'2001', 'Graduate' only some of year's greats

It was the best of times and the worst of times in 1968.

The worst was the year’s news: the two convulsive assassinations, the deepening quagmire in Vietnam, Chicago’s Democratic National Convention and Nixon’s election, for starters. The best, at least for anyone who went to movies, was the unprecedented sense of symbiosis between what was going on in the world and what we were seeing onscreen.

For a film buff just coming of age and seized with the need to begin writing about the electrifying new films that seemed to arrive by the week , it was positive paradise.

Boomers reminiscing about how groovy and far-out it was back in the late ’60s are too tiresome for words, so I’ll put it as plainly and factually as possible: In a period of just a few days in late August of 1968, two weeks before leaving for college and navigating between skirmishes at the Democratic Convention, I saw in first-run release “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Petulia,” “Belle de Jour,” “Targets” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I don’t think I’ve had a better week of new pictures, before or since.

Much has been written about this period in movies, about the advent of the movie brats, the last golden age of Hollywood from around 1967-1975 and how vital the film culture was at the time. It’s all true, of course, and the palpable feeling of excitement and new possibilities swept me up along with so many others. Naturally, being 18 and avid didn’t hurt.

It’s easy to describe the leap my life took in 1968: At the beginning of the year I was a film-obsessed high school senior who had never written a word on the subject, and 10 months later I was turning out two long film columns per week at a large university paper, as well as meeting the great veteran King Vidor on campus one week and a kid named George Lucas the next. Writing film reviews was never something I had intended to do, but a direct result of the urgency and greatness of the films we were bombarded with at the time.

“2001” started it. Having read the lukewarm Variety review and the New York Times dismissal when Kubrick premiered the 160-minute version in New York on April 3, I was wary but still unconvinced the film could actually be bad when I arrived for the very first Chicago public showing — a reserved-seat matinee during Easter break — at the Cinestage one week later. To say I was blown away would be both cliched and entirely accurate, to the extent that, for the first time, I felt compelled to race home and put my thoughts about a film down in writing.

How many masterpieces or, at least, severely impressive films were born around the world that year? To go strictly by the titles reviewed by Variety during the calendar year, in addition to the pictures I saw that August, we can start with “Weekend,” “Planet of the Apes,” the complete Russian “War and Peace,” “Charlie Bubbles,” “The Party,” “Madigan,” “The Edge,” “Les Biches,” “Capricious Summer,” “Faces,” “Memories of Underdevelopment,” “The Immortal Story,” “Yellow Submarine,” “L’amour fou,” “Mandabi,” “Stolen Kisses,” “Teorema,” “Monterey Pop,” “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Flesh,” “Beyond the Law,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Boston Strangler,” “Bullitt,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Shame,” “La femme infidele,” “If…” and “The Producers.”

There were also the first modest features of Scorsese, de Palma, Herzog and Pialat, the indelible exploitationers “Vixen,” “Psych-Out,” “The Savage Seven” and “Wild in the Streets,” and assorted specialized items at the far ends of high- and low-brow, including “Danger: Diabolik,” “Secret Ceremony,” “Head,” “Je t’aime, je t’aime,” “Innocence Unprotected,” “Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed,” “Death by Hanging,” “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” and “Lonesome Cowboys.”

When reviewing any year’s artistic highlights, it’s always essential to remove the rose-colored glasses to be reminded of which films were the favorites at the time. In 1968, the majority of the top 10 grossers (several of which were year-end 1967 releases) were strictly squaresville; in descending order, they were “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” the reissue of “Gone With the Wind,” “Valley of the Dolls,” “The Odd Couple,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Jungle Book,” “Yours, Mine and Ours” and “The Green Berets,” which now looks instructive in that it’s possibly the last popular war film made while the relevant war was still in progress.

It’s also useful to recall that, while the disintegration of the old studio system allowed some adventurous new filmmakers in the door, the flip side was a lack of clear-headedness that promulgated such fiascos as “Blue,” “Boom,” “Star!,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” “The Magus,” “Candy” and “Skidoo,” films which, in their own ways, reflected the conflicted and confused thinking of the times just as much as the successes did.

