by Pauline Kael
A college-professor friend of mine in San Francisco who has always tried to stay in tune with his students looked at his class recently and realized it was time to take off his beads. There he was, a superannuated flower child wearing last year’s talismans, and the young had become austere, even puritanical. Movies and, even more, movie audiences have been changing. The art houses are now (for the first time) dominated by American movies, and the young audiences waiting outside, sitting on the sidewalk or standing in line, are no longer waiting just for entertainment. The waiting together may itself be part of the feeling of community, and they go inside almost for sacramental purposes. For all the talk (and fear) of ritual participation in the “new” theatre, it is really taking place on a national scale in the movie houses, at certain American films that might be called cult films, though they have probably become cult films because they are the most interesting films around. What is new about Easy Rider is not necessarily that one finds its attitudes appealing but that the movie conveys the mood of the drug culture with such skill and in such full belief that these simplicities are the truth that one can understand why these attitudes are appealing to others. Easy Rider is an expression and a confirmation of how this audience feels; the movie attracts a new kind of “inside” audience, whose members enjoy tuning in together to a whole complex of shared signals and altitudes. And although one may be uneasy over the satisfaction the audience seems to receive from responding to the general masochism and to the murder of Captain America, the movie obviously rings true to the audience’s vision. It s cool to feel that you can’t win, that it s all rigged and hopeless. It s even cool to believe in purity and sacrifice. Those of us who reject the heroic central character and the statements of Easy Rider may still be caught by something edgy and ominous in it—the acceptance of the constant danger of sudden violence. We re not sure how much of this paranoia isn’t paranoia.
Some of the other cult films try to frighten us but are too clumsy to, though they succeed in doing something else. One has only to talk with some of the people who have seen Midnight Cowboy, for example, to be aware that what they care about is not the camera and editing pyrotechnics; they are indifferent to all that by now routine filler. John Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy and, at a less skillful level, Larry Peerce in Goodbye, Columbus hedge their bets by using cutting and camera techniques to provide a satirical background as a kind of enrichment of the narrative and theme. But it really cheapens and impoverishes their themes. Peerce’s satire is just cheesy, like his lyricism, and Schlesinger’s (like Richard Lester’s in Petulia) is offensively inhuman and inaccurate. If Schlesinger could extend the same sympathy to the other Americans that he extends to Joe Buck and Ratso, the picture might make better sense; the point of the picture must surely be to give us some insight into these derelicts—two of the many kinds of dreamers and failures in the city. Schlesinger keeps pounding away at America, determined to expose how horrible the people are, to dehumanize the people these two are part of. The spray of venom in these pictures is so obviously the directors’ way of showing off that we begin to discount it. To varying degrees, these films share the paranoid view of America of Easy Rider—and they certainly reinforce it for the audience—but what the audience really reacts to in Midnight Cowboy is the two lost, lonely men finding friendship. The actors save the picture, its the actors almost saved parts of Petulia; the leading actors become more important because the flamboyantly “visual” exhibitionism doesn’t hold one’s interest. Despite the recurrent assertions that the star system is dead, the audience is probably more interested than ever in the human material on the screen (though the new stars don’t always resemble the old ones). At Midnight Cowboy, in the midst of all the grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America, the audiences, wiser, perhaps, than the director, are looking for the human feelings—the simple. Of Mice and Men kind of relationship at the heart of it. Maybe they wouldn’t accept the simple theme so readily in a simpler setting, because it might look square, but it’s what they’re taking from the movie. I hey’re looking for “truth”—for some signs of emotion, some evidence of what keeps people together. The difference between the old audiences find the new ones is that the old audiences wanted immediate gratification and used to get restless and bored when a picture didn’t click along; these new pictures don’t all click along, yet the young audiences stay attentive. They’re eager to respond, to love it—eager to feel.
Although young movie audiences are far more sentimental now than they were a few years ago (Frank Capra, whose softheaded populism was hooted at in college film societies in the fifties, has become a new favorite at U.C.L.A.), there is this new and good side to the sentimentality. They are going to movies looking for feelings that will help synthesize their experience, and they appear to be willing to feel their way along with a movie like Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant, which is also trying to feel its way. I think we (from this point I include myself, because I share these attitudes) are desperate for some sensibility in movies, and that’s why we’re so moved by the struggle toward discovery in Alice’s Restaurant, despite how badly done the film is. I think one would have to lie to say Alice’s Restaurant is formally superior to the big new Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In formal terms, neither is very good. But Alice’s Restaurant is a groping attempt to express something, and Butch Cassidy is a glorified vacuum. Movies can be enjoyed for the quality of their confusions and failures, and that’s the only- way you can enjoy some of them now. Emotionally, I stayed with Penn during the movie, even though I thought that many of the scenes in it were inept or awful, and that several of the big set pieces were expendable (to put it delicately). But we’re for him, and that’s what carries the movie. Conceptually, it’s unformed, with the director trying to discover his subject as well as its meaning and his own attitudes. And, maybe for the first time, there’s an audience for American pictures which is willing to accept this.
