The first films of the nineteen-seventies are alive, good, and running in your local cinema. Their titles are Medium Cool and Alice's Restaurant. Medium Cool is the story of a television news-cameraman breaking his shield of non-involvement with the episodes he is accustomed to photograph. Alice's Restaurant is about a proto-commune in Stockbridge, Mass., and the kids, surrogate parents, and local fuzz who helped make life in a deconsecrated Episcopal church a thing of beauty, and a joy for a while. Both films are in color, and neither has as much sex, violence, or foul language as you're apt to find in a random selection of films currently on the circuit. So why all the fuss about these flicks?
Their importance lies, I think, in the extent to which they infiltrate reality into illusion, life into art. Medium Cool does this by having the reporter cover the funeral of RFK, by having him comment about a television tribute to Martin Luther King, and by setting the climax of the film amid the riots which attended the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. The riot footage is not staged. Haskell Wexler, the photographer-director, was on the scene—as we are reminded by the cry on the soundtrack as we see a tear-gas canister drop in front of the camera: "Look out, Haskell, it's real!"
What's real? The tear gas, yes; but what about the car wreck that ends the film? The cops in phalanxes in front of the Hilton and the NBC News Trucks, yes; but what about the shots of the reporter in the International Amphitheater? The effect is disturbing, and it won't be surprising to see someone take the next logical step: A film about the Vietnam war, say, with combat troops in starring roles, a brilliant editor in the cutting room, and an audience left to wonder whether the blood on the screen was shed by a soldier or poured on by the make-up man; or a love-making scene in which actor and actress forgo the Method for the madness itself; or a Student Revolution film which shows a real Administration Building going up in real flames, with or without the advice and consent of the shooting script. If this happens—and the way seems paved for it both on the screen and on the stage—what happens to our old habits of thinking in terms of the distinctions between art and life, illusion and reality, vicarious and immediate experience? Surely one could now find actors and actresses who would have sex on the screen or stage, for the sake of verisimilitude; how long will it be before one finds an actor who would be willing to die, if the script called for it, in order to render an immortal performance?
Alice's Restaurant poses different problems, offers different hints of what's to come. It depicts a community which actually existed a couple of years ago; but in depicting this community, it dips into the immediate past to involve the principals. Newsweek's fine cover story (September 29) tells the tale: "Penn (the director) sprinkled his cast with amateurs. The real Alice Brock played an extra in a film which, in part, dramatizes the violent dissolution of her marriage to Ray. (The two are now divorced.) Penn contacted Alice when she was down and out in Boston to ask her if she would cooperate in the filming. 'I thought to myself,' remembers 28-year-old Alice, 'This is psychodrama that a millionaire couldn't afford.' And so it turned out to be, not just for Alice but for nearly everyone connected with the picture. Penn hired professional actors James Broderick and Pat Quinn, who bore a striking resemblance to Alice, to stabilize a cast that had commissioner Obanhein and the kids in the church playing their own roles. . . . 'When the shooting began,' remembers Alice, 'Arthur (Penn) would call for Alice and I'd come on the scene instead of Pat Quinn. After a while, they started calling me the Other Alice. Can you imagine how tough that is for an actress, to perform with the character she's playing watching everything she does and criticizing it? And, at the same time, all my friends were saying to me, "You should have played yourself, Alice.". . . In the shooting, it became clear why this ideal family finally disintegrated. 'We found ourselves talking about things we should have talked about three years ago,' says Alice. 'They shot that scene where Alice is in the restaurant and Ray and the kids go off swimming. Now, during that time, I was working seventeen hours a day in the restaurant. . . . After we shot that scene, some of the kids said: "Gee, Alice, was it really that hard for you? Were you that unhappy?" And, man, during that time I was dying. . . .'" The real clincher: Commissioner Obanhein, who plays himself in the film, is asked whether he is pleased about the picture. He is, and he explains why: "I'll tell you in one word: satisfaction. I'm 44 years old and now I've finally done something." What has he done? he's played himself.
Art illuminating life—even for those whose life it was, the first time around. How viable in the seventies will be the distinction between art and life? Films now on our screens suggest that it, like the illusion—reality distinction, is in for a rough go.
(But are we the worse for that?)