It was two years after the Summer of Love. By 1969, American culture was in transition, fueled by riots and resistance. In February, a South Vietnamese general assassinated a Viet Cong officer on a street in Saigon, a horrific vision broadcast on America’s nightly news; in June, the Stonewall riots erupted over police raids of a LGBTQ bar in lower Manhattan; and by August, the Manson murders dominated the media. Somewhere in the ’60s, Classical Hollywood had failed. In between The Beatle’s A Hard Day’s Night and the Monkees’ satire of their own fame in Head, the Spirit of ‘69 settled over a Hollywood in transition. Sexuality, politics, and gender roles had changed — and so must cinema. Poised between the demise of the restrictive Hays Code and the rise of an innovative, radical generation of directors — the New Hollywood — 1969 produced a group of unique, powerful, and transgressive films, celebrated this summer by the Belcourt Theatre as the “Spirit of ‘69.”
This series begins on June 7 with Easy Rider and concludes on July 20/21 with two documentaries, For All Mankind and Apollo 11. The screenings of the latter two films will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, with each one, in its own way, capturing the essence of that singular achievement. Movies in the series reflect the era in both comedic and deadly serious style, and the screenings are a rare, not to be missed opportunity. Zack Hall, Programming and Education Coordinator/In-House Media Producer for the Belcourt, states the films were chosen to give “a holistic view of the mood of the time.” He sums up that moment succinctly, “The ultimate truth of these films is that they are not Hollywood junk, they have a message and very clear points of view, and they are made by outsiders who were first given the opportunity to direct during this very tumultuous time. Hollywood had no idea of what to say or do about it.”
One rarely screened offering is Head. The film, says Hall, is “a classic of psych-out cinema, unlike anything that came before it or has come since. It is a deconstruction of The Monkees’ TV personas and pop fandom.” Head offers a psychedelic, self-referential narrative — comedic, yet informed by the darkness of the time — and a superlative sound track. Music is essential to these films, from the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf in Easy Rider, to Pink Floyd in More, to the celebrity and celebratory Woodstock, a joyous spectacle.
Other obscure films include the aforementioned More, as well as Targets, Mr. Freedom, and Medium Cool. More tells the story of a couple who head to Ibiza for a summer of pleasure, only to become addicted to heroin in the most sun-dappled of locations, an unusual juxtaposition of beauty and trauma, set to a hallucinogenic soundtrack by Pink Floyd. Mr. Freedom is a camp send up of American values, a fascist in the guise of superhero, who destroys in the name of old-fashioned, U.S.A. imperialism. While Targets, starring Boris Karloff, convinces the viewer that reality is more terrifying than any horror film, as a Vietnam Vet with PTSD eerily replicates our current society. Haskell Wexler’s singular Medium Cool combines narrative with documentary footage shot with hand-held cameras, in real time, during riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The famous movies of 1969 are always worth seeing on the big screen, especially the iconic Easy Rider, a tale of two nonconformist “heroes” who go against the grain, heading East instead of West to find America. Counter-culture aside, see the film for László Kovács’ cinematography, Nicholson’s performance, and a Mardi Gras scene shot on the fly, an excellent example of jump cuts, lens flares, and unscripted narrative. This montage is also why St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is permanently restricted from filmmaking.
Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a revisionist western which pushes the boundaries of cinematic violence and genre, while other selections reflect the sexual revolution. Women in Love features homoerotic male nudity and an empowered young woman who will not bend her will to any men. Midnight Cowboy’s protagonists, a down and out hustler and a new-to-New York Texan, an aspiring gigolo, form an unlikely bond based on sexual commodification, while Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice reflects swinging California culture.
We now live in a universe of superhero blockbusters, a far cry from the satire of Mr. Freedom or Peter Fonda’s earnest Captain America. Films stream, corporations control the flow of options, and even independent film is evolving. We too live in times of political uncertainty and social malcontent, an era where hard-fought freedoms are again in question. And how do these films relate to our particular moment? Hall states, “The wonderful thing about films of that time is they told the truth to a generation who was interested in hearing it, instead of being fed the fantasies that Hollywood had served up throughout their childhood. They were seeing reality on television and finally getting the opportunity to express reality in the mainstream cinema.” This seems the most excellent reason to view the “Spirit of ‘69”, to have another look, to learn.
Belcourt Theatre presents the film series “Spirit of ‘69” June 7 through July 21. Ticket 5-Packs are available here.
Easy Rider Friday through Sunday, June 7-9. All shows at 8 p.m.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice 11:30 a.m., Saturday June 15; 6:45 p.m., Sunday, June 16
Women in Love 11:30 a.m., Sunday, June 16; 9 p.m., Tuesday, June 18
The Wild Bunch 11:30 a.m., Saturday-Sunday, June 22-23
More 8 p.m., Monday, June 24
Targets Saturday-Sunday, June 29-30. Times posted June 24.
Mr. Freedom Sunday, June 30. Time posted June 24.
Head 8 p.m., Monday, July 1
Medium Cool 8.pm., Wednesday, July 3
Woodstock 11:30 a.m., Saturday, July 6; 5:30 p.m. Sunday, July 7
Midnight Cowboy Noon, Saturday, July 13; 7 p.m., Sunday, July 14
For All Mankind Saturday-Sunday, July 20-21. Times posted July 15
Apollo 11 Saturday-Sunday, July 20-21. Times posted July 15