Personal Faves: The Best of the Early ’70s on Film

This past year, I have seen roughly 200 films. As my job requires me to see a plethora of movies, a good chunk of them were new releases. But as I am a hermit on the weekends, many were older films I always meant to see but for some reason or another let slip between the cracks. For me, watching a film is always experiential; I love nothing more than the physical response to viewing a great film you’ve never seen and the cinematic high that follows. But I always look at my constant film watching as an education, leaving the theater or shutting off my computer as if I’ve just done a close reading of an important text, feeling as if I’ve gained insight into a time and a place in the world that I ever knew existed. And when it comes to Hollywood in the 1970s, that for me has always been the most enthralling and the most informative.

1. Zabriskie Point, Michaelangelo Antonioni (1970)

What lacks in dialogue is completely made up for in cinematography and sound thanks to Pink Floyd’s disjointed psychedlic meets ethereal soundtrack. The beginning scenes in Los Angeles with all the 1960s aggressive advertising juxtaposed with the bare desert and the final blowup/breakdown just killed me. Of course, Antonioni plus Sam Shepard would only naturally equal the dustiest choreographed orgy scene of bodies and sounds.

2. Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders (1974)

I love everything about this movie, from the pacing to the polaroids and exterior driving shots (that reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s early photographs). Wenders’s films are filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find that thing or feeling they’ve never even been able to name. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive, and what could be more universal?

3. The Landlord, Hal Ashby (1970)

Here’s a really great 1970s New York race-relations film. It was endearing and funny while also being insightful and guttural. Hal had a really bizarre tone to all of his films and this one takes a little bit to get situated but when it does, it feels like how his others end up—living in this weird world between the absolutely ridiculous and extreme reality. Beau Bridges boyish face was the perfect canvas to project against this urban world.

4. Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson (1970)

If I could be reincarnated as anything it would be Jack Nicholson’s left eyebrow in 1970. His performance in really established his maniacal acting style that is just so good it makes me wonder if modern actors of this callibar even exist anymore. The film is brilliantly written and directed, showing a tragically ambivalent man’s existential crisis that leads down a road to nowhere in the style of New Wave art film.

5. Shampoo, Hal Ashby (1975)

A hazy satire of late ’60s sexual politics and great hair. It’s interesting to set a film as a period piece—seven years earlier—with a political backdrop that only keeps the mood light. If the script had fallen into another director’s hands with lesser actors, I’m sure a good deal of magic would have been lost, but this was wonderful. Warren Beatty’s haircut and Julie Christie’s backless sequined dress are really the other leads of the film.

6. Husbands, John Cassavetes (1970)

Troubled men, troubled world. This one is wonderfully shot, of course; Cassvetes is the master of holding the camera close to bodies and faces to expose interiors in a way that’s as haunting as it is aesthetically beautiful. The dynamic between Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara cannot be beat. Cassavetes’s maniacal laugh will be playing on repeat in my head for days. The film displays the immature idocy of men but also the knowledge that they recognize their ways and attempt to change—but is it only out of shame or guilt?

7. Sunday Blood Sunday, John Schlesinger (1971)

What the film does best is speak to the sentiment that we’re drawn to that which will never be fully attainable despite all our efforts. It’s not a film about what it is like to be a gay man in love or the struggles that coincide, but a film about what it’s like to be a person in love—male, female, whatever. If the film is still progressive to this day, it’s for the way in which it does not treat the homosexuality of the characters as something different or subversive. Both Daniel and Alex’s stories feel ultimately tragic because perhaps their desire for him was merely a projection.

8. The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula (1974)

Every film in his political paranoia trilogy is perfect. Gordon Willis’s cinematography kills me and is at its best when in these kinds of stories. So much inching tension and unrest. So psycholoigcally stimulating and well-acted. Sidenote: Is it a requirement for all the leads in this trilogy to have the same brunette haircut?

9. Performance, Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg (1970)

No one does out-of-focus, sparkling-chandelier-light haze reminiscent of fantastical winter nights of intoxication better than Roeg. Jesus, this movie is a fucking brilliant depiction of indentity and the power to transform oneself. As usual, sexuality and violence go hand in hand that seduces you with it’s lustful danger. And obviously, the music is half the pleasure.

10. The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman (1973)

Elliott Gould is perfect as the wisecracking and fumblingly adorable Marlowe. Altman’s version captures an essence of ’70s easy cool LA that’s breezy and charismatic yet haunted by it’s darkness lurking beneath the surface. Takes noir and makes it natural. Great sounds.

