Losers Take All: On the New American Cinema
Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, also beautifully shot by Kovacs, stakes an even greater claim for high-art status than Five Easy Pieces. The film’s images of Philadelphia and Atlantic City evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper in their lighting, color and composition. These should be busy places, yet exteriors and interiors are strangely barren, and figures are often isolated. The plot is not terribly important: this is a film about the push-pull of intimacy and the futile striving for interpersonal connection. Marvin Gardens revolves around the relationship of two brothers, David (Nicholson) and Jason (Bruce Dern), the former a depressive, the latter a self-deluded flim-flam operator. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Jason’s for-hire girlfriend, finding depth in a role that could easily have been a disaster. She’s got more than one screw loose and is filled with a rage that finally erupts only when she has burned all her gowns and held a funeral for her fake eyelashes.
There are two scenes that best capture the film’s emphasis on the near impossibility (yet utter necessity) of human connection. The film opens with a striking chiaroscuro effect: David sits in a pitch-black room, with only his head visible. He is telling an intimate story—to an analyst, lover, friend?—about how he and his brother allowed their grandfather, “a fish enthusiast,” to choke to death on a fishbone. Suddenly, a red light flashes on David’s face. This is a radio studio, and what we’ve heard is an installment of David’s late-night show, Etcetera. Nicholson playing a nerd, against type, shuffles out of the studio with his cardigan misbuttoned. We instantly know nothing about him—it turns out that the story is invented—and everything about him: he is a quiet failure. When David gets home, his cranky grandfather takes a break from his morning cornflakes and ladies’ TV exercise show to cough theatrically at his grandson. He has apparently heard David’s show and is displeased with the tall tale of the fishbone.
At the end of the film, following an extended encounter with Jason that has gone horribly awry, David finds his grandfather projecting home movies on the back of a door. David glances at the ancient footage of him and his brother as children building sand castles (pointless—the tide is coming in), then closes the door. But he hasn’t fully closed the door, and it swings open, the film now projecting through the staircase onto David’s legs. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s OK, I know you didn’t mean it,” his grandfather replies. The dialogue concerns the door, but these are the words they might say to each other, with a deeper meaning, if they could actually connect. Instead, Grandpa wanders off, the silent film still running, his dry smoker’s cough providing an ad hoc soundtrack. The two characters haven’t really sorted anything out, but at least the cough is real.
If Rafelson sought to bring a European gravitas to the American art film, Peter Bogdanovich embraced the classic American directors of the 1930s and ’40s while also seeking to update their sensibility. You might say that he was the Quentin Tarantino of his time. This is less an insult to Bogdanovich than a criticism of Tarantino, whose movies-about-other-movies are exercises in passionate detachment. Bogdanovich also became a cinéaste because he was a cinephile, but his earliest and best films surpass homage and convey a distinct authorial view, even if it is one heavily indebted to John Ford and Howard Hawks. Bogdanovich’s BBS production, The Last Picture Show, is simultaneously elegiac and unsentimental, offering a sociological portrait of the mating habits of the 1950s that is both poignant and trenchant.
Returning from a tryst with her mother’s lover, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) breaks down crying. It takes her mother, Lois (Burstyn), only a split second to intuit what has happened, and instead of turning jealous she is remarkably empathetic. When Lois mentions that Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) is having an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), Jacy says it’s silly: “She’s 40!” “So am I, honey,” Lois responds. “It’s kind of an itchy age.” One has the feeling that all the people trapped in this Podunk Texas town have an itch that they can’t quite scratch; sex just barely takes the edge off. Although it is Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny who dominate the film’s point of view, The Last Picture Show may well be the New American Cinema production that is most thoughtful about the female perspective, outside the jaggedly uneven Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Production designer Polly Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich at the time, brought Larry McMurty’s novel to the director largely because of its accurate portrayal of the sexual practices of the 1950s. Platt was behind the camera, next to Bogdanovich, as they discussed each shot, and many felt that she directed the film as much as he did. Rafelson later said that Picture Show was the best film BBS had made.
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The last film produced by BBS was the 1974 Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds. Although Columbia had contracted to distribute six films, the studio would not touch it. Henry Jaglom—director of BBS’s pretentious and indescribably dull A Safe Place—bought Hearts and Minds back from Columbia for $1 million, and it was briefly exhibited in Los Angeles by Warner Bros. so that it would be eligible for the Academy Awards. (It won the Oscar for best documentary.) Regrettably, largely because Criterion had already released the film on DVD in 2002, it was excluded from “America Lost and Found.” Columbia tried to erase the film from the BBS roster once; Hearts and Minds should now, at last, be reunited with the other BBS films. To call a collection of films “The BBS Story” and omit this chapter is a glaring error.
Hearts and Minds was the work of Peter Davis, who had also directed the controversial CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon (1971), about the production of US government propaganda. In the pre–Fox News days, when the Fairness Doctrine was still in place, if idiosyncratically enforced, any TV news reporting perceived as “one-sided” was in danger of generating controversy. By directing a film, and thereby freeing himself from network strictures, Davis could tell a story about Vietnam however he wanted. The director’s central insight—that the war had been a disaster and unwinnable from the start—was by that time not novel. But American documentaries on Vietnam were still rare; previous efforts were more or less limited to Winter Soldier (1972), Interviews With My Lai Veterans (1971), an Oscar-winning short film—available today thanks to Criterion’s inclusion of it as an extra on the Hearts and Minds DVD—and Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968).
