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Sex, Cars, Fried Chicken 

LACMA's Road Movies Series

Thursday, Jan 6 2011
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In Steven Soderbergh's 1999 film The Limey, Peter Fonda's Terry Valentine dreamily describes the 1960s as "a place that maybe only exists in your imagination ... [where] you knew the language." A beat later, Valentine corrects himself. "No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was."

By that rationale, the '60s were long over by the 1969 release of Easy Rider — a film The Limey directly references in its casting of Fonda as a '60s survivor aged into a villain, thus in a sense stripping away the martyrdom offered by Dennis Hopper's film's infamous final moments. Easy Rider might have changed cinema and the culture at large by codifying and giving cinematic representation to the spirit of a generation, but the movie acknowledged the shelf life of the '60s as a concept — and the film itself did enough business that the naive spirit in which it was made couldn't last for long. To quote Jack Nicholson's character, an alcoholic attorney turned on by the biker hippies played by Fonda and Hopper: "It's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace."

In the short term, Easy Rider successfully decentralized the marketplace. Quoted in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, The Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry summed up Easy Rider's form and impact: "It looks like a couple hundred outtakes from several other films all strung together with the soundtrack of the best of the '60s. But it opened up a path. Now the children of Dylan were in control."

click to enlarge Tuesday Weld in Play It As It Lays
  • Tuesday Weld in Play It As It Lays

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LACMA's series True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies, starting Friday, spans 11 films from a seven-year period (1967-1974) in which the "children of Dylan" dragged in a wide net full of ideology and iconography that reflected the zeitgeist and temporarily reshaped Hollywood film production to allow for personal expression. The titles range from inarguable classics (Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Five Easy Pieces) to flops that have since inspired their own cults (Electra Glide in Blue, Two Lane Blacktop, Zabriskie Point), to a couple of wild cards unavailable on DVD (Play It As It Lays, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). The films are united not only by the American roads lacing through their narrative episodes (shot by Conrad Hall, László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond and other cinematographic greats) but by their preoccupations with and/or allusions to very of-the-era tropes: hitchhiking, communes, casual sex, hair length as ideological marker, pop music as shared text, jail, fried chicken.

The latter was a surprise commonality between the first three films in the series that I watched — Harry and Tonto, which 2010 L.A. Film Critics Association Lifetime Achievement honoree Paul Mazursky will present and discuss on Thursday, Jan. 13; Frank Perry's film of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, screening Jan. 7; and Scarecrow, screening Jan. 15 with an appearance by Zsigmond. Each contains a scene in which a key conversation happens over a bucket of what looks like KFC.

Wondering if there was some early-'70s social significance to this fast food of choice that I was missing, I e-mailed L.A. Weekly's food critic/resident fried chicken historian, Jonathan Gold. "No specific resurgence of chicken love in the culture [around then], unless you think of a bucket as classic stoner munchies," he wrote back. "I suppose it's a trope because white fried chicken has always been thought of as a quintessentially rural food ... without being necessarily regionally specific. It means you're out of town."

That's sort of the series in a nutshell: At their core, the True Grit films are all concerned with what being out of town means, and for many of them it means limbo. They're largely movies about people who have managed to advance well into adulthood without planting roots that couldn't be ripped out at a moment's notice, and the geographic nowheres of the American West suit characters who are in either transit or stasis somewhere in between an unsatisfactory day-to-day and a nebulous next phase. As Nicholson says in Five Easy Pieces, "I move around a lot. Not because I'm looking for anything really, just because I'm getting away from things that get bad."

Getting away from bad is paramount, whether it's Robert Blake's bodybuilding bike cop in Electra Glide in Blue chasing the promotion that'll allow him to "get paid for thinking, not for getting callouses on my ass," or Art Carney's widowed pensioner in Mazursky's proto–Fox Searchlight quirky dramedy Harry and Tonto, who is pushed out of a rapidly changing Manhattan and heads West, his beloved cat in tow.

The '60s as Valentine described it haunt the above films, even as their characters ascribe to their tenets only uneasily and tangentially. Jerry Schatzberg's hobo bromance Scarecrow stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two men who more or less missed the '60s (Hackman's Max was in prison, Pacino's Lionel in the Marines). Schatzberg's vision of life just outside of society is more concerned with manhood than with The Man. Pacino's loose, wildly physical but fully believable interpretation of a character who arcs sharply from comic relief to baby mama–induced crack-up is all the more remarkable when you take into account that this is how he spent his off time between cerebral and highly controlled turns in the first two Godfather movies.

In Scarecrow, as in many of these films, women are temptresses and trophies, expected to be loose enough to offer a good time to a man passing through, but rarely allowed to act on their own wanderlust or direct their own fantasies of freedom. This gender imbalance is sometimes knowingly played for tragedy — think Karen Black's repeated abandonment in Five Easy Pieces — but it's rarely redeemed.

So within this series, Play It As It Lays, the second half of the Pieces double bill, plays like a corrective — to male fantasies of "freedom," to the myth of New Hollywood as a total political break from the old, to the notion that the road itself could lead to anything like utopia. It's Easy Rider the depraved and deranged morning after. Tuesday Weld's Maria is literally last year's model, the female lead of a zeitgeist-defining biker pic who married her maverick director, who has in turn developed a "nose for commerce" and a total insensitivity to Maria and their mentally disabled daughter. Play's quick and messy visual montage and sound collage would seem to approximate the exact moment coke replaced acid as the creative drug of choice. Meanwhile, Maria, who accepts as a compliment a bigwig's statement that she's "not a cunt," is on a precipice between liberation and dependency. The boozing, screwing and aimless driving, "going further and further looking for The Answer," which passed as stabs toward enlightenment when practiced by the male heroes of the other films, mark Maria as hysteric. Often over the top and heavily coded, Play It As It Lays stands out for letting the girl drive, all the while acknowledging the extent to which she's only in control when behind the wheel.

Weld has, shall we say, less to work with in A Safe Place, in which she played an early Manic Pixie Dream Girl just a year before Lays. Packaged with Jack Nicholson's first credited directorial effort, Drive, He Said, Henry Jaglom's debut occupies half of the rarity slot in Criterion's recently released box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. Also including Pieces, Rider, the far-out Monkees movie Head and Bob Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens, the ratio of must-see classics to curiosities here is remarkably high, but a few of the extras might be worth the sticker price on their own. My favorites: A book of essays featuring writings by Weekly contributors J. Hoberman, Graham Fuller and others; Greg Carson's talking-head documentary BBStory; and Notes on the New York Film Festival, tape from a 1971 chat show in which film critic Molly Haskell interviews the only two American directors accepted into that year's NYFF: Jaglom and a chain-smoking, pre-ascot Peter Bogdanovich.

TRUE GRIT: THE GOLDEN AGE OF ROAD MOVIES | Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Jan. 7-21 | LACMA.org

AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY | Criterion.com

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