive a few more nails into the coffin. His hammer was the avant-garde Head. He would later liken this heretical act of filmmaking to “making an ice cream cone out of mud.”

In the astounding opening sequence of Head, captured in its full Technicolor glory by Criterion’s perfect Blu-ray transfer, Micky Dolenz jumps off a bridge in an apparent suicide attempt and swirls around in an underwater neon world until he is rescued by a school of mermaids. Next, the bandmates are shown in their apartment with a girl who kisses each of them; that a fivesome may have preceded this moment is gently implied. Finally, the opening credits come up, with the boys chanting a voice-over: “You say we’re manufactured. To that we all agree. So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free…. The money’s in, we’re made of tin.” All the while small TV screens with different images pop up to fill the frame. The last screen shows an iconic image of the Vietnam War that is repeated later in the film—Eddie Adams’s photo of Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner at point-blank range. Head was the second American fiction film—after John Wayne’s The Green Berets—to invoke Vietnam. While it doesn’t exactly formulate a complicated critique of the war, it does convey a deep disdain for Hollywood and American consumer culture.

* * *

Rafelson’s next two films would abandon tin men for introspective characters. Five Easy Pieces stars Jack Nicholson as Bobby, a disaffected loser who has left behind his wealthy family and a career as a concert pianist to slum it working oil rigs. Shot by Kovacs, the film is an elegant study in slate and soft earth tones. The plot glides on an undercurrent of contempt for simple folks who enjoy country-western music, serve ketchup with supper and are mesmerized by TV. At the same time, the film suggests that these brassy extroverts are more attuned to their emotions, and better in the sack, than the upper-crust stuffed shirts. Working-class people may be crude, the film avers, but they are not phonies.

Five Easy Pieces is probably best known for the famous chicken salad scene. At a diner with a “no substitutions” rule, Bobby orders a side of wheat toast, and when the waitress refuses, Bobby demands a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, “no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce,” and “hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.” Needless to say, this attempt to beat the system fails, but Bobby has triumphed by daring to fight the “no substitution” rule. The scene showcases Nicholson at his unhinged best.

Arguably, though, it is a less flashy scene later in the film that is the heart of Five Easy Pieces. Bobby returns home to visit his family, after unceremoniously depositing his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), at a nearby motel. After two weeks without even a phone call from Bobby, Rayette arrives in a cab to join him, to his great embarrassment. At an evening salon, a snobby fiftysomething woman speechifies that “aggression is prehistoric.” Rayette asks if there is a TV in the house, and then briefly captures the attention of the small gathering with the story of how her fluffy kitten was accidentally “squashed flatter than a tortilla.” Here Black transcends the limits of her underwritten character, a stereotyped hick waitress: she allows Rayette to assert her dignity against all odds. The phony intellectual mows her down, and Bobby unexpectedly shouts, “Where the hell do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class or who the hell’s got it or what she typifies? You shouldn’t even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate!” Bobby defends Rayette, if only for a single moment. Yet it is telling that the nastiest insult Bobby can muster is “pompous celibate.” In the world Rafelson has created, sexually desirable high-class women and sexually desirable low-class women are the only women who count. To be menopausal, and therefore undesirable, is to be beneath contempt.

In terms of the plot, the climax of Five Easy Pieces is Bobby’s attempt to set things right with his ailing, mute father. The film succeeds because it declines to resolve the relationship in a reassuring manner, not even attempting to tie up any of the protagonist’s loose ends. The failed reconciliation scene is moving, but it is Bobby’s interactions with women—nags to be endured or bedded as he suffers his existential tremors—that offer the film’s most poignant moments. Bobby prefers to avoid discussing his true feelings; everything would be fine, he tells Rayette when she hops into bed in a diaphanous negligee, if she would just shut up. At his family home, the talk seems endless, and Bobby appears at risk of revealing himself, but his motivations and the origins of his malaise remain oblique. The same is true of the lead character in Drive, He Said (1971), released for the first time to home viewers in “America Lost and Found.” Only Karen Black brought depth to this earnest but slight endeavor, Nicholson’s directorial debut.

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