Reuniting The World Nightclub

A Facebook friend asked me if it wasn’t time for a World reunion. He was referring to a joint I ran during its best incarnation back in the day. It had been around before me and survived a little while after I moved on. The World opened, I believe, on September 17th, 1987. That’s a little more than 25 years ago. I’ll quote some poet and say "Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now." I was so sure of what I was doing, knew everything I needed to thrive. The place was famously "gangstar.” Long before hip-hop and house were breaking mainstream, we went with it. We booked Public Enemy for the opening (my notes say I paid them $1200). I was paying big acts of those early years, like Kid and Play and Big Daddy Kane, like $400 to perform. My main floor DJs were David Morales, Frankie Knuckles, and David Piccioni (Black Market Records).

I declined being involved with the reunion thing. Three of the four owners are scattered to the winds, and the 4th, my friend the great Arthur Weinstein has sadly passed. Last I heard, Paul Garcia (who I never dealt with) was up in Martha’s Vineyard or someplace like that. Peter Frank was practicing law up in Kingston, NY, and Frank Roccio had fallen on hard times. He has a Facebook page that says he is living in Brooklyn. I wish him well.

Although I remember it fondly, I have no desire to go back and relive it – even for a night. It might be nice to see a few old friends, but Facebook allows me an occasional "hey, how ya doing," and that’s enough. There will never be another club like The World unless it’s post apocalypse. It was dangerous fun in a wild west kind of hood that was the Lower East Side of the late ’80’s. During the day, you could buy drugs and guns right there in front of the place. The buildings up and down the block were abandoned, and dealers would often cement themselves in and drop their products in tin cans to the needers below. That sort of atmosphere has been outlawed, at least in Manhattan, and although an underground scene still survives in the outer boroughs, it is comparatively safe, almost saccharine.

I wrote a story called “Five Easy Pieces," which named The World as one of the top five places of all time. The others were Studio 54, Area, Max’s Kansas City, and the Paradise Garage. Here’s The World excerpt.

"The World (254 East 2nd Street) was a mess. It was my fault, as I helped run it. It was where house went from the Paradise Garage crowd to the hipster crowd. It’s where hip hop broke out from the streets to everywhere. Public Enemy played, plus Salt-n-Pepa, and Beastie Boys, but also Bowie and Sinead and Bjork and even Neil Young. One night Pink Floyd rolled in unexpectedly and wowed us. It was a place where Keith Haring was arting up the bathroom stalls and Andy Warhol was calming me down. It was dangerous and smart. It was Caroline Herrera wearing a zillion dollars worth of emeralds while project kids popped and spun. Owner Peter Frank says, "The true stars of The World’s universe were the club kids and patrons … when they came through the doors, they became anyone they wanted to be." The building was torn down some years ago. Today the East Side Tabernacle resides on the first floor, while upstairs East Villagers listen to music that broke there  back in the day. Setlist: “Paid in Full” (Eric B and Rakim), “Yo Bum Rush” (Public Enemy), “Saturday Night” (Schooly D), “Open Your Heart” (Madonna), “Brass Monkey” (The Beastie Boys)."

Here’s an piece of an obit I wrote for Arthur after he passed:

"Art passed yesterday, after a courageous fight with cancer. Known to everyone with clout in the nightclub industry, Art was a familiar face for a few decades. He owned and operated some of the best clubs in history. The World, Hurrah, The Continental, and The Jefferson provided thousands of extraordinary nights for thousands of hipsters long before the word was unfortunately popularized. Everybody loved and respected him, even those who were over him. Even years after he had operated anything he could still get Calvin or Ian or Grace on the phone. Grace Jones recently paid a visit to him as he lay dying in his Chelsea Hotel apartment. He told me of hanging with Ian Schrager and David Bowie, who he called the White Knight. He never ceased to amaze me with stories of life in the fastest lane. It wasn’t the drugs or the booze that killed the beast, it was, as Carl Denham once said, beauty that killed him. He was trapped by the drug called clubs, its  kaleidoscope-like enchantment, its vision and pitfalls, and by his camera and his art. Arthur ignored the pitfalls, as he only saw the possibilities."

Consider this a reunion.

