Controversial Films (Pt. 3)

Sex! Violence! Politics! (The Late Sixties)

In the 1960s, a number of factors converged to produce changes in what were acceptable subjects for filmmaking.  In America, the studio system was in sharp decline, and the self-censorship rules known as the “Hays code” were abandoned.  There were “new wave” movements in England and France as well as the U.S.  Independent films made with smaller budgets and crews were finding larger audiences.  These kinds of movies covered topics rejected by the more risk-averse studios.

Cathy Come Home (1966)

This film was made for UK television, written as an episode of a weekly anthology.  It topped a number of polls for best program ever broadcast.  More importantly, it helped change the way the social safety net was administered in Britain.  The story follows a young couple with kids who can’t find enough work to sustain their family.  Cathy and Reg begin with hope and ambitions, but their misfortune leads to homelessness, and social service rules dictate the husband may not live with the family if aid is to be provided.  This breaks up their marriage, and when Cathy is still unable to maintain an address, the system takes away her children.  

Though it’s written as a play and performed by actors, director Ken Loach shot the story with a hand-held 16mm camera in unaltered locations under natural light where possible, the actors playing the scenes in front of people on the street unaware of the filming.  This makes it all seem real, especially the unscripted behavior of observers.  When officers finally come to take the children away at a railway station, no one steps forward to help or offer Cathy comfort.  To TV audiences, this was a shameful injustice, and gifts to shelter charities exploded.  The rules were also changed to allow fathers to stay with their families even when homeless.  For years after the broadcast Carol White, who played Cathy, was approached by strangers.  They would press money into her hands, unwilling to believe the film had been fiction.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Films about the past get filtered through whatever’s going on in the times when they are made.  Warren Beatty’s first film as producer was a clear example.  It played fast and loose with the facts, and under the surface it was a gangster story mirroring the madness of the Vietnam War.  Like so many young, desperate men who joined, or were drafted by circumstance into a vortex of meat grinding, Clyde Barrow gets out of prison just in time for the peak of the Great Depression.  He charms and cons a bored waitress, and clumsily, they form a gang to hit the road and rob banks, the heartless villains foreclosing regular folks’ homes.

The controversy caused by this film was in the disparate ways audiences and critics viewed and reacted to it.  Young audiences went again and again, and loved it.  Older audiences decried it as the end of civilization.  One version of this conflict played out at the New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the country.  Bosley Crowther, the senior film critic, panned the movie.  Pauline Kael, the second-string, younger critic wrote a contrasting review in strong support.  Crowther lost his job, and Kael became the main critic.

Like the earlier crossover hit Rebel Without a Cause, Bonnie and Clyde is romantic.  The lovers live fast and die young.  There were a number of technical innovations.  It was one of the first movies to make extensive use of “squibs”, tiny explosive charges to indicate bullet hits, sometimes placed inside fake blood packets.  The slow motion, apocalyptic ambush at the end of the film changed the look of action movies forever after.

There’s a frantic exuberance throughout much of the film, because the action scenes are underscored with bluegrass music, a combination not used previously.  They utilize Flatt and Scruggs’ 1949 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”.  Bluegrass didn’t exist during the “public enemy” era of 1931-1934, when the story takes place.  However, it fits the kinetic energy of the movie.  It’s like the choice to use rock tunes in A Knight’s Tale.  You try to create a soundtrack that works, and sometimes the process has little to do with historical accuracy.

Titicut Follies (1967)

Like all films, documentaries have a point of view.  They aren’t objective.  When a filmmaker is willing to be unobtrusive and shoot many hours of footage, amazing things will be available to edit from.  The dean of this style is Boston-based director Frederick Wiseman.  He chronicles institutions, and after this film he gave his movies simple titles: High School, Hospital, Public Housing, Basic Training.  Over the past forty years, Wiseman’s fluency in editing toward a message has become more sophisticated, but one thing’s been true from this first film on.  If there are problems in the institutions, they will be documented and shown.

Titicut Follies is about the lives and routines of patient-inmates and employees at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.  The title was the name of the annual talent show put on by residents and staff.  This was the first film ever banned in the U.S. for reasons outside of obscenity or national security.  It exposed viewers to truths about the horror and callousness of mental institutions at a time the nation wasn’t ready to accept them.  In a world of unrelenting despair, men dressed in rags are grilled relentlessly by taunting guards, and subjected to abuse and neglect.

The footage creates obvious parallels to concentration camp films.  The way we treated insanity patients in the 1960s was little better than how Renaissance asylums operated.  The men lived for decades in rooms without furniture or toilets.  The doctors and guards appear uninterested and incompetent.  The embarrassed state government of Massachusetts fought to keep the film suppressed, until lawsuits brought by posthumous patients’ families prevailed in 1989.  This single film was such an effective indictment that dozens of states changed their laws and regulations in response.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Some of you reading aren’t old enough to remember this, but from 1968-1976 a small number of pornographic movies were made not for release to those little sticky-seat theaters, but intended for showing at ordinary venues.  This short-lived era of “porno chic” was an experimental period for movies accompanying the relative freedom of mainstream American culture in general.  Though these so-called “Golden Age” productions had actual plots and sets and lighting, their production values were still well below the norm, even for exploitation films.  The films usually faced legal battles.  But they were reviewed in regular magazines and newspapers, and they made money, so Hollywood studios began trying to figure out how to add more explicit sex without going too far into hardcore.