So what was it like on the ground for a burgeoning film buff during this time? I remember hearing the initial firsthand report about “The Graduate” at an NYU cafeteria around Thanksgiving of 1967, from some guys who had just caught an advance screening and spoke as if they had seen themselves in a movie for the first time. I had never had a girl grab me during a movie until, a couple of days later, it happened at the scariest moment of “Wait Until Dark,” which was also memorable for provoking the loudest in-unison scream I’d ever heard, from 6,200 people in Radio City Music Hall. Other excellent date movies of the season were “A Man and a Woman” (natch), “Bonnie and Clyde: (among a multitude of other merits), “Elvira Madigan” (swooning suicidal doom) and “Isadora” (extravagant hedonism).

Best double date: “Vixen.” Worst dating movie mistake: taking a girl to see “Camelot,” as planned, rather than following her hip mother’s last-minute advice that we see Godard’s “Masculin Feminin” instead. Best all-guy outing: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The furthest I traveled to see a movie: In June, 1968, a non-driver friend heard about a sneak preview of “Funny Girl” in Milwaukee and prevailed upon me to drive there from Chicago to catch it. This was five months before the film’s release and the reaction was huge. I was sufficiently impressed that I instantly wrote my one and only letter to a studio executive, in which I informed the head of United Artists how good “Funny Girl” was and advised him to hire William Wyler at once to direct the film version of “Man of La Mancha,” the rights to which UA had recently acquired. I never heard back.

In New York in early April ’68, my friends and I were on our way to the theater around 7:30 p.m. when all of Times Square seemed to go quiet and motionless. We soon saw that everyone was looking at the news heart-stoppingly coming around the famous illuminated marquee: Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead.

For some time it felt as if the entire area was under water. Then, the question of what to do now presented itself. Nothing seemed like the right choice, but in the end we went ahead and saw Zoe Caldwell in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Later that night, masses of people came down Broadway from Harlem, this just a few nights after hundreds of hippies had whooped and hollered through Greenwich Village reacting to LBJ’s announcement that he wouldn’t be running again for president. Politics and cinema converged most famously that year when the Cannes Film Festival was shut down in May; everyone has stories about how they either got out or made the best of it in an essentially closed-up town, and the conjecture persists as to whether “Fireman’s Ball” or “Petulia” would have won the Palme d’Or had the festival run its natural course.

We couldn’t have known it at the time, but that summer was the final flush of glory for the great Chicago movie palaces in which were rooted my most primal moviegoing experiences: the giant-screened but intimate Michael Todd, where as a kid I had first seen “The Bridge on the River Kwai” with my Pacific war veteran father, as well as “Ben-Hur;” its virtual twin the Cinestage, where “Lawrence
of Arabia” first transfixed me; the McVickers, where I’d witnessed three-panel Cinerama; the glittering Palace (later the Bismarck), home to “My Fair Lady” and then “Doctor Zhivago” for about half the decade; the splendid Balaban & Katz Loop flagships of the Chicago, State-Lake, Roosevelt and United Artists, as well as the chain’s neighborhood palaces such as the Uptown, Granada and Riviera, and Evanston’s ornate Varsity and Valencia; the elaborate Oriental, as well as the Woods and the Loop.

The Esquire, Carnegie, Cinema and Playboy were smaller, more sophisticated venues north of the river, the Monroe changed adults’ only double-bills every week and the immortal Clark was open about 20 hours a day, had a “Gals’ Gallery” mezzanine for women only, cost less than a dollar and featured an inspired daily change policy that, during the Democratic Convention, lured me to see both “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” for the first time. Then there was the magnificent, Moorish-Spanish-style Teatro del Lago in No-Man’s-Land, an odd bit of real estate between Wilmette and Lake Michigan where Charlton Heston spent his teenage years and where I first saw “El Cid.”

They’re all gone now, at least as film theaters. Four of them downtown continue as legit houses and one as a concert venue, but even an archeologist couldn’t detect evidence of the others anymore. It’s the same in almost every other city — although a bit less so in Los Angeles — one important element removed of what it was like to experience movies four decades back.

The day I arrived at Stanford in September ’68, I was showing myself around campus when I happened by the Stanford Daily office. On a whim I went in and asked if the paper needed a film critic. Told that the previous one had graduated in June, I volunteered for the job. As it happened, “Belle de Jour” had just opened locally, so I went back to see it again, wrote it up, did a rewrite and got published. Within a month I was skipping far too many classes attending the San Francisco Film Festival and taking dates to Godard movies.

In such manner was at least one career born.

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