Split Decision: 1968
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
What is your favorite movie celebrating 50 years this year?
Given that I was born in 1968, and my twin and I celebrated our 50th birthdays this year, films turning 50 this year are of particular interest and importance to me. So indulge me as I run on the red lights down memory lane.
I recall 2001 was the first film I saw in the theater (I was about 3 and I just remember being mesmerized). There were dozens of trippy films at the time, and I think The Party is one of Peter Sellers' funniest comedies (I prefer it over I Love You Alice B. Toklas!, which was also released that year, but I've grown to appreciate that film, too, over time.) The Monkees' musical, Head, is another film I love from 1968, if only because of how dazzling the sequence of Davy Jones performing "Daddy's Song" is. I also acknowledge Jane Fonda as Barbarella and that film's campy sensibility made an impression on me.
But my tastes generally tend towards darker films, and I have unbridled affection for No Way to Treat a Lady, an underrated thriller with George Segal as a cop tracking down a cross-dressing Rod Steiger; Pretty Poison, a delicious black comedy with Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld; and The Swimmer, which stars Burt Lancaster in an adaption of the John Cheever short story about a man who swims home using all his neighbors' pools. Faces, John Cassavetes' marital drama is also an amazing film from 1968 with a powerhouse performance by the incomparable Gena Rowlands.
I'll also shout out to Never a Dull Moment, a Disney comedy with Dick Van Dyke and Edward G. Robinson that contains one of my all-time favorite lines, which I'll paraphrase,"With all that I put up with...a lesser man would fold."
But as for the single film I love most from 1968, I can't choose just one. I'm tied between Pasolini's Teorama, which has Terence Stamp as a Christ-like figure, entering an Italian household and fucking everybody--literally and figuratively. It's one of my favorite film themes—a stranger disrupts a household—and Pasolini's ecstatic film is sexy, naughty, and sardonic all at once. I also worship If... Lindsay Anderson's unforgettable drama about rebellious teenagers at a British public school. Malcolm McDowell plays Mick Travis (in the first of three Anderson films) and the film's graphic scenes of sex and violence left an indelible impression on me. Like Teorama, If... ranks as one of my favorite films for its sheer audacity and impact. - Gary Kramer
Roger Ebert on 2001: A Space Odyssey, after the world premiere in which he witnessed multiple walkouts:
"To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, 'Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?'"
I think that story says it all. 2001 is one of those movies with such lofty aspirations that it easily flies over the head of even the smartest viewers. Not necessarily because it's above them, but because it is disinterested in walking the viewer through even a second of its considerable runtime. Part history lesson, part space travel procedural, part technological showpiece, part thriller, part horror, and ultimately a cinematic acid trip well beyond anything previously committed to celluloid, 2001 never stops running the risk of viewer disengagement, but it just. Doesn't. Care.
And you know what? 50 years later, we all know that it was right not to care. Not only does the film hold up, but it still mystifies in new ways, all the while looking better - more modern - than so many films that it inspired.
If ever a film properly assuaged my fear of death, it's this one. And since I've got a platform upon which to say so, I'll add the the sequel, 2010, is pretty good as well!
In desperate need of rediscovery (and canonization), Richard Lester's Petulia is, at once, evocative of its time and place and timeless in its truth and insights. If it's not the best film of 1968, I can't imagine there being one more underrated. (It's certainly Richard Lester's finest hour.) Told in a fragmented, elliptical style, the film charts a year in the life of several members of San Francisco's elite, specifically zeroing in on divorced doctor Archie (George C. Scott) and quirky socialite Petulia (Julie Christie). Despite the presence of adultery and possible romance, Petulia is neither a love story nor a study of carnal temptations. Instead, it's a chilly, detached drama of individual ennui and collective alienation, of two souls attempting to find their way through the miasma of an apathetic, materialist world and seeming to never connect at the right time. It's also a vivid portrait of casual cruelty (psychological, social, familial, racial), punctuated by scenes of lacerating interplay that get at levels of emotional violence not often explored in contemporary American cinema. Like Boorman's Point Blank, Lester draws from the work of European art cinema – notably, Antonioni's sense of architecture and Resnais' cutting patterns, with Lester's antsy rhythms pushing these devices into new directions – yet the chosen milieu and targets are distinctly American. Detractors argue Lester is merely throwing darts at his characters, but that negates the tragic, underlying notion that many of them are imprisoned (some willful, others by design) by age-old codes, rituals, and expectations; some of these strictures ultimately deprive one of self-perception and the ability to thrive in an ever-changing world. A devastating, essential American film.
