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Good Drama Movies (1965-70): Now We’re Swinging

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GJ Cole itcherSo came the 60s to blow away the fug of post-war economic and social austerity. By 1965, the shape for the late 20th century arts and culture was being well and truly moulded, but thankfully that template included plenty of scope for free experimentation – even, for a brief period, in the films that were getting distributed to Western cinema screens. Pop art, personal scale melodrama and formal playfulness were here to stay! ~ GJ Cole

Keep It Personal

The divide between arthouse integrity and mainstream mawkishness suddenly narrowed: in the 1960s, the world of film, music and art awoke to a newly liberated audience who wanted idols with whom they could identify.

New York, where ‘David Holzman’s Diary’ and ‘Faces’ take place, was at the time, a hotbed of alternative filmmaking where less ‘hit’-oriented directors used new, smaller consumer cameras to record the minutiae of their life. At the same time, intelligent, psychologically realistic movies were enjoying a brief window of popularity even in mainstream cinema. These were post-‘Ben-Hur’, pre-‘Star Wars’ days.

Somewhere in the middle – whether it was New York, London, or Munich – filmmakers now had a market for smart, personal stories, often made with their friends and in their own homes. (Mumblecore? Pah!)

For a brief while, it seemed the masses were taking responsibility for our own consumer destinies: while the money men struggled to make sense of, and exploit, the fast-changing desires of the record and cinema-ticket buying public, we shaped the market with our wallets, our screaming fandom, and our coffee-shop criticism. Whether it meant creating something entirely new, or experimenting seriously with established genres, novelty was ‘in’ for late 1960s cinema.


Progressive Drama Movie Recommendations

‘Faces’ (John Cassavetes, 1968)

You get laid once and everything is solved! Get all the soldiers in Vietnam laid and the whole Middle East problem is solved!

Part-time Hollywood leading (and terribly handsome) man, John Cassavetes, kickstarted his directing career and generations of independent American filmmakers with his 1959 drama, ‘Shadows’. With ‘Faces’, Cassavetes was about to hit full stride.

Creating raw, highly emotional – and emotionally honest – movies on a low budget, with an emphasis on performance and location, Cassavetes’ low budgets enabled his team to work freely, unshackled from the weighty conventions of mainstream Hollywood dramas.

As its title suggests, ‘Faces’ is a masterpiece of casting, with every character in this unsettling satire on middle-aged sexuality proving to be desperate, lost, and utterly sympathetic.

‘Katzelmacher’ (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969)

He’s not Italian after all. He’s a Greek from Greece – a Greek with a big dick…

Meanwhile, German cinema was undergoing its own ‘new wave’ of sorts, led foremost by the genius RW Fassbinder: ‘Katzelmacher’ is a minimalist masterpiece, Charles M. Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ for grown-ups, following the drab love-lives of a group of cruel and bored friends living in a dull suburb of Munich.

Their petty existences are given perverse meaning by the arrival of a Greek immigrant – the, er, ‘cat-interferer’ of the title – who, while a perfectly decent young man, becomes a handy scapegoat for the friends’ economic and sexual frustrations. Stylish, funny, and moving, it’s a great introduction to the work of Fassbinder, who would go on to make some of the greatest dramas of the 1970s.

‘Blowup’ (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out…

As an Italian bringing an objective eye to a changing London, Antonioni was well-placed to draw out the novelties and absurdities of a swinging town – and to insert a curious twist on his regular theme of ‘disaffection in the wealthy classes’.

The twist is: our ‘hero’, a fashion photographer, has a deceptively enjoyable lifestyle, and his disaffection is closer to the kind of rock star apathy that was quickly become an (enduring) cliché rather than the yawning existential emptiness of the director’s earlier characters.

In fact, Antonioni’s innovation here is to puncture a hole in Thomas’ reality so that we see the shallowness – and fragility – of his existence as it occurs to him. When he seems to accidentally photograph a murder in a park, Thomas is drawn into a peculiar netherworld perhaps all in his imagination.

While this stylish, enjoyable romp around a fast-evolving society is by no means a dismissal of new trends and attitudes, it is a call to engage with your surroundings even as you are intoxicated by them.

‘David Holzman’s Diary’ (Jim McBride, 1967)

As with ‘Blowup’ a year before, David Holzman’s camera is a deceptively refractive conduit for reality: he films everything he sees (the movie that we see is his film diary), but the presence of his camera changes everything that he shoots – most notably, his relationship with his girlfriend, who does not appreciate being filmed in various states of literal and emotional nakedness.

As funny as it is disturbing, ‘David Holzman’s Diary’ is all the same most notable for its sensitive eye: years after first seeing it, a long, quiet, hand-held shot of a group of elderly people sitting on a bench watching the world go by in the winter daylight, remains clear in my mind’s eye. Echoing the moral of ‘Blowup’, though, we come to feel that the advantages of discovering the world through a lens are ambiguous at best.

‘In Cold Blood’ (Richard Brooks, 1967)

I’d like to apologize, but… who to?

Truman Capote’s 1966 ‘non-fiction novel’ about the brutal robbery-homicide of a Kansas farming family was a real ‘thing’ of the 1960s: the author travelled to the crime scene while it was still being investigated (with his friend, Harper Lee) and took several years to write up his notes and interviews into the kind of book that had never been seen before.

The director of its movie adaptation did his best to approximate Capote’s realistic devices: filming in real locations, with looky-likey actors, and even (so claims the trailer) some of the original jurors in the box.

Along with the film’s inky monochrome images, these details combine to create an incredibly tight crime/investigation drama that echoes its source’s formal originality by creating a new genre – somewhere between docudrama and expressionist thriller!


Windows of Opportunity

So began a new, free cinema, where directors’ visions were trusted and actors were encouraged to work outside the restrictions of classical technique.

Naturally, it wouldn’t take long for such freedom to become commoditized, but part of the joy of watching these incredible films is sensing the uniqueness of the age, and the ways in which it was so thoughtfully captured in both the form and content of these groundbreaking new films.

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