PAISLEY SHIRTS AND POLKA DOTS, ORGY SCENES AND acid trips, superstars and superspies, Beatle boots and Bond birds, aitch-dropping working-class pop stars, lisping convent-schooled cover girls, beady-eyed music impresarios, randy fashion photographers, media-made instant celebs: Jesus, you think, they must have been everywhere. And sustained exposure to “Mods and Rockers,” the American Cinematheque's splendid Austin Powersinspired retrospective on Swinging London's cultural detritus great and small, may half convince you that it was actually illegal to make films in England back then without including any or all of these parrot-crested, peacock-proud '60s archetypes.
It wasn't, of course, but it might as well have been, so often do the movies in question resolve themselves into huge, chaotic party-orgy-happenings, naively re-created drug freak-outs, and the headlong flight of terrified rock bands from the prehensile clutches of scissors-brandishing teenage Delilahs. No wonder some American viewers think of '60s London as some kind of fossilized go-go museum. Although in reality it was as much a bandwagon-jumper's cash-in bonanza as it was a forward-looking cultural renaissance, the Swinging London that turned up on film was a half-hip, half-hopeless hybrid of the real thing. It had one foot in everyday reality — such as it was back then — and the other in some acid-tinged, utopian permanent present tense (It's NEW! It's NOW!) that some, no doubt, hoped would form a launch pad for both the coming psychedelic revolution and the groovy Nirvana to be built thereafter on the ruins of the squaresville status quo.
It never happened, sadly. Or perhaps happily. Today, these films — many of which, until they became sufficiently dated, were for years almost unwatchable — are finally fun to see again. They form a delirious daisy chain of time-capsule cultural artifacts that offer both a skewed portrait of the Zeitgeist and an accidental catalog of the ways in which the British movie establishment met and (mostly) misunderstood, then sold, baby-boomer Brit-pop to moviegoers. The best of them, such as Blow-Up, Privilege and Performance, are landmark movies by any standard, and it's no surprise that some directors soon went Hollywood. Peter Yates shot the Cliff Richard programmer Summer Holiday en route to Bullitt. John Boorman made only one film, Having a Wild Weekend, before he grafted his London Mod aesthetic wholesale onto the American urban crime picture to produce Point Blank.
SWINGING LONDON DIDN'T LAST LONG. IN BRITISH political terms, it kicked off when Harold Wilson's Labour Party defeated the scandal-tossed post-Profumo Tory Party in the 1964 election (which coincided with the first seaside battles between Mods and Rockers, depicted in Quadrophenia), and endured until Wilson was ignominiously forced to devalue the pound sterling in November 1967. Cinematically, it started in 1963 with the debauchment of the feckless aristocrat James Fox by his butler, Dirk Bogarde, in the last reel of Joseph Losey's The Servant. It was on the wane by 1970, when Fox, this time playing a sociopathic cockney gangster, found his sense of identity and reality undermined, both within Performance (by Mick Jagger and psilocybin mushrooms) and in his increasingly unreal real life (by the very experience of making the movie).
Socially, it was a time of overlaps between what was being born (sexual freedom, drug use, a more ambitious pop culture) and what was busy dying (sexual inhibition, religious adherence, social deference). Not unimportantly, it was also the period during which the Mods' amphetamines and purple hearts gave way to the more sedentary, contemplative hippie highs of pot and acid. Class and social signals also got tangled in confusing and exhilarating ways: A Glaswegian ex-milkman was cast as Ian Fleming's Etonian secret agent (Fleming wanted Cary Grant), and the working-class, East Endborn Great Train Robbers, who'd once been nicknamed “The City Gents” after pulling off a robbery dressed in pinstripes and bowler hats, habitually ordered their suits from Saville Row and shoes from John Lobb Ltd., “Bootmaker to the King.” Most famously, the Fabs toked up in the lavs at Buckingham Palace (“a keen pad,” said McCartney) whilst waiting to be awarded their MBEs.
Mike Myers realizes that the two primary forces behind the Swinging London movie and music boom were the Beatles and James Bond (though Austin Powers is more in the Casino Royale, with cheese, column of the ledger). Vintage Connery-era 007 and the pre-Sgt. Pepper's Beatles loom hugely over almost every pop-cultural endeavor in the Cinematheque's survey, occasionally colliding and overlapping, as with Help!'s asinine spy-spoofery, for example. After the release of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, it became de rigueur for new pop sensations like the Dave Clark Five (“Tottenham Sound Crushes Beatlemania!” — The Daily Express) to plumb new depths of onscreen gearness, fabness and heaviosity. Lester's sub-Godardian rhythms and hectic visual energy dovetailed neatly with the Beatles' taste for English surrealism, and created an idiom that would be freely and fiercely plundered by others even as Lester slowly tired of it. It would mutate finally into the more challenging likes of Privilege, with its scathing Marxist critique of pop culture (the film ends with Boy Scouts and bobbies throwing Hitler salutes), and Performance, a thickly woven Borgesian tapestry about a criminal and a rock recluse testing each other's boundaries in freaky-boho Notting Hill, back when it was cool.
Bond meanwhile lurks behind such disparate phenomena as Michael Caine's Harry Palmer movies (the anti-Bond spy series, from Bond producer Harry Saltzman), Gerry Anderson's puppet-based Thunderbirds TV series, whose first movie spinoff, Thunderbirds Are Go!, is featured in a children's matinee during the retrospective (in glorious CinemaScope Super-Marionation, featuring Cliff Richard and the Shadows!), and the bargain-basement sci-fi piss-take Gonks Go Beat, which is like You Only Live Twice — but Once.
Myers' The Spy Who Shagged Me throngs with the same swinging archetypes that will overwhelm the Cinematheque's screens in the coming weeks. Felicity Shagwell and her predecessor Miss Kensington are gettin'-Twiggy-with-it refinements of numerous posh dolly birds from Honor Blackman (who played Pussy Galore and Mrs. Cathy Gale, the original Avengers “girl”) and proto-supermodel Jean Shrimpton (heard exercising her quaint speech impediment in Privilege) to their Thunderbirds equivalent, Lady Penelope, forever hailing hither her hot-pink “Wolls-Woyce” — license plate: FAB-1. Myers' retro argot is a merciless hyperinflation of gilded-insider table talk circa 1966. Goldfinger, Blofeld and, yes, Dr. No, hover all over Dr. Evil. Likewise the ubiquitous swirly-ravey Ready-Steady-Go décor (an ecstasy of eye-ache if you're on the wrong pills), the trebly 12-string pseudo-Byrds-isms, the Harrisonian electric sitars and the reassuring plink-fizz of archaic laser guns.
Given the healthy respect for NASA's technological cocksmanship in these movies, and their uniquely American optimism about the benign possibilities of tomorrow in general and gadgetry in particular, it soon becomes obvious why they offer a ramshackle smorgasbord of magnificent, batty blueprints for various long-since-obsolete Perfect Futures. With its collision between the Formica-topped present and a Jetsonian world of plastic bubble-dome houses and strap-on jet-packs, “Mods and Rockers” offers enough retro-'60s cheesecake karma to levitate the American Cinematheque. It's groovy, baby. It's fab, daddy-o. It's just so . . . then!
MODS & ROCKERS: Groovy Movies From the Shag-A-Delic Sixties
At THE AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., 323-466-3456
25 films, live music, performances and a tea party; from June 25 through July 4