Page Turners

Pictures at a Revolution and the Importance of Historical Context

Pictures at  a Revolution.jpg


It’s been a while since I’ve had an article up about a book. I had two Film Library articles in a row, and while those are also about books, the articles are more about how the book was adapted into the movie. And after checking out Price of Salt and Rum Punch, I decided I needed to take a break for a bit from reading books that have been turned into movies, but apparently needed to be weaned off that habit, because the book I picked up to read, and have been reading for a while now, was a bit of non-fiction about movies. Because I’m just a huge geek. Now, I’ve had this book for a while, and have just been putting it off for a while, because while I find the subject fascinating, I’ve heard it was a little dry. Which turned out to be true, and while it took me a while to get through the book because of that, I was glad I made it through, because it was a very enjoyable book. Which has surprised people like my wife, because when I’m telling them I’m reading a book about how much the 1968 Academy Awards changed American moviemaking.

That book is Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by journalist Mark Harris. The premise of the book is pretty simple. It’s just an exploration of the five movies that were up for the Best Picture award at the 1968 Academy Awards. Which sounds like it could be incredibly boring. I get that. I’m the type of guy who actually likes watching behind the scenes documentaries for movies and listening to director’s commentaries, so I find the idea of discussing how important movies got made interesting. And even more so when the movies we’re talking about are this influential. Now, the reason my wife made fun of me for reading a book about them movies that were nominated for an Oscar, other than the fact she at first thought the book was just about the ceremony, was the fact that it seems oddly specific. Why the 1968 nominees? Because they represented one of the most profound shifts in America cinema of all time.

Film buffs know that there are a handful of important eras when it comes to American cinema. And the movies that came out in 1967 are widely considered the beginning of one of the most beloved periods of American cinema, New Hollywood. Now, not all of the five nominees are considered part of this movement. Two of the three are petty emblematic of the previous generation of movies. So the awards in 1968 was the watershed moment for this movement, when we really got to see Old and New Hollywood start to butt heads. The films nominated were Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, the Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and Doctor Doolittle. Three of those are classic, genre-defying and monumental films. The other two you may have to Google. And while yes, it was really interesting to learn about the making of the movies, especially the colossal train-wreck that was Doctor Doolittle, The thing that I really liked about the book was the context it put the films in.

I think context is one of the biggest problems when it comes to watching older films. I’m a big film buff, but it’s really only recently that I’ve been getting to movies made before the 70’s. I’d seen classics, but by and large my knowledge of film didn’t go that far back in time. But in the last couple years, especially this year with my attempt to watch 366 movies I’d never seen for the Doug Loves Movies Challenge, I’ve really been diving into older cinema. And one of the hurdles I’ve had to deal with was connecting to these older movies. There are some that are just so timeless that they can be viewed and understood at any time period, but the vast majority of movies aren’t made to be timeless, they’re representations of their times. They’re built on the shoulders of movies made before them, and the world around them at the time they were made. And when coming at them from a modern perspective, you may miss a lot.

I know plenty of people who can’t stand watching movies that are in black and white, or old comedies from before the 80’s, because they just can’t connect with them. The black and white movies just seem too old and out of touch, and the comedies aren’t as funny, because they aren’t realizing that these are the comedies that influenced the stuff we’re used to now. Movies, like any type of culture, build off of the previous generations, so unless you go into them with the right perspective they’ll seem tried and trite, because they’re what’s influenced the new and improved stuff you know from modern times. And while you can’t always excuse movies from the past from getting into things that are wrong now, like older movies made when racism and sexism were more prevalent and accepted than they are now, but I think it’s foolish to deride them because of that. I love the James Bond movies, and I see people all the time come at them from a modern perspective and write think pieces about how sexist and racist they can be. Which is pointless, because they were coming from a different time. They’re movies that are representative of their times. They’re historical documents that show what the world was like when they were made, and since they’re not living documents that can change with the times, of course they’re going to seem out of touch, because it’s impossible for them to be in touch.

