Film

Three Films Spotlight the Catastrophes of ’68 in BAM’s Voting Survey

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Already under way,
BAMcinématek’s “Four More Years: An Election Special”
encompasses sixty years’ worth of narratives and documentaries about the varying levels of lunacy, hucksterism, hope, and despair that attend our quadrennial ritual of selecting a leader. This week, three of the twenty-one titles in the series focus on 1968, a seismic year that, much like this miserable one, saw new calamities just about every day. Each film in this trio — Emile de Antonio’s sly chronicle America Is Hard to See (1970), Haskell Wexler’s fiction-and-vérité composite Medium Cool (1969), and Hal Ashby’s sex satire/rueful glance back Shampoo (1975) — examines the schisms that nearly tore the nation asunder.

A deeply committed leftist, de Antonio, whose first documentary, Point of Order (1963), exposed Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting hysteria, focused on a nobler elected official with that surname in the rarely shown America Is Hard to See. (The filmmaker took the title from a line in a 1951 Robert Frost poem; the evocative declaration reappeared last year as the name of the new, downtown Whitney’s inaugural exhibition.) Eugene McCarthy, an erudite, anti–Vietnam War senator from Minnesota who was the first candidate to challenge, in November 1967, incumbent Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president in the ’68 race, was, as de Antonio would later say in an interview, the “last best hope of working within the system in a national election.” AIHtS, which centers on roughly the first eight months of that pivotal year (not always chronologically), documents the slow, sure fading of those prospects.

McCarthy is shown in de Antonio’s
film as unwaveringly dignified — a low-key wit prone to quoting Brecht — even in undignified circumstances. We see him handle the banal queries of the press corps, nimbly assessing his chances against Robert Kennedy (who, after much hedging, announced his candidacy on March 16) and LBJ (who dropped out of the race on March 31, partly owing to
McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary earlier that month).

Soberly presented without voiceover narration, a hallmark of de Antonio’s work, AIHtS also features interviews with McCarthy’s youngish crusaders (including Gerry Studds, who would go on to become the first openly gay member of Congress), writers and public intellectuals, and celebrity Gene stumpers like Paul Newman. The cautious optimism of McCarthy supporters inexorably slides into pinched distress. One campaigner laments the Minnesota senator’s low standing with black voters, who far prefer Kennedy; another frets about the $2 million spent on phone bills. Not too much later, de Antonio juxtaposes this grouse with one of the bleakest moments of that annus horribilis. After a cut to black, news reports of Kennedy’s assassination (he was shot on June 5 after thanking supporters for his California primary win) are followed by mostly silent footage of the crowds who lined the train tracks as his body was transported from New York to D.C. The country’s unraveling continues in late August in Chicago, host of that year’s Democratic National Convention, an event marked by the police brutality rampaging outside the walls of the International Amphitheatre, thuggery sanctioned by Mayor Daley (seen here fuming and fulminating). De Antonio only alludes to the violence without, preferring to focus on the tumult within the arena, culminating in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s winning the party’s nomination — a dispiriting triumph for the standard-bearer of LBJ’s pro-war policies. The last word goes not to the victor but to the vanquished as we hear McCarthy say off-screen: “We can’t dissolve the government of this country, but hopefully we can change it.” The sentiment still astounds for its simple yet radical ambition.

Haskell Wexler, who died last December at age 93, worked within Hollywood (he won an Oscar in 1967 for his cinematography for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and way outside it,
collaborating with de Antonio and Mary Lampson on the 1976 doc Underground, a series of interviews with the five fugitive members of the Weather Underground. Medium Cool, Wexler’s first narrative
feature (which he also wrote and photographed), makes an excellent companion to AIHtS: The cop clubbings (and worse) in Chicago not shown in de Antonio’s film are unforgettably foregrounded here. Fact and fiction collide in the film, the scripted elements of which trace the growing
disgruntlement of Second City TV-news cameraman John (Robert Forster), who learns that his employer has been turning over his footage to the police and the FBI.

A movie that astutely and consistently interrogates the power of wielding a camera, Medium Cool makes its most searing impression during its most destabilized moment: Eileen (Verna Bloom), the latest of roué John’s love interests, is searching for her son in Grant Park, soon becoming part of the actual, bloody chaos that erupts as the Chicago PD attacks Yippies and other peace protesters. We’re thrown off once again when we hear, as cops unleash tear gas, “Look out, Haskell! It’s real” — a line that was inserted in postproduction. As unpredictable as the summer it recounts, Medium Cool endures as one of cinema’s most electric shape-shifters.

Forster’s lothario in Medium Cool is something of an analogue to priapic George, the resolutely heterosexual Beverly Hills hairdresser played by Warren Beatty in Shampoo (which the actor co-scripted with Robert Towne). Spanning a 24-hour period that concludes with Nixon’s first presidential win, Hal Ashby’s movie was released just six months after Tricky Dick resigned. Beatty had conceived of the project as an Aquarian Age Restoration comedy, a gambit that mostly succeeds. The sexual hypocrisy and deceit that motors the film is echoed in the political cynicism that prevails, never more so than when Jack Warden, as a business magnate who is both a cuckold and an adulterer, declares, “Maybe Nixon’ll be better. What’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of jerks.” Some of the most terrifying imbeciles — whose rise no one could have predicted 48 years ago — will have addressed the nation from
Cleveland by the time you read this.

‘Four More Years: An Election Special’

BAMcinématek

Through August 3

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