There’s something specifically, quaintly wonderful about the counterculture movies of the late ‘60s: the costumes, the slang-y dialogue, the hallucinogen-inspired cinematography, the way the color temperatures have faded just so. Fans of the period are in for a treat this week, as Olive Films has debuted sparkling new Blu-ray editions of two key ‘60s indies: Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out; in celebration of that release, a look at those films and a handful of others that best encapsulate the period (or, at least, cinema’s best attempts to capture it).
The Wild Angels
Producer/director Roger Corman kicked off the whole outlaw biker movie movement—and a new moment in the youth-geared cinema he’d been making his bones in since the ‘50s—with this 1966 cult classic, starring Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, and (per the credits) “members of HELLS ANGELS of Venice, CA.” Casting the children of Hollywood royalty like Henry Fonda and Frank Sinatra gives the picture an undeniable subtextual kick, and the real Angels filling out the frame lend a documentary authenticity to the fights and parties. Corman’s picture has a rough energy and timely anti-authoritarian spirit, best dramatized in the notorious funeral scene, where Fonda’s “We wanna be free!” speech becomes something of a manifesto for the period.
Dern does another supporting turn (looking like some kind of velvet Jesus), but the leading man here is his buddy Jack Nicholson, and if 1968’s Psych-Out offered no other pleasures, it’d give us the unforgettable site of the future king of Hollywood rocking a leather vest, beads, and a ponytail. But don’t worry, there’s more: Garry Marshall as a narc, Dean Stockwell in Native American garb, Susan Strasberg as our deaf avatar. It’s a bit rambling and unfocused, with a fair amount of stock ‘60s stuff: an extended acid trip to a song that sounds as close to “Purple Haze” as possible without actually being it, frolicking in parks, split-screens, light projections, Strawberry Alarm Clock accompanying a montage of pushy street signs in kaleidoscope vision, maaaaan. But it’s all masterfully photographed by the great László Kovács (a year away from Easy Rider), and it feels as though they’re capturing the specificity of San Francisco’s iteration of the scene. And director Richard Rush (The Stunt Man) arrives at a conclusion that’s admirably cynical, yet not judgmental. (Worth noting: Olive is releasing Rush’s original director’s cut, which runs nearly 20 minutes longer than the theatrical and DVD version.)
Strasberg and Dern perviously appeared, the year before Psych-Out, in this fascinating hybrid of exploitation and experimentation from Corman, who again produced and directed—from Nicholson’s script. (He supported his fledgling acting career in this period by writing screenplays, mostly for Corman.) Corman was latching on to the burgeoning drug culture, sure, but he was also making one of his most personal films, a chronicle of a middle-class director attempting to open his mind via LSD (which the filmmaker partook of in preparation for the film). And the picture also put together Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper, who would reunite two years later for the ultimate ‘60s flick.
There’s plenty to wrestle with in Easy Rider, which is nearly as problematic and clumsy as it is valuable and influential. But in terms of the touchstones of late ‘60s cinema, there’s no comparison: it’s got the biker outlaws, the commune sequence, the sneering hillbillies, the stutter-step transitions, and the “bad trip” Mardi Gras sequence, shot in 16mm to give it that extra raw “edge.” Its screw-it-all spirit was exactly what moviegoers (especially young ones) were looking for in 1969, when it grossed an astonishing $60 million on a $360K budget—enough to convince the cash-strapped studios that maybe the youth market, and the filmmakers who catered to them, held the key to their survival.
A year before they hit pay-dirt with Easy Rider, production entity BBS Enterprises took another, less successful crack at film immortality, resulting in one of the oddest and most fascinating pictures of the era. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were the creators of The Monkees—the band and the sitcom about them—but they soon grew to loathe the pre-fab image of the group nearly as much as its members did. So they decided to burn it all down with this 1968 big-screen vehicle, penned by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, which turned the Beatles-lite group into an avatar for a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness exploration of the era. It tanked badly with critics and audiences, but in the decades that followed, it found a cult following that recognized it as a gonzo treat and a film quite ahead of its time.
Wild in the Streets
Released (like Angels, Psych-Out, and The Trip) by venerable exploitation outfit American International Pictures, this 1968 counterculture comedy explicitly courted youthful moviegoers with a fantasy they could all get behind: the voting age is lowered from 21 to 14, resulting in rock stars and teenagers taking over government. It’s a slipshod affair, but not without its charms, and counted among its fans no less than Pauline Kael; in her influential essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” she wrote that Wild, while “slammed together with spit and hysteria and opportunism,” was “smart in a lot of ways that better-made pictures aren’t.”
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In The Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair) both shot and directed this thoughtful and often harrowing political drama, which has aged better than many of its contemporaries thanks to its deliberate blurring of the line between narrative and documentary; Wexler shot in the scorching Chicago summer of ’68, barely guessing that the protests at the Democratic National Convention would make the city into a cultural flashpoint. Those scenes still have a nerve-jangling intensity, capturing a city, and a country, at the breaking point.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 drama is mostly remembered for its thriller elements, wherein a fashion photographer thinks he photographed a murder and becomes obsessed with digging clues out of the muddy images (a notion later copied in The Conversation and Blow-Out, and spoofed in High Anxiety). Less remembered, or at least less effective, are the Swinging ‘60s elements, from the SHOCKING orgy scene to the mimes. (Seriously, there’s a lot of mimes.)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
It was released six months into 1970, but BtVotD feels like the last movie of the ‘60s, a big, brassy, anything-goes, kitchen-sink stew of sex, violence, rock, drugs, and kitsch from director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert. Infected by the counterculture movement, the L.A. rock scene, the camp classic from which its title was taken, and the Manson family murders that rocked the coast the year before, it’s a true original—clichés are mouthed with straight faces, scenes are shot at cock-eyed angles, goofy rock music pulses, and the end result feels, more than anything even Warhol put on celluloid, like Pop Art sprung to bizarre life.
If BtVotD and Blowup play like anthropological studies from visiting scholars and the earlier pictures feel told from the inside out, then we must mention Skidoo, which is more like a foreign film shot by a director who doesn’t speak the language. On one hand, kudos to producer/director Otto Preminger, the epitome of old school Hollywood, for trying to make a movie for and about young people; on the other, when you’re putting said movie together, do you really cast Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Fankie Avalon, George Raft, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx? Preminger’s bonkers attempt at merging mainstream moviemaking and drug culture ends up representing the worst of both; it’s utterly incoherent, but also has a fascinating train-wreck quality, as unforgiving evidence of what happens when a desperately square movie maker (and industry) try to get hip.