Monday, September 6, 2010

Excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so as not to send the public into a panic. Of course, the "new" President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton in one movie. From that comedy, came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time they were made. By delving into the American experience (from Kennedy to Clinton), I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back saying that it would never sell. One Canadian publisher almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, plus later do my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama.

Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors still continues to be a book about how American movies illuminated the central issues of their age. But the narrative changed dramatically from 2000 to 2010. While I kept sending the new, amended outline to publishers, they continued to tell me how unsaleable it was. (In other words, I wasn't a hot property.) So I retorted by turning it into a lecture series, first at Ryerson University, then at Learning Unlimited in Etobicoke (drawing close to 200 people). From there, it went to the Revue Cinema, a landmark rep house in Toronto, where they had me do the lecture through the 2008 American election campaign. Reflections continues to attract attention, beginning this fall at the Prosserman JCC in Toronto, and in November, starting at the Granite Club. So much for lack of interest.

Finally, attention from a publisher has prompted some writing of the book (fourteen years after the idea first struck). So here is a sample from the introduction to the Nixon Era titled Camelot in Smithereens:

When Sam Peckinpah released his cataclysmic western The Wild Bunch in 1969, America had just come out of a year rocked with violence, assassinations and, of course, the continuation of the Vietnam War. Within this one movie you could feel not only the consequences of bloodletting from an earlier time in the American past, but also the turmoil of the period it was made in -- and it changed American movies forever. Along with Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, made two years earlier, The Wild Bunch deftly examined our hidden fascination with violence. Both films put people on the screen who did horrible things, lived dangerous lives and eventually died in a hail of bullets. But what separated these pictures from their predecessors was the manner in which the violence was brought up close and personal. Unlike previous, more routine westerns and gangster movies, we were implicated in the carnage and felt the deaths as if we had just witnessed a loved one perish in a car wreck. Furthermore, we were asked to empathize with bad people.

In the years to follow, the legacy of these two films would spawn many imitators and inheritors. Much of the best work of Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Brian De Palma (Blow Out), Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and (all too briefly) Francis Coppola (The Godfather I and II) couldn't be fully considered without referring to Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. But those considerations weren't made solely on the question of explicit violence alone, it was what those movies were trying to say about the culture they were part of and how deeply the filmmakers wanted us to feel what they were grappling with. Bonnie and Clyde might have been a Depression-era story, but one could perceive contemporary counter-culture attitudes informing it. The Wild Bunch brought us a familiar portrait of the American past with its lawlessness, yet it had us confront the modern age of warfare and bloodshed. Both Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah wanted us to experience violence not in a moralistic manner, where we easily separate good from bad, but to have us feel the undercurrents of a culture in crisis. Violence had to recover its power to upset us and to shake us out of any complacency with the status quo. And they did.

But in the Nixon era, violence took on a primitive appeal, where law & order became an edict rather than a civil responsibility. Movies quickly began to exploit people's worst fears and resentments. The decade of the seventies started to spawn self-righteous vigilante films like Dirty Harry (1971), the antithesis of the Johnson era film Bullitt (1968). Steve McQueen's rebellious detective feared turning numb to the violence he confronted daily in his work. By contrast, Clint Eastwood's Harry Callaghan took on numbness as a preferred state, a defiant stance against perceived liberal weakness and ineffectiveness. Before long, even highly regarded contemporary directors like Stanley Kubrick would cater to the mood by rubbing our noses in his cynical celebration of youthful psychopathy in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Peckinpah and Penn, too, would get caught up in the American self-hatred that the Nixon years inspired. In Straw Dogs (1971), Peckinpah would turn the spacious sensibility of The Wild Bunch into, what Pauline Kael correctly labeled, the territorial imperative. In Little Big Man (1970), Arthur Penn reinforced the growing and popular notion that America was basically rotten to the core (an attitude he had resisted in Bonnie and Clyde). The Wild Bunch had openly embraced American culture, including us in the unfolding of its many contradictory impulses. But in a land where the President and the Attorney General would justify breaking the law, with wiretaps and arrests, all bets were off and sides were immediately taken.

During the sixties, Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch  raised ambivalent questions about good and evil, guilt and innocence, but many of the violent pictures of the Nixon era resembled zealous traffic cops telling us what was right from wrong. Fifty odd years later, after the release of The Wild Bunch, violence is still an unresolvable issue that some refuse to grapple with. While many American movies today turn violence into the cathartic thrill of a video game, many people still lobby for the removal of violence from movie screens (most likely because it's easier than dealing with the reality of it on the street). But that fearful, sometimes puritanical response, doesn't come close to dealing directly with its implications. The risks Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinaph took were formidable and that's why they haven't yet been surpassed.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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