The day the movies died

A decade ago, when the show Mad Men was must-watch television, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik proposed a theory for its success, which he called “the Golden Forty-Year Rule”: “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past” . In point of fact, nostalgia for the early 1960s, when Mad Men‘s story begins, started barely a decade later, with American Graffiti (1973) and Animal House (1978). In the American mind the Kennedy years will always be a halcyon time, the last moment of calm before the country was rent by sex, drugs and Vietnam.

Yet Gopnik’s theory is a good rule of thumb: nostalgia has about a fifty-year reach. Proof of this can be seen in the stack of books that have recently come out about Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the past three years volumes have been published on the making of Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Godfather (1972) Chinatown (1974), along with Ronald Brownstein’s Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – The year Los Angeles transformed movies, music, television and politics. Now, three more can be added to the bunch: In Love with Movies by Daniel Talbot, Cinema Memory by Melvyn Stokes, Matthew Jones and Emma Pett, and Road Trip to Nowhereby Jon Lewis.

The best of these, by far, is the first. Part journal, part memoir, it chronicles Talbot’s time running a string of iconic Manhattan movie houses, beginning with the New Yorker Theater in 1960. That might not sound like a glamorous profession, but it put Talbot in contact with many of the giants of postwar cinema, who wanders in and out of his story as though they all lived in the same apartment building. “One day in 1981, Louis Malle came to my office with a script in hand…” “I recall an argument I once had with Agnès Varda over dinner…” “Fassbinder strode into my office…” “Toby and I were in Munich, having met with Werner Herzog…” “Whenever [Roberto Rossellini] came to town for a few days, we’d have lunch with him and his teenage daughter Isabella.”

In any other circumstance this kind of name-dropping would grow wearisome, but in this case it’s actually rather charming. Talbot, who died in 2017, was a lifelong cinephile, and when he talks about doing business with famous film-makers, he sounds like a kid who has just spent the day with his favorite sports stars. He couldn’t have picked a better time or place to open an art-house theatre. Andrew Sarris, Terry Southern and Jack Kerouac wrote program notes for his screenings. Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald and Stanley Kauffmann were regulars at the New Yorker. As Susan Sontag, another regular, later said: “It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself.”

Sontag wrote those words in 1995, and you can already hear the wistful note in her prose. For cineastes like her, it wasn’t just the movies that made the period feel special; it was the fact that they were taken so seriously. Talbot’s tenure running the New Yorker (1960-73) overlapped with both the French New Wave and the so-called Hollywood Renaissance that followed. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this was the last time that movie-watching and moviegoing were one and the same. VCRs, which began proliferating in the mid-1970s, were in many ways a boon to cinema. They brought new revenue to cash-strapped studios, resurrected old classics and made recherché films available to the masses, not just to those lucky enough to live in Upper Manhattan. But they also changed the nature of movie appreciation, turning it from a communal experience into one that was, as often as not, enjoyed in private.

The pleasure of moviegoing, as any film fan knows, is oftentimes just as much the going as the movie. Watching a film at home is simply a form of entertainment; Watching it on the big screen is an occasion, complete with its own customs and conventions, many of which have already faded into the mists of time. “Some cinemas provided double seats without separate center arms which encouraged ‘courting couples’”, one filmgoer recalls. Because smoking was still allowed in theaters, explains another, the air became “so thick you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector” and “highlighting all of the dust notes [sic] in the air”. These quotes come from Cinema Memories: A people’s history of cinema-going in 1960s Britain by Melvyn Stokes, Matthew Jones and Emma Pett. Like Talbot’s memoir, their book is a hybrid – in this case a cross between a history and a human research paper. By recording the reminiscences of more than 900 people, the authors attempt to show modern readers what going to the cinema was like in 1960s Britain.

The book was inspired, at least in part, by Scarlett’s WomenHelen Taylor’s 1989 monograph on Gone with the Wind. One of the many strengths of Taylor’s book was that she was able to reveal how public opinion towards Margaret Mitchell’s novel changed over time. When a class of high-school girls were asked in 1957 to name the character with whom they identified most in the book, all but one said it was sweet, saintly Melanie Wilkes. When the experiment was repeated in 1970, three-quarters chose Scarlett O’Hara, the novel’s unscrupulous heroine. Several of Taylor’s older admitted that, when they first read Gone with the Wind, they had never even met a Black person, and thus accepted the Black characters without question. Black readers and younger white readers were much more critical. “Where are the abolitionists?” one wrote. “Where are the other Northerners? Where are the angry slaves, thrilled to be free? Where are the average Southerners? Too much romanticisation equals trivialisation.”