This whole rant may be a little off topic for Pictures at a Revolution, because the book was really more focused on the formation of New Hollywood, which is fascinating, but the thing I really took from it was the time period that these movies were being made. Dr. Doolittle was just a mess of a movie, hoping to ride the coattails of a then recent trend for big budget musicals, and obviously bribed its way into the nomination. And even though Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner didn’t work, and was mocked for being completely out of touch, it still tackled the problem of race. In the Heat of the Night, which ended up winning the prize that night, tackled the problem of race relations in a more realistic and head on way, showing how important race was becoming. It’s still important obviously, but this was a period when the Civil Rights movement was still going strong, and where basically the only working black actor was Sidney Poitier. Which the book established by showing us that Poitier was the black character in two of the five movies, and was almost in a third. That’s ridiculous. But also oddly timely what with the #oscarssowhite controversy we just had. This was a time period when thing were so crazy in America that the Oscars got bumped back a couple weeks from its scheduled time because Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. That’s how important and in the zeitgeist race was when these movies came out, something that you may have just passed over if you didn’t know that.

Things for black people are still pretty shitty in America, but they’re probably better than they were in the South in the mid-60’s. So watching In the Heat of the Night without that context probably can feel a little weird, because we’re so disconnected with that level of institutional racism in today’s society, that it would feel silly to see them treat Virgil Tibbs so bad, until you learn that the racism was so bad that they couldn’t actually film in the South because the cast and crew were getting death threats, and that the movie was specifically made cheap enough that it could earn back enough money without even having to play in the South. Seriously. That’s a fact that this book gave me, people were so scared about the racism in the South that it was easier to just not give them movies with black protagonists than it was to teach them to be decent human beings.

But it wasn’t just racism that helped define these movies. Bonnie and Clyde and the Graduate were just as important to the formation of the New Hollywood, but instead of racism they took another important aspect of the times to be their basis. Revolution. We like to think of the 60s as this time of protest and changing social ideals, but really it’s the late 60s that we’re thinking of. By the time these movies were being made, things were starting to swing that way. People were fed up with the world, and wanted it to change. The Baby Boomers were becoming adults, and they were not happy with the world, and the way society had been going on. Bonnie and Clyde was a celebratory orgy of violence and liberation, showing two kids who can’t stand the world they live in, and are rebelling in the only way they know how. Through violence. They’re bank robbers, and thanks to the defeat of the ominous and overly-Conservative Hayes Code, we get to see them in all their violent glory, while also proudly having criminals as the protagonists. While the Graduate shows the crazy existential crisis that teenagers and young adults were feeling at the time. They were realizing that they’re expected to be their parents, just continue on the society that has done nothing but fail them, and are refusing to do that, to live their lives the way they want, for the first time. Because the economy was booming. Things had changed. The Baby Boomers had the luxury of having a better life than their parents, actually having time to have existential crisis. And showing that in a movie was mind-blowing at the time.

There’s so much I could ramble about this book. The importance of context, the power of New Hollywood, the freeing power of a Hollywood that didn’t have to worry about the Code, hell even just sharing little tidbits like the decision to not play In the Heat of the Night in the South. And honestly, I feel like I may just end up writing separate articles about New Hollywood and it’s assassination by the era of the Blockbusters or the death of the Code. Because the thing that really blew me away with this book was the idea of context. And I didn’t even realize that until I started writing. I came into this article assuming I was just going to talk about New Hollywood, but as I started thinking about the book I just finished I realized that the thing that really moved me about this book was the idea that we take things for granted too often when it comes to context. We really need to watch documentaries and listen to commentaries when watching movies from periods from before we were alive, because there’s no way that we’re going to truly appreciate them in the way that they were meant to be appreciated. So cut movies from the past some slack, and dive on in, because there’s some great stuff back then, you just need to go in with an open mind, and remember that you shouldn’t be expecting a movie from 2016 when it was made in 1933.


Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, was written by Mark Harris, 2008.

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