Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 26, 2014
I like period movies. In fact, if a movie takes place in a favorite period, I can pretty much watch it just for that, the period. The costumes, the hairstyles, the cars, the houses, and everything else that makes that period so unique. Of course, if the movie really has little else to offer in the way of story or acting, I probably won’t return to it. But if a movie isn’t a period piece, it shouldn’t call too much to its period, right? It shouldn’t mire itself down in up to the second fashions, it shouldn’t rely too heavily on up to the minute cultural references, or make social commentary that might be embarrassing in a few years. But in the 1960′s, the movies were changing. Attitudes were changing, what was allowed on the screen was changing, and the generation gap was growing. As a result, movies from the sixties tend to look and feel more like their decade than other movies from other decades look like theirs (if that makes sense to anyone but me, let me know) and it doesn’t bother me at all. I can watch any movie from the sixties if it’s good, but if it also screams “the sixties” in every cliche, costume and cultural reference, I can watch it even if it’s bad. If it happens to be good, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Just a couple of days I found myself watching Easy Rider on Netflix. I didn’t watch it because I had any great desire to sit through the story, as it is, of Captain America (no, not that one) and Billy the Kid (no, not that one either) traipsing across the country on their way to a brothel in New Orleans. No, I watched it because that damn movie screams out the decade in which it was made. It’s filled with self-lauding platitudes and smug assertions by Captain America (Peter Fonda, who takes himself soooo very seriously in this movie) and hilarious stoner observations by Billy (Dennis Hopper, also the director) as well as a commune and an acid trip for good measure. It also has Jack Nicholson who proves himself to be, by far, the most captivating actor in the movie. Now, I didn’t watch it from beginning to end (I’ve done that before, long, long ago). No, I just skipped around and watched scenes from the sixties. Why? It made me feel good, that’s why. And not the hippy-drippy stuff, no. Rather, stuff like the girls in the diner, with their polyester skirts and flat hairstyles. I thought, “That’s how every girl I knew looked when I was little.” The signs, the cars, the little details that fill the screen that a production designer today could never match making a movie about the sixties.
But that’s just what I watched the other day. If I really want to see the sixties, there are so many other better options. A personal favorite for this kind of thing is The President’s Analyst. It has the sixties written all over it, even down to the plot-essential jokes about the phone company. The phone company! It has major plot points revolving around jokes about the phone company that no one, and I mean no one, born after 1970 would probably even get. It seems like every frame of The President’s Analyst is meant to signal for all time that it was made in 1967 and if that was its intention then success! And that’s why it’s so enjoyable (well, to me and, I think, Richard and Kimberly for sure) because it shoots for every target in its cultural perimeter while so many movies back away timidly from such things fearing they won’t have appeal for future generations. Who cares! Live in the here and now. Make your movie about what’s happening this very second if you want and to hell with longevity (although it has that, I think, in spades).
In fact, James Coburn himself really feels like the sixties to me. The President’s Analyst would top the list for me, with his work, but other movies he did, such as Our Man Flint and its sequel, In Like Flint, also are so completely entrenched in the sixties, it’s impossible to watch them without feeling like you’re reliving an entire period simply by watching a movie. With these, and appearances in other sixties classics like Charade, James Coburn wins top honors as “Most Sixties Actor.” (I know, I know, there are plenty of other actors that could win, too, from Terence Stamp to Michael Caine to Laurence Harvey, to mention only three, but hey, he’s my choice). And speaking of Charade…
…could there be any doubt that Audrey Hepburn is the winner of “Most Sixties Actress?” I mean, sure, there are plenty of contenders (Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, and Monica Vitti could all give her a run for her money) but she’s the one for that decade for me. Now, she did some seminal sixties work like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, How to Steal a Million and Two for the Road, but just a few weeks ago I watched her in Wait Until Dark again (it was on TCM, of course) and realized what a great sixties movie that is. The Alan Arkin character is hilariously sixties in both mannerisms and dialogue while being also scary and menacing (go ahead any other actor, pull that one off). And the interior of Hepburn’s apartment is filled with furniture, knickknacks and dressings that look exactly like almost every house I ever walked into when I was a kid.
There’s nothing like a movie from the sixties that takes place in the sixties that absolutely embraces the sixties that can bring home the nostalgia for me. Obviously it has to do with when I was born and when I grew up and the way that something that looks familiar to your five-year-old self can make you feel so comfortable. So when I watch the movies listed above or Petulia, Darling, A Shot in the Dark, Alfie, The Graduate, Sex and the Single Girl, Contempt, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Modesty Blaise, or anything with Dean Martin, I may be watching it because it’s great or I may be watching it simply because I feel like watching a movie that says “sixties” to me. And the more dated, as in, the more sixties, the better.
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