Put some movie promoters to work on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and they might come up with these lurid blurbs for the ads:
Take the Money and Run! . . . The Morning After the Orgy... . He Lived Like a Beast.... A New Sensation of Sin! . . . The Kiss across the Generation Gap.... A Slaughter of Laughter!... Brother Set against Brother. . . . The Last Love for the Living Dead!
With any luck, some hustling public servant might help the promotion peak by denouncing the parable as the "pablum of permissive parenthood" and a "perversion of the Protestant ethic."
I somewhat exaggerate. My modest point is that the promotions and public reputations of many movies only loosely tally with the actual films—and often are more offensive than the films. A soft sell for a film is possible if a hard sell can be assumed. Jesus Christ Superstar, for example, needs only one blurb—"And Now the Film"—to link it with the publicity invested in the record and play.*
It doesn't bother me as much as it probably should that lurid promotions draw prurients—and prudes—to some movies. Often enough they get their due reward in the films themselves. But it does irk me that decent films sometimes get the same promotions—and discerning audiences are put off from the very films they want to see.
Take State of Siege. This worthy film was denied an American Film Institute screening in Washington because—according to the cover story—it "justifies violence and revolution." The charge is so absurd one could wonder whether the Declaration of Independence is still exhibited in Washington. The political ban, however, was roughly a half million dollars worth of free, if dubious, publicity.
Upon viewing this spuriously notorious film one finds it a thoughtful, semi-documentary "problem picture." Siege explores the role of American government personnel and our AID tax dollars in the training of the Uruguayan police in torture and other terrorist tactics. (Scenes of torture comprise about twenty second of the film and are muted; Siege is a film about violence, not a film of violence.)
While justifying revolutionary violence could be a fair film theme, Siege prefers to unfold the pathos of that violence. When a popular liberation cadre, the Tupamaros, kidnap an American AID operative, the government decides to refuse ransom and sacrifice the prisoner. The government calculates shrewdly and the Tupamaros position is pitiable. If they execute their prisoner, they appear impotent in the face of the government which can more easily and far more callously sacrifice life. If they release him, their cause appears impotent. If they hold him further, they appear impotent for their cruelty. Siege is hardly a film which takes even the most justified revolutionary violence lightly.
When the brouhaha surrounding Siege settles, the film emerges as one of the more serious films about violence in a violent decade. The "message" of Siege is: violence is always pathetic, sometimes tragic, never glorious. One is almost grateful the film was so mindlessly attacked in Washington and larger audiences thus assured for that ancient truth. Ordinarily "problem films" close quickly or barely eke out an existence in small communities of conscience.
The promotion of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! might bring audiences in for a merry musical romp. The radio and record promotion of the peppy songs dotting the film make the soundtrack a known quantity before the film is seen. When seen, Man contains actually some of the darkest humor noir in recent years. Few of its rollicking send-ups are without a dying fall.
Man is a mock epic, a series of episodes in the travels of a young innocent getting his knocks in the modern world. Malcolm McDowell, everybody's favorite (Long Ago Tommorrow, If, A Clockwork Orange) film victim, deadpans the picaresque role ably and is buoyantly supported by the repertoire company of the Royal Court Theatre. That company is, in effect, also Anderson's film repertoire company; the players carry their same roles from his If and The White Bus to O Lucky Man!
As the movie unwinds (the most apt word for a film so protracted and episodic) much of the decadence and chicanery in contemporary life gets lanced. The choicest targets for Anderson's satire are advertising experts (!), pornographic movies, the sleeping church, the warfare establishment, the "national security" state, sorcerous medical research, neo-colonial businessmen, uncorrected correctional institutions, and the devious and undeserving poor.* Lest Man sound merely bitchy on this scant telling, it should be added that the film opens with a delicious send-up of serious film-making (a parody of Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico, "the greatest film never made") and closes with a self-mocking appearance of Anderson himself as a director in search of a film star to do his work for him. Anderson is an angry old man, but he is not humorless about himself.