Rosemary's Baby is my favorite film from the year 1968, and a top ten film for me in general. Roman Polanski's satanic cult pregnancy drama managed to illuminate a woman who thinks she is getting everything she wants out of life, when in reality she is in control of absolutely nothing. The terror is not so much in the supernatural, but in the insidious way that horror swallows Rosemary (Mia Farrow) whole, disguising itself through an elevated sense of soapy politeness, which then gives way to full on dark conspiracy.
This is the film that taught me that the people you love can betray you- and that evil can, and often does, win. It is also unsettling to think about the year in which it came out- Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated, and the American public began to lose faith in the war effort in Vietnam. It was a crisis of faith in institutions Americans use to believe in. Other eerie contexts surrounding the film- It came out only a year before the Manson family murdered Polanski's pregnant wife Sharon Tate, among many other misfortunes that led many to believe the film to be cursed. Not to mention that the Polanski sex abuse scandal hit full throttle approximately a decade later. Talk about evil and betrayal. To me, it doesn't detract from the power of the film, of watching Rosemary wade through the the muck to try and retain a shred of personal agency, despite everyone around her telling her not to worry. In no movie has minimization ever been weaponized more horrifyingly.
I often get the main theme of the film, by Krzysztof Komeda, stuck in my head. Oh and I just found out that he died after he fell off a cliff less than a year after the movie came out. Talk about a curse. -Andy Elijah
I'd like to write about something else, because maybe I could say something original about Blackbeard's Ghost, a live-action Disney movie where a man calls his ancestor Blackbeard to save him from extortion from beyond the grave. I don't think anybody's written about that movie in 30 years, and I've somehow seen it twice. I could eulogize the recently-deceased Neil Simon and point to The Odd Couple as a movie that holds up way better than it should-- certainly better than any other 50-year-old comedy. But I have to praise Bullitt, and I have to do it for the same reason everybody praises Bullitt-- that chase scene is beyond perfect.
Even people who haven't seen Bullitt know it for its climactic chase between Steve McQueen, a couple of hitmen and huge swaths of San Francisco, though I hope people are actually out there watching the whole movie because it's fantastic. But that scene, where McQueen is his own stunt driver and five hubcaps fly off a single car, deserves the immortality it's received. Whenever I rewatch Bullitt, I'm amazed at how slow the final scene feels. The two cars will speed up a steep hill and then they'll have to brake a little, maybe drive in reverse for a second to straighten out. McQueen almost hits a motorcyclist and then waits to drive on until he sees that the other man is okay. The bad guys don't even break out their guns until the chase is almost over. There's no talking and no score, which also stretches things a little. These people driving their big, boxy cars just silently beat the hell out of their vehicles, their motors so loud any quips or soundtrack would be lost anyway. Bullit has had plenty of imitators, but nobody films chases like this. Nothing is ever so clear or brutal.
And it's worth remembering that Steve McQueen plays a person named "Frank Bullitt."
Since I recently wrote about my beloved Yellow Submarine and talked 2001 on the Shame Files, I’m going for my third favorite film of 1968, the original Planet of the Apes. Putting aside all of the sequels and prequels (though the only outright bad film in the entire franchise is the Burton remake, and even that isn’t that bad), Planet of the Apes does everything a good science fiction movie should do. It gives a new and fantastical world that reflects our own and allows us to examine our beliefs about society. This film manages to tackle racism, colonialism, and nuclear war in a tight 112 minutes. And it does so while remaining an engaging dramatic film. The story always comes first, but the story is built to also convey the message. It is the best of both Star Trek and The Twilight Zone in one damned dirty package.