20th Century Fox was on the brink of bankruptcy at the time.  They offered Russ Meyer, one of the most successful directors of soft-core exploitation movies, more money than he’d ever had with a three-picture deal on which he had choice of subject.  For the first project Meyer decided to revive the stalled sequel to Fox’s hit 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trashy bestseller “Valley of the Dolls”.  Susann had herself developed a sequel that the studio rejected, so while she sued Fox, Meyer hired a young film critic named Roger Ebert to quickly co-write a satirical musical melodrama with no connection to the original story.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, or “BVD” as it’s affectionately known, is a mashup of so many styles that Fox had no idea how to market it, so for the most part they didn’t.  It’s a sexploitation / musical / horror movie.  There are Nazis, murders, wild party scenes, and it has the nostalgia of the old story about young people making it big in showbiz.  Three hot feminist chicks travel as a rock band to El Lay, where they hook up with a Phil Spector-type producer who puts them over the top as The Carrie Nations.  Success corrupts and destroys them, though there is some final scene redemption.  There are echoes of the Tate-La Bianca murders, which had occurred shortly before production.  It’s energetic and clever, and it made back its budget in profit ten times over, even though it had an X rating.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

In my mind Melvin Van Peebles was as much a freedom fighter as Toussaint L’Ouverture.  He did everything Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane, except that he only had 150k, shot the movie in 19 days, and made 15 million PROFIT.  Melvin invented a story about an inner-city sex worker who escapes to Mexico when the police try to frame him for a murder they’ve committed.  Lots of sex, violence, fast cutting and loud, funky music make this movie entertaining to watch, but more importantly, there’s a remarkable political statement being made.  You must understand that in American movies before this, the rebellious black man NEVER got away.  He would always, always die in the attempt, or be killed.  Sweetback gets away!

Van Peebles wrote, directed, edited and composed the music.  He used his own money and 50k from Bill Cosby, shot with a non-union crew and played Sweetback, including doing his own stunts.  Because there was no budget for advertising, he released the soundtrack before the film to build word of mouth.  His audaciousness earned the film an adults-only rating, but he took it as a compliment and put “Rated X by an all-white jury” in the newspaper ads.  The success of this feature lead directly to the “blacksploitation” genre, films about ghetto antiheroes made mostly by white directors.

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12 Comments

Filed under Acting, Cinema

12 responses to “Controversial Films (Pt. 3)

  1. Love Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! Love this post! But one question: “Bunny & Clyde?”

  2. I remember Bonnie and Clyde–interesting to learn more about it. Always enjoy learning about the entertainment industry from you.

    • Thanks, Galen. I’ve been re-watching a lot of movies I saw as a youngster that affected me emotionally, to see if I had a different take from the perspective of my older self. I was 13 when Bonnie and Clyde came out, and I think it was the first time I went to a movie rated “M” (Mature) by myself.

      I had remembered the energy and the sexiness, but didn’t catch all the Biblical symbolism the first time. Clyde is impotent, a kind of innocence. He and Bonnie obviously love each other, but they don’t have sex. They are still “without knowledge”. Near the end of the film, he and Bonnie finally make love sucessfully. Then, on the ride to their death, she bites a piece of fruit, offers it to Clyde, and he takes a bite. He’s holding the fruit as the machine guns open fire.

  3. Nice to see some love for Cathy Comes Home on an American blog.

    Play for Today and The Wednesday Play really brought through some amazing writers and directors into British television.

    • They used to produce weekly plays and perform them “live” here in the 1950s. Ken Loach is from the same tradition of modestly-budgeted thoughtful material as are our Rod Serling and John Frankenheimer. All were writer-directors of original works for TV who graduated to theatrical features. Thanks, Anthony.

  4. Love this. I really need to start thinking of the internet as a way to enlighten myself, rather than just keep myself entertained.

  5. I, too, remember the 1960 election as the first one that impinged upon my young mind. The only thing I remember about it was waiting for the buses to arrive after school, and a shouting match going something like “Kennedy!” “Nixon!” “Kennedy!” “Nixon!”, coordinated as if the kids actually knew enough to have a preference. I don’t remember what my preference was, except it was probably Kennedy. My family, I later learned, was Republican, so they surely voted for Nixon. Oddly, my parents never made a point of their politics to my brothers and sister and I. But we all grew up to be R’s, nevertheless. Genetics?

    • I know you meant this for the next post, Mike, so thanks! That’s a fun story. I do think there’s a cultural influence – the red states / blue states thing. People who live all their lives in one area do tend to vote generally as their neighbors do, therefore so would their parents. Maybe it is genetics. Do most people vote as their parents did, even among those who move to different states? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about. My wife and I both grew up in R families. We both vote mostly D, though not exclusively. She spent her life until meeting me living within two counties. I had lived in three states, and we now live in a fourth one. I’m stumped.

  6. What a great post, really informative and knowledgable, and enjoyable too. Feel inspired now, have to check out Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. Looks and sounds really interesting. (Bravo Bill Cosby too.) Looking forward to visiting again. Nice work, great blog.

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