Davis offered something new by presenting interviews with a wide array of figures, ranging from Gen. William Westmoreland and Walt Rostow to Daniel Ellsberg and an assortment of patriotic and disaffected veterans. Enough opinions are expressed on both sides that the film could almost be considered “balanced” were it not for the fact that Davis includes not only sympathetic interviews with North Vietnamese civilians (a coffin manufacturer with a thriving business, in particular) but also footage of high school football games, excited cheerleaders and frantic coaches—conveying an America permeated by a knee-jerk, militaristic, win-or-die mentality. Vincent Canby accurately declared Easy Rider a “small, pious statement” about American society, but he thought Hearts and Minds a tremendous success, a film “not about General Westmoreland, nor the succession of United States Presidents and their advisers who sought desperately and probably sincerely to understand Vietnam. Rather it’s about the generations of attitudes, wishes, and beliefs that these men represented. It’s about the power the country inherited.”
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There is more to the New American Cinema than BBS, but no director or producer of the era was able to duplicate its special success as a production unit that enjoyed an ongoing distribution deal with a major studio. Paramount attempted a similar arrangement with the Directors Company, which brought together Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Coppola. Its debut film, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), made a modest profit. Disdainful of Coppola’s ponderous film and distrustful of Paramount management, Friedkin never delivered a picture. Although Bogdanovich had done well with Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc?, he tanked with his Directors Company picture, Daisy Miller. It all fell apart. As Rafelson summarized, “They all wanted to do BBS again. But that was gone. This wasn’t young guys trying to fight for a statement.” The problem wasn’t that the directors were old; it was that their egos were elephantine. Modesty was also in short supply at BBS, but somehow the company fostered an environment in which young directors could make winning films about losers.
Winners dominate today’s fast-paced, videogame-inspired American movies. Even when the superheroes are brooding and morose, there are plenty of pyrotechnics to keep viewers’ adrenaline levels elevated. Losers mostly appear in lower-budget “independent films,” a phrase that years ago changed from an accurate label to a marketing category for quirky, often uplifting films with characters designed to be more disarming than alarming. A number of actors—Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Murray, Catherine Keener—have thrived in this niche playing genuine, old-school losers; clearly America has the actors to make films as compelling as those fostered by BBS, but the will to produce and direct such films seems to have faded away. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Warren Oates declares, “Nobody loses all the time.” We need films about how nobody wins all the time as well.
If the ethos of the New American Cinema has endured, it is not on the big screen but the little one, TV, where today’s multi-channel, niche-audience environment allows for long-term character development, genre innovation and aesthetic risk-taking. Rather than bemoaning the tragic loss of BBS, and assuming that the black hole of the superhero franchise has swallowed up any remains of innovation not devoured by Jaws, we might point to programs like The Wire as signs that complex, character-driven American drama did not perish in the late 1970s. Yet what has regrettably also lingered is the snobbism of much of the New American Cinema—hence, the ridiculous idea that TV can be good only if it transcends TV, as in the slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Such pretension recalls Spielberg’s early concern that Jaws might turn out to be a lowbrow genre film. By keeping his rubber shark mostly out of the picture, Spielberg boasted, he had transformed the film into Art: it went “from William Castle to Alfred Hitchcock.” The desire for greatness that propelled the New American Cinema directors was similarly clouded by an elitism that demanded the transcendence of genres and rejection of the lowbrow tawdriness that made the films of Castle—the man who brought us Vincent Price dropping acid in The Tingler—and Corman (and Fuller too) truly splendid.
Luckily, the post-network environment has provided a safe haven not only for HBO’s terrific “not TV” shows but also for clever network and non–premium cable programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Guided by Joss Whedon, Ronald Moore, Vince Gilligan, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, respectively, these programs embrace old genres (horror, sci-fi, melodrama, the sitcom) while also taking these forms in new directions. This is not to say that the formulaic network-era shows were inferior because they were less sophisticated. There is, for example, much to love in classic 1970s sitcoms like WKRP in Cincinnati. The pleasure in viewing such shows comes not only from the carefully constructed characters and performances but also from predicting how everything will—indeed, must—turn out in the end. Defenders of the old-school sitcom format have compared it to the sonnet: its structure is unvarying and precise, but it allows for variable content. Notwithstanding Norman Lear’s bold innovations, though, how politically inventive could sitcom “sonnets” really get? Freed from the restrictions that governed the broadcast era, Parks and Recreation can be pro-gay (or, specifically, pro–gay penguin) and anti–Christian right. It is also hilarious. Striking a more serious note, Battlestar Galactica allegorically takes on issues such as the American occupation of Iraq, the ethics of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus.
Embracing a complicated seriality, sometimes in terms of plot but even more important in terms of character development, the best of contemporary television is simply more compelling than most contemporary American cinema. So enough with the hand-wringing about the decline of directorial autonomy, and the grumbling about the mind-numbing sameness of the franchises that crushed the New American Cinema more than thirty years ago. The New American Cinema is dead. Long live the New American TV.