The San Francisco Chronicle ran a set of columns on popular culture in 1969. Mick LaSalle got to examine movies from that year. He noted that the old Production Code was finally dumped in late 1968, and that studios that were losing money looked to younger filmmakers: "This combination, within the industry, of no censorship and a willingness to innovate would bring about a brief but important golden age." He then proceeded to look at a few of the best movies of 1969 ... "[W]hen you consider some of the best movies of 1969, the past doesn’t seem that far away at all."
The movies he mentioned were Anne of the Thousand Days, Army of Shadows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, Salesman, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and Topaz. It's an idiosyncratic list, as it should be. I've written about two of these on this blog.
This tale of the French resistance is purposely low-key; you don’t come here for action-packed heroics. Instead, you get ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, making life-or-death decisions (in truth, mostly death in the short term), living under assumed names, their actions unknown even to their closest family. There is an inevitable feeling to the fates of these people. Knowing, as we do with hindsight, that the Nazis eventually lose, and that the Resistance helped expedite the Nazi failure, isn’t much good to the characters, who all know they are unlikely to see that victory.
In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s ... I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution.
Of LaSalle's other choices, I've seen Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy. I'm not a fan of either, and have a special dislike for Cassidy. I've also seen Easy Rider and liked it OK. That gives me four movies to check out.
What are my favorite 1969 movies? Thanks for asking. At the top are two that I listed in that long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty project.
The Sorrow and the Pity (#2 on that list):
The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.
Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.
The Wild Bunch (#8):
After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.
I think one problem with the recent Magnificent Seven remake is that it acted like The Wild Bunch had never been made.
Army of Shadows is my 3rd-favorite movie of 1969. Coming in at #4:
The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time.
So, I'm now building a list of 1969 movies I should watch. Of course, like most "requests" (I'm acting like LaSalle requested that I watched the four of his choices I've missed), it may take me five years to get there. (Anyone reading this who wants to recommend a 1969 movie, that's what the comments section is for!). Meanwhile, here are some other movies from 1969 I have never seen:
Kes, Adalen 31, In the Year of the Pig, Model Shop, Medium Cool.
And, since it's Oscar season, here are some Oscar winners from that year I haven't seen:
Hello, Dolly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cactus Flower. I have to say those don't look all that great to me.
And finally, I'll add two of the top grossing films in the U.S. that I haven't seen, one which I would like to see, one which I wouldn't: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Paint Your Wagon.