Revisiting the Culture of Bob Rafelson’s ‘Five Easy Pieces’

Tonight, as part of their The Works: Karen Black retrospective series, Nitehawk Cinema will be showing Bob Rafelson’s 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces. The film was not only one of the greatest cinematic achievements of New Hollywood but also provided the perfect vehicle for Jack Nicholson to showcase what frighteningly rich talent was lurking inside him—"I had bagged into a guy who didn’t even know he was a fuckin’ actor," Rafelson has said. So in honor of the film’s screening tonight, we’re giving you another look at our Cinematic Panic article from January that dives into the world of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

It was amidst the pre-production for the Vincent Minnelli picture, On a Clear Day Your Can See Forever, when producer Robert Evans was at a loss. He could not find a single person who seemed to fit the role of Tad, the brother of Barbara Streisand’s Daisy. In one of the final casting sessions, Evans claims to have finally said, "Hold it!" Thinking he was speaking of the young man they were watching act, his head of talent said, "I think he’s terrific too, could be the next Jimmy Dean," to which Evans replied, "No, not him. The other guy. The one who didn’t talk. The smile." And after weeks of tracking him down, Evans finally met with “the smile;" all he wanted was to hear the guy talk. He asked the kid what he’d been working on: Just finished a flick that could be a real winner. Been in the can for just a month. Somethin’ about it’s real interestin’…it’ll turn ya upside down. Evans didn’t understand "a fuckin word the guy was saying," but he thought he was original. Not even knowing if he could act, he was cast—signing him, off nothing more than a flash of that devilish grin. "It sure in hell was a first for me, mesmerized by another guy’s smile."

