“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So wrote William Faulkner, and so BAM’s current series “1962: New York Film Critics Circle” hopes to remind us.
Pegged to the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics Circle, BAM’s “1962” revisits the year that, thanks to a newspaper strike that began on December 8, 1962, and extended through the following March, the nation’s oldest film critics’ association, made up of movie reviewers from New York’s then seven dailies, was unable to present its annual awards. Quelle catastrophe! And what might they have recognized?
David Lean’s galumphing Lawrence of Arabia—the centerpiece of the BAM show, programmed by the current NYFCC chairman, Armond White—won the Oscar for Best Picture, and it’s likely that the ’62 Critics Circle would have concurred. Although, in a show of East Coast defiance, the Circle might instead have bestowed its highest honor on one of the year’s two American epics: Darryl Zanuck’s D-Day extravaganza The Longest Day or Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
The two Long Days both appeared on the personal 10 Best list put forth by veteran New York Times critic Bosley Crowther—then the most authoritative of New York daily critics and, if only by default, the one who represented the NYFCC’s most aesthetically adventurous position. Crowther’s 1962 position paper, published on the very day of the strike under the headline, “Theirs and Ours: Foreign Films Forging Ahead of American,” expressed his disappointment with middlebrow Hollywood offerings like Mutiny on the Bounty and Gypsy, and opined that middlebrow imports (Ingmar Bergman, Tony Richardson, Alain Resnais) were better!
Not one of Crowther’s 10 is included in the BAM show. To judge from White’s selection, the critic whose taste has prevailed is then Voice writer Andrew Sarris. Of course, Sarris did pan Lawrence of Arabia as an “expensive mirage, dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal,” but four of the American films he rated highest in ’62, auteur flicks all, are on BAM’s lineup: John Ford’s seemingly geriatric, then generally dismissed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Robert Aldrich’s wildly popular, hence held as trash by the Crowthers of the world, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Howard Hawks’s tedious but undeniably Hawksian potboiler Hatari!; and George Cukor’s slick adaptation of a racy bestseller, re-edited by two studios and thus auteurist cause célèbre, The Chapman Report were all championed by Sarris as manifestations of their directors’ worldview. Another, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, was his designated “sleeper of the year.” (Sarris also had a soft spot for middlebrow bête noir Jerry Lewis, whose 1962 release The Errand Boy is also at BAM, introduced by moi.)
But however revolutionary in 1962, the Sarris aesthetic is itself now something of an artifact and even then was one of several new and competing cine-ideologies. The greatest barometer of that year’s critical upheaval is the Winter 1962/63 issue of Jonas Mekas’s Film Culture, which included three flaming manifestos, each with a distinct take on the appreciation of American movies: Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”; Manny Farber’s defense of B-movie virtues, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”; and Jack Smith’s celebration of trash, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez.” Pauline Kael’s piece on Shoot the Piano Player is also polemical, faulting those Americans who failed to appreciate Truffaut’s film (who they?) for failing to recognize how American it was.
And, actually, Crowther was onto something. The fertile ’50s were over; the genres were in decline. Despite a pair of great twilight Westerns, 1962 was only a fair year for Hollywood, and things would get worse for the remainder of the decade. The first New York Film Festival was held in 1963; the foreign movies released in New York in ’62 would have made an edition for the ages. BAM is showing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido, plus four associated with the French New Wave (also championed by Sarris): Jacques Demy’s Lola (which opened the series), Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7, Shoot the Piano Player, and another Truffaut, revealed in a ’62 Voice poll as the critical favorite, Jules and Jim. Notable imports that didn’t make the BAM cut include two more Antonioni features, three from Kurosawa, two each by Bergman and Buñuel, Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, Satyajit Ray’s Devi, and the year’s most controversial art film, Last Year at Marienbad (dissed by Sarris, while praised by Crowther).
Obviously, BAM can’t screen everything, but its representation of the year’s cine-excitement is a good deal less freewheeling than the times warranted. Underground things were happening as well. Two scurrilous beatnik features—Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief and Shirley Clarke’s adaptation of The Connection—both got theatrical runs, as did the ultimate film maudit, Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin. Jack Smith completed Flaming Creatures although, like another vastly influential ’62 production, Dr. No, it would not be shown publicly in New York until ’63.
An amazing year. Had I but known. From my (barely) teenaged perspective, the most intriguing movie of 1962 was, without a doubt, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, followed by the racy-sounding Chapman Report. Mothra, the Japanese giant moth movie (double-billed with The Three Stooges in Orbit), had the most memorable TV ads. And the rat-pack Western Sergeants 3 was undeniably ring-a-ding—check it out some time, as well as Roger Corman’s fierce bargain-basement civil rights melodrama The Intruder. As a politically minded youth, I was fascinated and appalled by Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Advise and Consent. For anxious thrills, however, nothing could top the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Try wearing your “Hands Off Cuba!” button, mid-embargo, in the George J. Ryan Junior High schoolyard.)
Nobody asked us, but had the 2009 NYFCC membership voted on the movies of ’62, I’m pretty sure the best picture would have been another that didn’t make it onto BAM’s lineup—The Manchurian Candidate, which actually opened in tandem with the Missile Crisis. (Contrary to urban myth, the movie was a notable hit, though roundly despised by most mainstream critics and the highbrows at Film Culture.) Channeling my adolescent self, I’d have voted for it at the time, along with Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim (Most Enchanting Actress), Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo (Coolest Actor), Claire Bloom in The Chapman Report (Sexiest Supporting Actress), Peter Sellers in Lolita (Weirdest Supporting Actor), Luis Buñuel for Viridiana (Hippest Director), Cape Fear (Scariest Screenplay), and Shoot the Piano Player (Foreign Film I Most Wanted to Live). In fact, mutatis mutandis, I’d vote for most of them now.