Not every movie has to matter; generally we go hoping just to be relaxed and refreshed. But because most of the time we come out slugged and depressed, I think we care far more now about the reach for something. We’ve simply spent too much time at movies made by people who didn’t enjoy themselves and who didn’t respect themselves or us, and we rarely enjoy ourselves at their movies anymore. They’re big catered affairs, and we re humiliated to be there among the guests. I look at the list of movies playing, and most of them I genuinely just can’t face, because the odds are so strong that they’re going to be the same old insulting failed entertainment, and. even though I may have had more of a bellyful than most people, 1 m sure this isn’t just my own reaction. Practically everybody I know feels the same way. This may seem an awfully moral approach, but it comes out of surfeit and aesthetic disgust. There’s something vital to enjoyment which we haven’t been getting much of. Playfulness? Joy? Perhaps even honest cynicism? What’s missing isn’t anything as simple as talent; there’s lots of talent, even on TV. But the business conditions of moviemaking have soured the spirit of most big movies. That’s why we may be willing to go along with something as strained and self-conscious as Alice’s Restaurant. And it’s an immensely hopeful sign that the audience isn’t derisive, dial it wishes the movie well.
* * *
All this is, in a way, part of the background of why, after a few minutes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I began to get that depressed feeling, and, after a half hour, felt rather offended. We all know how the industry men think: they’re going to try to make “now” movies when now is already then, they’re going to give us orgy movies and plush skinflicks, and they’ll be trying to feed youth’s paranoia when youth will, one hopes, have cast it off like last year’s beads. This Western is a spinoff from Bonnie and Clyde; it’s about two badmen (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) at the turn of the century, and the script, by William Goldman, which has been published, has the prefatory note “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Yet everything that follows rings false, as that note does.
It’s a facetious Western, and everybody in it talks comical. The director, George Roy Hill, doesn’t have the style for it. (He doesn’t really seem to have the style for anything, yet there is a basic decency and intelligence in his work.) The tone becomes embarrassing. Maybe we re supposed to be charmed when this affable, loquacious outlaw Butch and his silent, “dangerous” buddy Sundance blow up trains, but how are we supposed to feel when they go off to Bolivia, sneer at the country, and start shooting up poor Bolivians? George Roy Hill is a “sincere” director, but Goldman’s script is jocose; though it reads as if it might play, it doesn’t, and probably this isn’t just Hill’s fault. What can one do with dialogue like Paul Newman’s Butch saying, “Boy, I got vision. The rest of the world wears bifocals”? It must be meant to be sportive, because it isn’t witty and it isn’t dramatic. The dialogue is all banter, all throwaways, and that’s how it’s delivered; each line comes out of nowhere, coyly, in a murmur, in the dead sound of the studio. (There is scarcely even an effort to supply plausible outdoor resonances or to use sound to evoke a sense of place.) It’s impossible to tell whose consciousness the characters are supposed to have. Here’s a key passage from the script—the big scene when Sundance’s girl, the schoolteacher Etta (Katharine Ross), decides to go to Bolivia with the outlaws:
ETTA (For a moment, she says nothing. Then, starting soft, budding as she goes): I’m twenty-six, and I’m single, and I teach school, and that’s the bottom of the pit. And the only excitement I’ve ever known is sitting in the room with me now. So I’ll go with you. and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks and stitch you when you’re wounded, and anything you ask of me I’ll do, except one thing: I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind . . . (Hold on Etta’s lovely face a moment—)
It’s clear who is at the bottom of the pit, and it isn’t those frontier schoolteachers, whose work was honest.
Being interested in good movies doesn’t preclude enjoying many kinds of crummy movies, but maybe it does preclude acceptance of this enervated, sophisticated business venture—a movie made by those whose talents are a little high for mere commercial movies but who don’t break out of the mold. They’re trying for something more clever than is attempted in most commercial jobs, and it s all so archly empty—Conrad Hall’s virtuoso cinematography providing constant in-and-out-of-focus distraction, Goldman’s decorative little conceits passing for dialogue. It’s all posh and josh, without any redeeming energy or crudeness. Much as 1 dislike the smugness of puritanism in the arts, after watching a put-011 rape and Conrad Hall’s Elvira Madigan lyric interlude (and to our own Mozart—Burt Bacharach) I began to long for something simple and halfway felt. If you can’t manage genuine sophistication, you may be better off simple. And when you’re its talented as these fellows, perhaps it’s necessary to descend into yourself sometime and try to find out what you’re doing—maybe, even, to risk banality, which is less objectionable than this damned waggishness.
Butch Cassidy will probably be a hit; it has a great title, and it has star appeal for a wide audience. Redford, who is personable and can act, is overdue for stardom, though it will be rather a joke if he gets it out of this nonacting role. Newman throws the ball to him often—that’s really exactly what one feels he’s doing—and is content to be his infectiously good-humored (one assumes) self. He plays the public image of himself (as an aging good guy), just as Arlo Guthrie plays himself as a moonchild. Yet, hit or no, I think what this picture represents is finished. Butch and Sundance will probably be fine for a TV series, which is what I mean by finished.
* * *
One can’t just take the new cult movies head on and relax, because they’re too confused. Intentions stick out, as in the thirties message movies, and you may be so aware of what’s wrong with the movies while you’re seeing them that you’re pulled in different directions, but if you reject them because of the confusions, you’re rejecting the most hopeful symptoms of change. Just when there are audiences who may be ready for something, the studios seem to be backing away, because they don’t understand what these audiences want. The audiences themselves don’t know, but they’re looking for something at the movies. This transition into the seventies is maybe the most interesting as well as the most confusing period in American movie history, yet there’s a real possibility that, because the tastes of the voting audience are changing so fast, the already tottering studios will decide to minimize risks and gear production straight to the square audience and the networks. That square audience is far more alienated than the young one—so alienated that it isn’t looking for anything at the movies.
The New Yorker, September 27, 1969