By now, the American filmmaking renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s has been so thoroughly lionized (by the epic documentary A Decade Under the Influence), scandalized (by Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) and fetishized (by the films of Soderbergh, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, et al.) that, along the way, the significance of that historic movement has risked being reduced to a kitsch mythology of zoom lenses, nonlinear editing, and those gods with names like Altman, Ashby, Cassavetes and Rafelson who briefly lit up the Hollywood heavens with their creative fire. But like most enduring myths, the legend of the American new wave has its basis in fact, and it is that reality that is the subject of a remarkable 16-film series called “Return to New Hollywood,” running through March 25 at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater.
For starters, consider the conventional wisdom that says Easy Rider (1969) was the movie that opened the floodgates for studio-produced features marked by radical experimentation and concern with the underside of the American Dream. Were that the case, how then to account for director Arthur Penn’s bizarre and brilliant Mickey One (1965), a jazzy riff on Kafka’s The Trial in which Warren Beatty’s eponymous nightclub comic finds himself on the run from a shadowy underworld organization or, just maybe, the shadow cast by his own celebrity? A carnival of paranoia and existential dread perhaps a bit too perfectly suited to a nation reeling from the Kennedy assassination and in the thick of Vietnam, Mickey One was little seen at the time and remains virtually unknown. (Befitting its obscurity, it was only once released on video, on that now-obsolete format known as laserdisc.) But it is a true American original, and early evidence of what would become the era’s dominant concerns: disillusionment with success; deep suspicion of authority; and the quest for unattainable freedom. Here, it is presented on a double bill with Penn’s Night Moves (1975), another conspiratorial thriller set against the world of show biz, with Gene Hackman as a private eye whose dogged investigation of a possible murder leads him to a boat called the Point of View and the belated realization that some mysteries are best left unsolved. It joins Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Conversation (1974) as one of the decade’s great bottomed-out neo-noirs — those Watergate-era detective fictions in which unraveling the mystery is hardly worth the bother, for corruption is everywhere and nobody is immune.
Penn begs rediscovery, but what makes “Return to New Hollywood” an essential happening is its invoking of other names far less remembered today, like the actresses Kitty Winn (one of the junkies-in-love in The Panic in Needle Park), Tuesday Weld (as the dissolute actress drifting through Joan Didion’s SoCal inferno in Play It as It Lays) and Carrie Snodgress (coming apart at the seams as the central figure in Diary of a Mad Housewife); the actor Stacy Keach (brilliant as the academic undergoing “psychic remobilization” in the apocalyptic End of the Road, and as the has-been boxer in John Huston’s Fat City); and the director Frank Perry (Mad Housewife, The Swimmer), four of whose films form a miniretrospective within the larger series. Most of those artists did their best work in the 10 years bookended by Mickey One and Night Moves; many have scarcely worked since. Not all of their movies are great, or even good — some, like William Wyler’s race-relations drama, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), represent awkward yet fascinating attempts by “Old Hollywood” veterans to get hip to the times — but they’re all touched by the same special freedom and by a belief in the possibilities of movies as entertainment, politics and art. Almost uniformly, the studio films of the ensuing 30 years seem anesthetized by comparison. So go to the Egyptian Theater a few times over the next week and you will be transported back to the last moment when Hollywood still made movies for adults, and adults dared to be challenged by them.
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RETURN TO NEW HOLLYWOOD | At American Cinematheque at the Egyptian | Through March 25 | See Film & Video Events for more info | www.americancin?ematheque.com