Rarely are the respondents in Cinema Memory so insightful. “I loved Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)”, one person reports, “just the clothes and the look made a big impact on me.” Another explains that he liked Steve McQueen because he was “the king of cool, everybody said that and he did personify that”. It’s only when the subjects shift to talking about their own lives that their reflections get more interesting. Several from the north of England recall feeling resentful when they saw films about Swinging London such as Darling (1965), Blow-up (1966) and Alfie (1966). The places depicted in those films “might have been on the other side of the world to me in the 60s”, a woman from Lancashire says. “I’m from a group of people who started working at 15 … and you got married before you were 21. You had a family in your 20s. That’s what you did.”

Revelations like these are few and far between. When the authors try to add substance to the book, the results often feel slipshod. In the final chapter, on moviegoers from the British colonies, the word “communities” appears eight times in two paragraphs – nine if you count “community” as well. The communities they’re referring to, of course, are communities of colour, and the immigrants they interview offer a surprisingly sunny portrait of British cinemagoing in the era of Enoch Powell. A Nigerian man recalls idealizing Sean Connery. A Pakistani accountant remembers bonding with other South Asians at a London film club that, on some weekends, attracted as many as 500 people to its Bollywood screenings. Perhaps for this reason the authors add an aside of their own at the end of the final paragraph: “However, all these changes took place under the shadow of a generally racist culture in which cinema-going at best could offer only a temporary respite from the everyday realities of intolerance and prejudice.” Like many such statements made throughout the book, it’s meant not to inform the reader but to protect the authors, pre-empting any criticism that they might be lacking in racial consciousness.

Jon Lewis’s Road Trip to Nowhere Suffers from a similar problem. One senses that Lewis fears nothing so much as the thought that someone might confuse him for a conservative. Slim chance of that. Although his subject is 1960s cinema, his book teems with the language of the modern left: “white privilege”, “social mobility”, “social and racial justice”. “Let’s be frank”, he declares, more or less out of the blue, “Kazan was never a good guy.” Kazan, of course, is Elia Kazan, the director of East of Eden (1955), who named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. It’s only a hit-and-run comment, but it illustrates Lewis’s biggest weakness as a writer: he can’t stay on track. Road Trip to Nowhere is ostensibly about stars such as Jean Seberg, Dennis Hopper and Mark Frechette, whose careers became mired in the chaos of the counterculture, but the narrative means so much that the title could be self-referential. Why does Lewis dwell on Jane Fonda, a star who continues to shine to this day, while ignoring her brother, Peter, who shot to fame with Easy Rider – probably the biggest countercultural film of the 1960s – but spent the next twenty years on a downward slide? Lewis also, strangely, has nothing to say about Sue Lyon, the star of Lolita (1962), whose career never recovered after she married a convicted murderer while he was still in prison, or James Fox, one of Britain’s hottest young actors in the 1960s, who took ten years off to evangelize door-to-door for a Christian sec. Many of the subjects he discusses instead – Daria Halprin, Christopher Jones, Dolores Hart – had comparatively unremarkable careers.

In fact, Lewis does have a destination, even if he has trouble getting there. “The so-called Manson murders would become counterculture Hollywood’s simultaneous nadir and climax”, he writes on the first page of his book. The story finally reaches that gruesome event 225 pages later. Lewis believes it was a turning point in Hollywood history. “There was one life in the Hollywood movie colony before August 1969 and another afterward”, he writes. He’s half right. The murder of the actress Sharon Tate and her friends really did rock the film world, in large part because Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, were Hollywood royalty. “Everybody who was anybody had been about to visit the Polanski home the night of the murders”, the screenwriter Buck Henry later fitted. “It was as if people wanted to be part of the slaughter.” But the massacre didn’t turn Hollywood off the counterculture. Drug use increased in subsequent years, as did overt displays of radical politics. Jane Fonda’s notorious trip to Hanoi, Marlon Brando’s bizarre rejection of an Academy Award for The Godfather in 1973 and Bert Schneider’s Oscar-night paean to the fall of South Vietnam all occurred after the Manson murders.

And the industry itself was hardly affected at all. Indeed, the real turning point in Hollywood history occurred not in August 1969, when Tate was killed, but in June 1975, when Jaws began shredding attendance records all around the world. That was the moment, at least in Hollywood, when the 1960s really ended. The ultra-chic era of moviegoing that Susan Sontag and Daniel Talbot so adored was made possible by the fact that the American movie business was in a tumult at the time – losing money to television, beset by corporate raiders and unable to find a formula that generated steady profits. For the first time in decades European films competed with American films at the box office. In desperation, the Hollywood studios handed authority over to young auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg. But Spielberg’s Jaws reshuffled the deck in the studios’ favour, creating a new, more profitable business model built around teenagers, not highbrow cinephiles. With film exhibition romantic moving online, there is little to suggest that cinemagoing will ever be as popular again, which means the period that film historians are currently so nostalgic about will, in all likelihood, continue to beized for years to come.

Graham Daseler is a film editor and animator. He lives in Los Angeles

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