So. Here you are, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman in your twenties, newly hatched and out and about in the world, meeting the usual suspects. Among them is Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid); he’s handsome, passionate, committed to a good cause, the only cause: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, he’s actually the leader of the resistance! And single. And he singles you out. You cannot believe your luck. There are many late nights in the café, and then later nights at his apartment. Your relationship is secret, this is for your protection he says, but that just adds to the aura. There’s a lot of travel, too; it isn’t safe to stay too long in one place, especially for him. There seems to be one “it” city every half-century, Paris is currently “it,” and you’ve arrived.
Then the Nazis pick him up. Then you fall in love. But not with him.
By Peggy Nelson Pickpocket – 1959 – dir. Robert Bresson
He sidles up to her. A quick glance, suspicious, complicit. Does she know? Does she notice? Ostensibly they are betting on the horses. His long fingers spread, ever so slowly, over the purse. The pressure is subtle, slight, relentless. His fingertips tease the edge of the clasp. Gently, gently, yes! he pops it open. His eyes flicker. Her face is still calm, a nimbus of white against his dark intensity. The fingers slip inside the folds: one, two, three . . . we suddenly hear the horses thundering along the track. Louder, more insistent, until—he emerges with the money! The horses are unstoppable! The finish line is breached! And, it is over. The crowd disperses, he blends into the Brownian motion. He has gotten away with it! Drained by the effort, he walks/stumbles away.
In Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009), Sam Rockwell plays the scruffy hipster-next-door on the moon, who turns out to be both more and less than what he seems. With impressive set design, constructed with tiny models instead of CGI, Moon inhabits not the 1960s techno-future of visible progress, but the 1970s paranoid present of hidden ulterior motives. In a way, Moon recalls not so much the actual space race, but the aftermath of plastic modules on the kitchen table, with an excess of glue and tiny pieces that don’t seem to fit anymore.
Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969), like it’s lesser-known sibling, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), poses the question, where are you going when all the roads are mapped? In their constant motion, Wyatt/Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are seeking unmapped territory, but the only unmapped territory is within. By refusing to settle in one place, by being nomads, they are refusing the predetermined categories of social role and occupation.
Freedom has been synonymous with freedom of the open road since before this country was founded: freedom to wander around in space, to break free of the boundaries of town, city, job, habits, and self, and simply go, to wander in space and see what and who you might find. The hippies in Easy Rider are icons now, and were icons then. But they’re on a journey much older than hippies – the Beats, too, had their road, the hobos theirs, the frontiersmen and pioneers their roads, stolen from and grafted on top of the Native Americans’ trajectories in space.
In Five Easy Pieces (dir. Bob Rafaelson, 1970) Robert Eroica Dupea, played by a young-ish Jack Nicholson, has “dropped out” by dropping down a couple of levels in the class structure. Frustrated by the constraints of a serious classical music career, when we first meet him he is working on an oil rig, hanging out with his working class buddies at the bowling alley, and dating a diner waitress (Karen Black), in a thorough rejection of his upper class background and ideals.
Set in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) follows musicians, con artists, politicians, and weirdos as their lives overlap and intersect over the course of a fateful few days. The film showcases Altman’s signature style of combining multiple story lines, noisy, overlapping dialogue, and realistic, scattered camera angles into a complex yet consistent narrative whole. Considered by many to be Altman’s best film, it sashays between dialogue and song, the individual and the political, and humor and tragedy, without missing a beat.
The Last Picture Show – 1971 – dir. Peter Bogdanovich
The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) presents the enigma of the old western wrapped in the mystery of the new. Set in the early 1960s in a windswept Texas town — the kind of small town that springs up on the way from somewhere to somewhere else — the story focuses on two high school seniors, Sonny and Duane, co-captains of a football team so monumentally inept that at one point they manage to lose 121 – 14. The future they face seems as bleak as the empty streets in the town and the endless flat plains of the surrounding land. They sense it as they stumble through the paces of late adolescence: girlfriends, jobs, uncertainty.
So will you be at the meeting on Tuesday? The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The third rule of Fight Club is . . .
I’m going to talk about Fight Club. Based on the Chuck Palahniuk book by the same name, the film concerns a disaffected white-collar worker who can sum up his life with the three C’s: Catalogs, Condo, Condiments. Not surprisingly, for his efforts he’s got insomnia, ennui, and anhedonia. He starts going to support groups for diseases he does not have, to jump-start his atrophied connection to life. But then he meets a woman doing the same thing; recognizing her as a fellow “tourist,” all his ennui and insomnia come racing back. Then his house explodes. Then the movie starts.
There are many characters in David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), the sprawling, epic portrayal of people caught up in the Russian Revolution, the least of which is, surprisingly, Dr. Zhivago himself. In addition to Zhivago, Lara, Komorovsky, Pasha, and a host of others, there is the land, the weather, the first World War, the mountains, the interminable train ride, the tide of political events, the Five-Year Plans, even the giant posters of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, all playing their parts and threatening to upstage the action. Beside all these a small story about love and betrayal should pale; as Strelnikov claims in the film, “the personal life is dead in Russia.” But it is Lean’s achievement that it is not: it more than holds its own, and forms the core around which the rest crash and swirl.
Some films need to be seen on the big screen. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia (dir. by David Lean, 1962) on one of the biggest, the UC Theatre in Berkeley, California. A giant screen is not only the appropriate frame for the stunning cinematography in this film, it is the only canvas large enough for its title subject. T. E. Lawrence was one of those rare people whose life comprised a perfect storm of circumstance and talent, creating a man worthy of a 70mm, almost 4-hour film; a figure truly larger than life.