Unfortunately, only about half of the satire in Man works, at least for American audiences; the other half fails to rise above spoof. Anderson is, however, up against the increasing difficulty of satire in an age of normal excess, when outrages are fresh occasions for yawning. After a morning at TV watching the senate hearings on the Watergate fascism, Man at the movies that evening may seem tame. Nevertheless, O Lucky Man! is hardly the frothy frolic of its advertisements.
As I write these reviews in summer, American Graffiti has not yet been released. The film is ready; the promotion is not. I fear this fall we may see ads for this film set with shots of hot rods and sock hops and studded with blurbs like "He Busted His Bones to Get His RPM's Up" and other sophomoric titillations. Universal is distributing this independent film, and any studio which can bury Two-Lane Blacktop as a teenage dragstrip film for drive-ins could do it again.
I hope I'm wrong and the film is promoted decently. Otherwise discriminating audiences may miss one of the funnier, more humanistic and affirming films made in some time. Francis Ford Coppola put a portion of his profits from The Godfather into producing this touching nostalgia film for the (barely) under-thirties. George Lucas, the young director of Graffiti, is already a skilled craftsman and subordinates his personal expression to artistic expression like a master.
Graffiti is about real American high school graduates in 1961, and it should send frissons of recognition, laughter, and tears through those in the audience now descending the nether side of thirty. It's a more artful nostalgia film than Summer of '42 and A Separate Peace were nostalgia films for the 50's. Graffiti takes the clichés of youth films in the late 50's and early 60's and pushes them into the realm of archetype.
The grinding clichés of those old "youth films" were the ever-present rock-and-roll dances and hot rods. Such flesh and steel in a hundred films—from Beach Blanket Bingo to Red Ball 500—functioned as, say, Astaire and Rogers dance numbers functioned in movies for an earlier generation. They helped the young learn the new songs, steps, and styles and had little to do with the slim plots of the schlocky films.
A dozen years later it is possible to turn that trash of popular culture toward myth and, in Lucas' hands, toward art. He sets his characters in the cars endlessly circling a city one long night and moves them ritually to and from the dance. (The liturgy is complete when the voice of the omniscient disc jockey and the songs are carried away over the car radios.) Against this horizon of ritual cruising, the real life of ordinary young people is warmly set forth in all its pathos, humor, absurdity, and dignity.
Those far over thirty may also enjoy Graffiti, even if we cannot share in its nostalgia for the early 60's. At that time the prevailing movie models of our young were mindless hedonists and juvenile delinquents. The real young, of course, were readying themselves to take jobs, fight a war, raise their kids, vote Republican, and be more like us than different from us. There is that comfortable sadness in the film too, something for all ages.
The hyping of movies is as old as the film industry. (Looking back on certain American film classics lends perspective. Citizen Kane, for example, was pushed as a torrid love story and swashbuckling adventure film in its time. Would anybody recognize it under the blurb, "One Man against Millions for the Love of One Woman"?) Honesty in movie promotions occurs rarely—and only when "honesty is the best policy." That minimal, already compromised ethic is probably the best we can hope for east of Eden.
And that means the discerning filmgoer must often peer through some inflated and lurid promotions to see some decent and creditable movies.
* The actual film of Jesus Christ Superstar is passable. It is worth the admission alone for the visual accompaniment of the torch lament, "I Don't Know How to Love Him." The eroticism of Luke 7:36-50 inspires a classic moment in the history of American popular culture; Mary Magdalen rises to the archetypal "good bad girl" of the movies, while a lyrical montage of superimpositions suggests all the erotic intimacy her song would deny and sublimate.
* Most of Anderson's satire is visual. When our modern Everyman staggers into a church, more dead than alive from his last misadventure, the congregation goes blithely on with the harvest festival. As the vicar's wife gathers the offerings to her larder, our hero grasps hungrily for the harvest loaf. She stays his hand from the sacrilege and gives him her breast instead. Exhausted, our hero suckles. In three quick images the church is shown succoring only those whom it can mother. Anderson can shift from acupuncture to broadsword with ease, in fact too easily. When our hero lands in a hospital where patients sell their bodies to medical research, the patient next to him in the ward is panting heavily. When the blanket is snatched away, the patient is seen to be a sheep dog with a man's head. The image is so grotesque one feels the transplant an indignity to the dog.