sat 02/07/2022

theartsdesk at the Turin Film Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Turin Film Festival

theartsdesk at the Turin Film Festival

A superb retrospective of New Hollywood cinema strikes a chord with today's disenchanted youth

'I think you boys need to get off my hood'. Warren Oates, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson eyeball in 'Two-Lane Blacktop'

Turin, December 2013. Berlusconi has finally been kicked out of the Italian parliament. The country is disaffected, fed up with its politicians, broke. Youngsters, including university students, have no hope for the future. It’s a perfect time for them to become acquainted with New Hollywood cinema.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Turin Film Festival is the quality of its retrospectives, which are astutely chosen, intelligently curated and extensive. A Nicholas Ray retrospective in 2009 was revelatory, and helped point the way to the rediscovery (and full restoration) of his long-lost final film, We Can’t Go Home Again. Two years later a complete survey of Robert Altman’s work, which played to packed audiences, prompted the festival’s deputy director Emanuela Martini to take the next step – a very big step – and tackle the period in which Altman and so many others came to prominence, and redefined Hollywood.

New Hollywood was not so much a movement as an opportune explosion of talent. The late Sixties saw America in disarray – rocked by political assassinations, Vietnam, civil rights protests from students and African Americans, all of which, in Martini’s words, “was destroying the American Dream at the roots.” At the same time, Hollywood itself was in crisis, its stale product losing ground to television.

I remember seeing these films when they were released. There was a discovery every day. They changed our perspective of cinema

Enter a new breed of filmmaker engaged in varying ways with the counter-culture and with a formal ambition to stretch the medium. Most were young and fresh out of film school; others, like Altman and Sam Peckinpah, had already cut their teeth in television. The studio chiefs bit the bullet and gave them their head.

A quick roll call of American directors from the late Sixties and Seventies includes not just the renowned superstars of the period – Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas and Altman himself – but Friedkin, De Palma, Bogdanovich, Cimino, Lumet, Nichols, Penn, Pakula, Towne, Ashby, Rafelson, Majursky, Schatzberg. The list is endless, indicative of a depth and richness of talent arguably unequalled in the history of cinema. And reflecting that “it was impossible to do it justice in just one year,” Martini has taken the unusual step of staging her retrospective over two, featuring more than 70 films.

“Young people in Italy have seen some of these films, on television and DVDs,” she reflects, “but for them it’s a real discovery to see so many – and on the big screen. Before the festival I introduced the retrospective to students at the university. I think they feel they have something in common with the anti-heroes of New Hollywood. Most of those characters are losers and most young people in Italy feel themselves to be losers. They’re sure they won’t be able to get a job, and so on.

“That’s one reason why I wanted to look at this period. Another is that I think that Hollywood today should remember those days. I don’t think [the studio chiefs] were nice guys, necessarily, but for 10 years they had the intelligence to pick up all these young directors and let them do anything they wanted. And look at the results. I remember seeing these films when they were released. There was a discovery every day. They changed our perspective of cinema.”

This year’s first instalment featured 36 films, from Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, pictured above) to 1975, introducing the revolution of subject matter and ethos, new narrative approaches and fresh faces – for with the new directors came actors who bust the template of the traditional, WASP-ish Hollywood leading man and woman.

My favourite outings included Hal Ashby’s sublimely eccentric and slyly anarchic Harold and Maude (1971), in which rich kid Harold, a cherub who creatively fakes his own suicide over and over again, in failed attempts to shock his mother, falls in love with a woman who’s approaching her 80th birthday with the vigour and rebelliousness of a teenager. It’s fabulously funny, but with a sad soul, as is California Split (1974), Altman’s freewheeling portrait of Los Angeles, seen through the experiences of two inveterate gamblers (Elliott Gould and George Segal) who flit from poker games to race tracks to casinos, betting on any and every slice of life in between. It’s typical of an Altman film that beating the house leaves the victors more empty than when they were broke.

Gould was in attendance in Turin, seemingly in good nick and recalling the “fertile chaos” of the Altman method. The actor also stars in Paul Majursky’s 1969 social comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Gould pictured above left, with Natalie Wood, Robert Culp and Dyan Cannon), which starts with a couple driving into the desert for a self-discovery marathon and ends with the “enlightened” pair in bed with their best friends, contemplating an orgy. Majursky makes hay at the expense of the middle classes who play at being hippies, learning the hard way that you can’t simply put on sexual liberation with a string of beads and bad flares.

More overtly serious, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969, pictured right) cut to the heart of the issues afflicting the country at the time, in particular Vietnam and civil rights. The sort of drama-documentary hybrid that is de rigueur today, this saw Wexler and his crew inserting actors into the real, often violent events on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. As well as a technically bravura piece of work, it offers an insightful reflection on journalistic responsibility, and a compelling portrait of the country at that time.

Monty Hellman’s iconic, existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) follows a pair of drag racers (James Taylor and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson) as they drive across the country in their formidable, customised Chevy, entering an impromptu long-distance race with preening amateur Warren Oates in his off-the-lot Pontiac. A beautiful, moody, intriguing piece, it was one of a number of road movies here (Easy Rider, Elektra Glide in Blue, Scarecrow with Hackman and Pacino), the genre perfectly suited to reflecting disillusionment and a country profoundly unsure of itself.

The New Hollywood riches on display in Turin required a festival all to themselves

With Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens (both starring Jack Nicholson), Peckinpah’s revisionist western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Pakula’s classic conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, the New Hollywood riches on display in Turin required a festival all to themselves

The big guns were represented by their early films – Coppola’s The Rain People, Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, Lucas's THX 1138. But their story, and that of the period, will go into another gear next year, when Martini will again have her work cut out. How to decide between The Godfather parts one and two, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, and Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Raging Bull?

While she has decided on an entirely logical and enticing double bill of Spielberg’s Duel and Jaws, Martini is still toying with Star Wars. But Lucas’s film makes sense; after all, films like Jaws and Stars Wars heralded the blockbuster mentality, enticed the corporations into Hollywood and, in a perverse twist of fate, spelled the beginning of the end for the mavericks.

Hollywood history aside, elsewhere in the festival a jury led by Mexican writer and director Guillermo Arriaga favoured Latin films, awarding its best film award to the wry Mexican comedy Club Sandwich, in which a single mother finds herself competing for her son’s attention with a young girl they meet on holiday, and the screenplay and actress awards to the Venezuelan drama Bad Hair, in which another, far less sympathetic mother, torments her son when she suspects he is gay.

The best actor prize went to the star of a Canadian drama, The Dismantling, a moving account of a 63-year-old farmer who decides to sell his farm – and abandon the only life he’s ever known – in a bid to financially assist his daughter.

Most of those characters are losers, and most young people in Italy feel themselves to be losers

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