Kill 'em All, Let Pauline Kael Sort It Out
1967's Bonnie & Clyde is explored in depth by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as kicking off the "New Hollywood" revolution of the 1970s. That era would last for approximately ten years, until George Lucas's Star Wars finally delivered a movie with unambiguous good guys and -- at last! -- an unambiguously happy ending. For a while though, as leftwing author/JournoList member Rick Perlstein told Reason magazine back in 2008, out promoting his book Nixonland:
My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys—you cannot underestimate [sic] how strange and fresh that was.
It was so fresh, that for a decade, Hollywood films (and those financed by Hollywood but shot in England and Europe) seemed to invariably end in two flavors, both of which were adored by cinéastes, but eventually wore out audiences:
1. Kill 'em all, let Pauline Kael Sort It Out: Dr. Strangelove most spectacularly in 1964, followed later by the aforementioned Bonnie & Clyde, then Easy Riders, Peter Fonda's later drive-in classic, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, plus Silent Running, Robin & Marian, Chinatown, and in their own ways, the first two Planet of the Apes movies. Even the James Bond franchise wasn't immune at the time; his wife, played by Emma Peel herself, Diana Rigg, was machine-gunned B&C style at the conclusion of 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, George Lazenby's sole outing as 007. (Mercifully. To paraphrase the anecdote that at least one Bond book reports, a critic told told producer Harry Saltzman at the time, "You made a mistake, Harry. You should have killed him, and kept her [Diana Rigg].")
2. What in the Wide, Wide, World of Sports was That?! David Hemmings' photographer character embracing the postmodern madness of the tennis "playing" mimes at the end of 1966's Blowup, the ambiguous ending of The Graduate, 2001's seeming head-scratcher, and the literal cliffhanger of the original Italian Job.
In a way, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather combined both of those formulas, with Michael Corleone ordering all of the rival Dons murdered in cold blood, followed by the door slamming on Diane Keaton at the end of the movie.
(Speaking of The Godfather, as Kathy Shaidle recently noted, Mario Puzo wrote its pulpy novel on commission from Paramount in the late 1960s to pay off some gambling debts. He invented most of the mafioso rituals depicted in the film, which later gangsters would adapt for themselves -- "See, that's how it's done, boys!" This makes at least two Marlin Brando movies where what Tom Wolfe once dubbed "Information Ricochet" was at work. As Wolfe noted, Brando's 1953 film The Wild One was an inspiration to nascent motorcycle gangs everywhere. This would be a topic that Roger Corman would return to in his 1960s biker flicks, which as Wolfe said, inspired the next generation of motorcycle gangs. Lather, rinse and repeat.)
In any case, the 1970s was the era of "A Cinema of Loneliness," as lefty critic Robert Phillip Kolker titled his book on this genre of movies. The era of "Roll credits. Commence bumming," James Lileks wrote in in 2007, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the film that for a time, replaced all of that. In 1977, George Lucas rediscovered the happy ending and became spectacularly wealthy along the way. Finally, Hollywood rediscovered, South Park "Underpants Gnomes" style, the formula for success:
- Make films with appealing characters audiences want to spend two hours with.
- Send the audience home with a happy ending, thus encouraging them to show up at the box office again, and tell their friends about the movie they just saw.
This isn't exactly rocket science -- the entire industry knew this formula prior to the arrival of the Biskind's Young Turks in the late 1960s. And from the 1980s through the 1990s, Hollywood printed money hand over fist, and every summer, we all went to say the latest movies starring Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Arnold, and Clint.
Then came Hollywood's triple-whammy: their meltdown over Al Gore losing in 2000, Islamic terrorists causing 9/11, and America's War on Terror. Suddenly, Hollywood reentered one of its phases where it decided it just didn't like its American audience much anymore. And thus, the return to ambiguity. As historian Andrew Roberts writes -- in Tina Brown's Daily Beast/Newsweek shotgun wedding Website of all places -- "Enough With the Cliffhangers! Movies Need a Cathartic Conclusion." Roberts writes, "I have just been to my fourth movie in a month that has ended on a cliffhanger, and I want my money back:"
Now, there’s obviously a place in cinema for the cliffhanger ending, with the iconic 1969 heist movie The Italian Job standing as the classic of the genre, where a bus full of gold bars literally hangs from a cliff at the end, and the last words of the film are Michael Caine’s perkily cockney optimistic: "Hang on lads, I’ve got an idea." Movies that are obviously going to have sequels—such as the Godzilla, X-Men, Halloween, Pirates of the Caribbean, Austin Powers, and Friday the 13th franchises—obviously require cliffhangers. But for four high-quality, nonfranchise movies in one month to end without any kind of genuine resolution—the last being the otherwise first-class Iranian film The Separation—is symptomatic of a deeper problem in our culture.
By not allowing good to triumph over evil in the last reel, filmmakers are engaging in a literally demoralized, postmodernist view of the world that denies a vital element of what cinema should be all about: catharsis. In our shilly-shallying, we-are-all-guilty, Obama Cairo Speech kind of way, we are short-changing the moviegoing public, which has the perfect right to see good behavior rewarded and bad behavior punished, as all the great filmmakers of the past, including the ones that enjoyed moral ambiguity like Alfred Hitchcock, perfectly understood.
That's pretty rich, running in the successor to the magazine that told its readers at the beginning of 2009 that "We Are Socialists Now," but to change Hollywood, the culture needs to first change. Then the industry will -- or at least might -- return to the unambiguous happy ending. It might even eliminate the liberal sucker punch as well someday, to further generate business the second week a movie's at the box office.
OK, that last one may be asking for too much, but an older generation of Hollywood, before nihilism swept through the industry, once encouraged us to dream. (And not just of electric sheep.)
Or to put it all another way...Han Shot First! as Bill Whittle recently reminded us: