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A sense of complacency hung in the air in the 1970s: new artistic trends had been commoditized, cannibalized and resold, the best intentions of hippies and revolutionaries were proving impossible, thwarted, or exhausting. Political corruption came to be exemplified in the 1972 Watergate Scandal, when President Richard Nixon was shown to be complicit in illegal surveillance. Tricky Dicky, indeed.
The films I’ve chosen each reflect the doubts, suspicions and hopes of the age from a different perspective in time – ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’ is contemporary, but set in a faded yesterday-town; ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Beehive’ and ‘Kaspar Hauser’ are all period dramas, putting the attitudes of the age into relief; only ‘The Conversation’ feels truly modern with its damning indictment of how modern structures, attitudes and technologies were already becoming warped to favour the devious and the powerful.
My brother took the incriminating pumpernickel from my hand and stuck it into Grandpa’s fingers. I think at that moment, my brother and I became accomplices forever…
Atlantic City makes a perfect metaphor for the faded American dream and the futility of 60’s optimism. Long before ‘Boardwalk Empire’, the French new wave director Louise Malle would make an intriguing crime drama in the decrepit skeleton of the former glamour town. But before that premiered, this oft-overlooked gem from New Hollywood filmmaker Bob Rafelson graced cinemas.
In fact, it’s Rafelson’s film that has the more arty, European feel: the ‘one last con’ plot is subjugated to the relationship of two chalk-and-cheese brothers (played by Jack Nicholson and the ever-beguiling Bruce Dern), and Atlantic City becomes a deliberately artificial stage for them to play out their emotions.
Absurd caper follows absurd caper, each framed with surreal wit like a series of bizarre postcards. Funny, clever, silly, sad, ‘Marvin Gardens’ is a neglected masterpiece of the era.
I said to myself: Jack Frost has been here…
In the depths of an inhospitable Mississippi winter, Robert Duvall’s simple farmer stumbles on the sleeping figure of a pregnant drifter and takes her into his home.
Duvall’s mumbling hero, at first remote, becomes a sponge for our sympathies as he adjusts the only life that he has known to accommodate the stranger, falling in love with her and caring for her through a difficult pregnancy. The film’s monochrome palette and careful attention for sensory details pitch it somewhere between an immersive experience and the viewing of a lost old newsreel.
Somehow, the film – like its characters – doesn’t seem designed to thrive in this world, and it’s this outsider charm that makes it a must-see.
I told you he was a spirit. If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him…
Whether you read it as a gentle but sophisticated coming-of-age tale, or an allegory for the plight of the Spanish under Franco’s dictatorship (during which the film was made), ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’ remains a triumph of cinematic communication: subtle, poetic and ambiguous.
The tale of a six-year-old girl’s loss of innocence revolves around young Ana’s experience of watching the classic horror ‘Frankenstein’, and relating the curious cruelty of that movie to the mysterious world around her: her adulterous mother, aloof beekeeping father, and a desperate wartime deserter hiding out on the family property.
Seen through a child’s eyes, the world of nature, humans, and science becomes amorphous and immoral, but Ana’s burgeoning sense of empathy offers us hope amidst a bleak landscape.
People are like wolves to me…
Next on our bill of stolen innocence flicks, ‘Kaspar Hauser’ is a legendary but underseen movie from genius/eccentric German auteur, Werner Herzog. Telling the true story of a nineteenth century man who was discovered abandoned in his teens, having spent his whole life chained up in a dark room, Herzog evokes both the tragedy and wonder of the situation.
Casting non-actor and outsider artist ‘Bruno S.’ as Kaspar was a masterstroke, and Kaspar’s savant observations on the cruelty of humans – and of life in general – are as humorous as they are unsettling. Herzog’s uncompromising vision makes for a moral tale more biting than anything coming out of Hollywood or anywhere else at that time.
I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder…
One of Coppola’s lesser-known works, ‘The Conversation’ picks up thematically from Antonioni’s 1966 ‘Blowup’ but pushes its limits of perception and of privacy into darker territory, hinting that even a sense of personal responsibility cannot redeem a character who is intrinsically involved in a corrupt system.
Gene Hackman gives one of the all-time great ‘geek’ performances (cf. Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly’ (1986)) as the best audio surveillance guy in the business. When he records a conversation that hints at an imminent murder, he begins to doubt his own perception and morality: as the story unfolds, though, we too find that nothing is quite as it seems.
Released in the wake of the Watergate scandal, ‘The Conversation’ underlined the feelings of a generation: man (and, to a lesser extent, woman) is a corrupt, devious and self-interested beast by nature, and people across the ages have battled with the urge to protect their own fragile existences above the needs of the community.
Thankfully, the day’s filmmakers found alternately sensitive and thrilling ways to explore these ancient human traits – and identified a few loveably troubled characters among the rogues.
Did you enjoy these films? Leave me a comment below.