That incredible mug happened to be the now legendary and iconic man of many talents, Jack Nicholson—who, at the time was beginning to garner attention from audiences with his minor but stand-out role in Dennis Hopper’s ode to a generation lost in the search for the American Dream, Easy Rider. Having left his home in Neptune, New Jersey, to pursue an artistic career after hearing he had "the face of an actor," Nicholson began earning his chops, studying meticulously on his craft in acting classes. And it was there that he met lifetime friend and collaborator, the master of B-movie schlocky brilliance, Roger Corman, with whom he would go on to write, direct, and star in pictures for throughout the ’60s. [Sidenote: If you’ve seen last year’s documentary Corman’s World, it’s impossible to forget the exposed and tender moment in which Nicholson tears up and begins to cry talking about Corman’s importance to him and how their relationship changed his life.]
But it was a time when a host of young actors, writers, and directors were on the precipice of something huge, about to take over Hollywood and lay their bones as the frontiersmen of New Hollywood, a movement that would shake a generation. Influenced by everything from Charlie Parker’s jazz, Marlon Brando’s performances, andthe writing of Camus and Sarte, Nicholson and his friends—Hopper, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, and Monte Hellman—were "the first people in America who weren’t buying the American Dream," recalls Nicholson. The "accent was on Holden Caufield-style iconoclasm, Beat intellectualism, and going to parties, but the focus was always on film acting and directing," as noted by Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray in their 1984 book Hollywood Films of the Seventies. 
But before he became the smooth-talking, charismatic wise-guy we consider one of the cinema’s greatest personalities—hell, the studio heads at Paramount during the casting of Chinatown weren’t even sure if they  could sell him as a romantic lead—he was known around town as a versatile character actor. But even throughout his early career—solidifying just how wrong those producers were—he still managed to tackle an array of diverse roles in every genre. He dug his hands into every aspect of filmmaking, working as a writer, director, and actor while a part of BBS (previously Rayburt Productions), an independent American company formed in the ’60s by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who together developed The Monkees. BBS went on to put out some of the most prolific films of the early 1970s, including Peter Bogdonovich’s now-classic black and white drama The Last Picture Show. BBS launched the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars but most notably that of Nicholson with the Rafelson-directed film, Five Easy Pieces—an amalgamation of American road movie, in-depth character study, and European art film. 
Made for under $900,000 in 1970, Five Easy Pieces was the first Columbia-financed BBS release and worth every dime. Written by Carole Eastman, the film drew on Rafelson’s own life and the collective unconscious of the time. The leading character Bobby Duprea (played by Nicholson) represents an anonymous American existence. He’s a man who hides in the culture of others, never having to face the permanent sense of indecision that plagues him. Bobby is a volatile and aggressive man who rejects his intellectual, upper-class background, preferring to disappear in the life of an everyday man. He’s a classically trained pianist who chooses the life of a hard-hat—working in the oil fields and living modestly with a big-haired, Tammy Wynette-singing, truck-stop waitress, Rayette (played to perfection by Karen Black). Bobby doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. This sense of displacement echoes the anxieties of the time, not knowing where the world was heading or how to deal with the onslaught of social dissonance. 
Bobby represents a post-1969 frame of mind, when it wasn’t only the youth culture that was feeling the social and political afflictions of society. The "hippies" of the previous generations weren’t the only ones going through upheaval and anger but "could now be seen in any American." Easy Rider served as the ultimate symbol for that previous generation of youth counter-culture, and now Nicholson was here with that same sense of ill-ease and disillusionment, but in the character of an everyday man’s own identity crisis. Bobby wanted to escape the confines of his own upper-class background by assimilating into the blue-collar working class, a place where he would be free from pretense; he feels "alone in his ordeal," but that sense of isolation reflects the culture at large. 
Bobby is "terminally ambivalent" as Kent Jones puts it: "watching the film is like being compelled to sit down with a stranger and hear the tale of an unresolved life." He wants to be free of class distinction, but no matter what world in which he exists, he finds himself devoid of feeling or ability to truly connect with those around him. He’s affected by them and will occasionally show a hint of passion or wild sexual impulse, but can never commit to a feeling or place, let alone a person. There’s a nonchalance about the poor way in which he treats the people in his life, namely, Rayette. Around her, he acts hostile, as if he’s held captive by her oppressive love for him. His distain for her is palpable, and you can feel the anxiety he has just being in her presence. He acts on his need for freedom by sleeping with other women and lying to her while still feeling possessed by her feelings towards him. In a brilliantly acted scene, Bobby tells Rayette he needs to leave for a few weeks, to which she responds with despondence and desperation. At first he doesn’t invite her with him, but as he gets in his car to leave, he begins flailing his body around, banging the steering wheel, knowing the right thing to do is to bring her along, but the thought makes him want to put his head through the windshield. But she comes along, and thus begins the road movie aspect of the film.
His father is dying. At the request of his sister, Bobby agrees to travel to his family’s home, which represents the antithesis of the life he’s been living with Rayette. While traveling between these two worlds, the road serves as a place where Bobby’s disaffected psyche can really hit its stride, adhering to no one and nothing. Vast highways and open roads have always served as a romantic metaphor for personal expansion and possibility, or opportunity and the promise of something better lying just beyond the next stop. When you’re in transit, you’re unknown and the world feels free of consequence. Even though Raynette is with him, he drops her off at a hotel and heads to be with his family alone. While there, he has an affair with passionate woman who attempts to pull some feeling from Bobby, but his lack of desire to pick a side—even to his emotions—turns her away. In the end, he chooses that anonymous life, a "self-exile," as Kent Jones put it.
J. Hoberman said that Five Easy Pieces is "predicated on the non sequitur," making it similar to the European art films of the time. It takes our expectations of cinematic convention and flips them on their head. It’s like traveling down a long road that keeps veering off in different directions, with pit stops on the way that never provide anything but momentary enjoyment and brief revelation, only to disappear before the next sudden turn. There’s one scene in which Bobby is stuck in traffic in the passenger seat of his friend’s car. He sees a piano sitting on the back of a flatbed truck in front of the them and simply exits the car and hops onto the truck to play some Chopin—as if the world is watching. The truck drives off as we see it disappear in the distance, and Bobby continues to play, unruffled. The next scene is at the diner where Rayette works; there is no mention of the flatbed experience again. In a similar vein, Rayette’s pregnancy is hinted at once, but never mentioned again. It’s a novelistic film with flourishes of the absurd set in the vivid and dust-filled American landscape of the time. 
But what the film does best is provide a vehicle for Nicholson, showing the strength of his acting abilities. Five Easy Pieces is Bobby’s world and thus Jack’s world. His character’s wise-cracking attitude and outbursts established Nicholson’s maniacal acting style that would characterize him throughout the rest of his career. His performance is truly the work of someone completely dedicated to his craft and able to disappear into his characters without losing sight of himself. Although he did receive an Oscar nomination for Bobby Duprea, he lost to George C. Scott in Patton. But awards are no matter; what’s important was how, after 43 years, the film still feels important. Not only does it encapsulate a bygone generation, but it speaks to the questions of identity and the desire to escape that we hold onto, regardless of time.