Posted by Susan Doll on August 18, 2014
According to the film history books, 1967 was a seminal year for the Film School Generation because of three movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate. The films’ departure from the conventions of Hollywood’s classic narrative style in story and technique combined with their counter-culture perspective was considered revolutionary. Because of their critical and box-office success, this trio of high-profile films announced to the world that there was a new sheriff in town.
However, other films released that year were just as modern and provocative, including Point Blank, Fearless Vampires Killers, Two for the Road, and In Cold Blood. Even fluff such as Thoroughly Modern Millie seemed modern in its self-reflexive comedy and spoofing of the musical genre. It is also important to remember that in 1967 the studios were still releasing conventional Hollywood movies with big-name stars and happy endings, such as War Wagon, Camelot, Barefoot in the Park, and Doctor Dolittle—hopelessly out of date in any year!
While it is helpful for film history books to draw a clean line between traditional Hollywood and the Film School “brats”, in truth, the era was much messier. The conventions of the old and the innovations of the new were not so clearly delineated, nor did they seamlessly merge. Instead, they often clashed or awkwardly overlapped. One of the clumsiest attempts to address the aesthetics and themes of the 1960s is The Happening, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of Summer Under the Stars: Faye Dunaway. Released in March 1967, The Happening represents Dunaway’s second film, though she may have shot it before Hurry Sundown, which was in theaters a month earlier. I recommend The Happening, not because it is a good film but because it is a fascinating—if inane—marker of its era.
In the vernacular of the 1960s, a happening was a gathering of like-minded people whose only purpose was to live in the moment, whether they were jamming to music, painting bodies, or coming together to bond as a generation. The term originated in the art world during the 1950s and referred to inter-media performances with nonlinear narratives and interactive participation from the audience. In the movie, no happening is ever depicted onscreen, though it appears one has just ended when the film opens. Perhaps the act of watching the film constitutes a happening for the audience, which would be the hippest aspect of the film. It’s downhill from the title.
The Happening follows a group of four hipsters who are contemptuous of everything, even each other. The film opens as Sandy, played by Faye Dunaway, wakes up in a Florida forest, along with dozens of other youths recovering from the happening. She looks over at Sureshot, the handsome if shiftless young man whom she met at the party. With no direction, plan, job, or purpose, Sandy and Sureshot team up with Taurus and Herby, two fellow partiers who are even more reckless than they are. After chasing a group of kids playing war, they accidentally run inside the Miami mansion of millionaire businessman Roc Delmonico who assumes they are there to kidnap him. The four go along with this idea, lead Roc to his car, and drive away with him.
At this point, the storyline makes a left turn in a new direction by focusing on Roc, who is loosely affiliated with the Mob. Despite being connected, he cannot get any of his associates to pony up the money for the ransom. Even his wife, Monica Delmonico, sees her opportunity to be rid of her husband and refuses to pay. Roc takes the kidnapping into his own hands and decides to make his associates and wife suffer for their lack of loyalty to him.
Every aspect of the film seems like a collision of the past generation and the youth movement, or old-school Hollywood and the new breed. I can’t decide if this clash of generations was the point of The Happening, or merely an attempt to attract audiences from both sides of the much-discussed generation gap. While a clash or collision of ideas, imagery, and styles can be innovative because it provokes thought, here it is mere pile-up of mismatched elements. The pairing of disaffected youth with a mobster from another era seems interesting on the surface because both archetypes are outsiders to conformist mainstream America, but that similarity is never mined for possibilities. Instead, the disillusioned Roc and the four crazy kids act like they are in two separate movies.
I found it difficult to consistently identify or sympathize with any of the characters. Because the opening shot is of Sandy in close-up, we are inclined to identify with her and experience the story through her eyes as she attaches herself to a trio of misfit males. However, this becomes increasingly difficult for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the four young adults are simply unlikable—downright alienating in their petty acts of rebellion and meaningless stunts. Sandy repeatedly makes statements that reveal her shallow perspective: “I hate all my friends,” “Maybe I’ll feel something,” “Another day and nothing is going to happen,” and, my favorite, “Let’s go steal the bear from the zoo.” She and her three cohorts never have a sincere moment; they seem to be constantly performing, playing at being defiant and nonconformist. Are we supposed to relate to their malaise, because the world is corrupt and conventional? Or, are we supposed to be critical of these characters, and by extension, their whole generation?
Anthony Quinn costars as Roc Delmonico, and just as the character takes over the kidnap operation, Quinn’s energy and charisma help him steal every scene he is in. Plus, Roc’s common-sense observations on the kooky kids seem to sum up the viewer’s attitude, especially 40 years after the hippie movement has come and gone. However, are we supposed to sympathize with Roc, who is crushed and pathetic when he realizes no one loves or respects him, or be critical of his conventional, bourgeois lifestyle?
The kooky kids try to intimidate Roc with their slangy, hip jargon . They speak in a beatnik-style patter as a group, with one character picking up the beat and phrasing of a sentence from the previous. They use this hip-speak as a weapon to annoy Roc, who accuses them of playing games and warns them to stop their “jazzy talk.” Are we supposed to feel alienated from this strange group, or should we see them as hip and cool like the jive-talking Brando in The Wild One? Whatever the intent, there is nothing to relate to about these characters, nothing admirable in their nonconformity. The four are so annoying that I found myself agreeing with a line Roc tosses at Sandy, even though it is antithetical to everything about my personality: “Why don’t you clean yourself up and marry some guy.”
The actors in the cast are an interesting mix of old-school stars and young turks from the new generation. On the verge of her breakout success in Bonnie and Clyde, Dunaway would become a premier actress in the movies of the Film School Generation. Through their work on television, Michael Parks, who costars as Sureshot, and George Maharis, who plays Taurus, earned their star images as actors associated with rebellious youth. Parks had starred as the trouble-making title character in the tv flick Bus Riley’s Back in Town, while Maharis starred as the Brando-esque Buzz Murdock in Route 66. In addition to Quinn, traditional Hollywood was represented by glamorous Martha Hyer as Monica, Oscar Homolka as an old-school mobster, and Milton Berle as Roc’s business partner. Roc tries to take Taurus under his wing for a career in organized crime, but the two ultimately don’t mesh, a situation that sums up the lack of chemistry among the actors in this film. Robert Walker Jr., who plays Herby, is an odd bridge between the two generations. As the son of movie stars Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones, he grew up in the last days of old Hollywood. However, he attended the Actors Studio and embraced the Method, aligning him with the new generation of actors. Unfortunately, Herby is the least developed character in the film, and Walker’s presence is barely felt.
At the time, much was made of the title tune because it was sung by The Supremes, Motown’s high-profile girl group. But, the song has little connection to the driving harmonies of the rhythm-and-blues-flavored Motown Sound. Instead, the superficial pop stylings of “The Happening” sound like some Hollywood exec’s idea of the modern music “the kids” were listening to.
The Happening’s failings are all the more interesting because it was co-scripted by Frank Pierson, who wrote three of the best films of the Film School Generation—Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, and Cat Ballou. The latter was directed by Elliot Silverstein, who was also responsible for The Happening. Cat Ballou also combined convention and innovation as well as old movie stars and new Method actors but with much more success. Despite its frustrating shortcomings, The Happening still makes an interesting viewing experience because it captures a confused Hollywood in transition.
I had intended to post this prior to its airing on TCM, but my computer crashed just as I was about to post it. If anyone did see it, I would appreciate your views; if you did not see it, you can see the entire film, or as much as you can take, on Youtube.
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