Free Love Freeway: A Final Roundup from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon

Free Love Freeway may contain the most memorable gag in the original version of The Office (two of them, actually), but it’s also a surprisingly good song in its own right (catchy, at any rate). And it seemed a very fitting title for this final selection of films from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon, which all deal with end-of-the-’60s cultural movements about love and freedom. Heck, if Easy Rider had actually been called Free Love Freeway, it wouldn’t’ve seemed ill-fitting.

In today’s roundup:

  • Cactus Flower (1969)
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)


    Cactus Flower
    (1969)

    2019 #113
    Gene Saks | 99 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Cactus Flower

    Perhaps most noted for featuring the big-screen debut of Goldie Hawn (sort of), from which she won an Oscar and a career, Cactus Flower has a lot else to commend it. Indeed, it’s easily arguably that her’s isn’t even the film’s best female performance…

    Hawn plays Toni Simmons, a young New Yorker who’s having an affair with an older dentist, Julian Winston (Walter Matthau), under full knowledge that he has a wife and three kids. When they cause him to miss a date with her, she decides to kill herself, only to be saved by her neighbour, wannabe playwright Igor (Rick Lenz). When Julian hears of Ton’s suicide attempt, he realises he actually loves her and wants to marry her. There’s just one small problem: his wife and kids… who aren’t actually real, they’re a lie he told Toni to avoid commitment. Now she’s determined to meet them, to ease her conscience about breaking up a household, so Julian coerces his redoubtable secretary Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) to play his wife. And from there, the lies spiral farcically out of control.

    It’s easy to see why Goldie Hawn, with her pixie haircut and pixie-like demeanour, became a star after this. Toni is a bit kooky and funny, almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, especially as she’s inspiring a change of lifestyle in a man. To reduce her to MPDG status does a disservice to Hawn’s performance, though. She also brings heart and an honesty to the part, giving Toni more of a plausible internal life than you find with true MPDGs. She’s not just some fanciful construct there to direct the male lead to a ‘better’ life — she has her own desires and needs, and a moral compass that, while maybe slightly irregular (she was knowingly having an affair with a married man, after all), still points true and directs the story.

    Walter's women

    But while Toni may be the headline act, what becomes clear over the course of the film is that this is actually Stephanie’s story — she is the titular flower. It starts off as a one-note supporting role: the formidable secretary to the male lead, running not only his practice but also his life because he’s incapable of doing it himself. Asked to be embroiled in his latest love affair, she’s reluctant — that’s one part of his life she’s never been involved in; indeed, it’s an aspect of her life she’s not been involved in for a very long time. But, almost accidentally stumbling her way into it regardless, she begins to come out of her shell and realise what she really wants from life.

    That’s why it’s more Bergman’s film than Hawn’s, or anybody else’s; not only because Stephanie, as it turns out, is the title character, and not only because she goes through the biggest change, but also because Bergman plays it so well. There are obvious bold moments where we see how she’s developing, but Bergman also plots out it with subtle bits of acting along the way, and her comic timing is spot-on too. But whoever you argue is ‘better’, the film really belongs to the two women. Nothing against Matthau and the other men, who aren’t at all bad (you can see how Lenz was once earmarked as a new Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Weston pops in for a comic relief sidekick part). But the story is really about the women, how they behave and develop and change; and dictate the men’s actions, deliberately or otherwise, as pretty much anything any man does in this film is a reaction to one of the women’s actions.

    The film was adapted by I.A.L. Diamond (Billy Wilder’s regular screenwriter) from a Broadway play (by Abe Burrows) that was based on a French play (by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy), it’s difficult to say who exactly is responsible for the sparkling, funny dialogue (well, anyone who’s read the play would know where to attribute credit, I guess); but Diamond opens things up enough that, unusually, the theatrical roots are well hidden.

    4 out of 5

    Easy Rider
    (1969)

    2019 #114
    Dennis Hopper | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Easy Rider

    Perhaps the defining movie of the ’60s counterculture, this bike-based travelogue sees Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper travel across the US in search of… what? Some specific goals are mentioned, but really it seems they’re searching for something to search for; for what life they really want.

    Easy Rider is very much a movie of its time. It’s not just from 1969, it is 1969 — a loose, freewheeling, drug-fuelled (apparently Hopper and Fonda were off their faces for most of the shoot, which was significantly improvised) portrait of a lifestyle and an era. While the filmmaking qualities may have endured such that it’s still an engaging watch today, with a fresh and experimental edge that makes it kinda timeless, there’s no doubting that this is a movie wholly located at the end of the ’60s. Or, as Tarantino put it, “it captures the sixties in a way that’s tangible.”

    Parts of it almost look like a travel documentary, with montages of the scenery and places that the characters pass by. But it’s also like a documentary of attitudes: from a hippy commune, whose residents are even more invested in the radical social notions of the era than our transitory heroes, to the traditional Southern towns, where long-haired bikers are viewed with suspicion. Jack Nicholson pops in for a cameo-ish supporting role where he makes a speech about the American attitude to freedom that sums up what the film has to say quite succinctly: that talking about freedom and being free are two very different things; and those average Americans, who go on about “freedom” as one of the country’s cornerstones, see real freedom and are scared by it. At first glance Nicholson’s speech is just one rambling tangent in a film made up of them (at first I was on board with that, though I confess I ended up getting a little bored by it), but the ending makes its relevance clearer. As Tarantino realises on the spot during filming of his post-film chat, “in a weird way, the ending is actually what makes Easy Rider have a story. I don’t even know if you could say Easy Rider has a story until the ending. The ending makes what’s happened before a story.” He’s got something of a point, although I still wonder: does it actually have a story? Or is it just a hangout movie with some hippies on a road trip that forces an abrupt ending because (a) it has to end sometime, and (b) well, maybe it can kinda make a point in how it concludes.

    Born to be wild

    Still, there’s a lot to be analysed about the film’s ending, not only its retrospective effect on the rest of the movie but also what it itself is saying. Part of its power comes in its shock value, so I don’t want to give away what happens; although Tarantino reckons it’s also part of why the film was such a box office success (in an era when a high-grossing film brought in something like $12 million, Easy Rider netted over $41 million), so audiences likely knew what happened before seeing it. Certainly, “how it ends” is not the only reason to watch the film (if ever the saying “the journey is more important than the destination” was relevant, it’s here); but also, as I say, the finale comes out of the blue and surprise is part of its effect. Well, to offer a spoiler-free commentary I’ll just quote Tarantino again, who says the “nihilistic ending […] kind of promoted a new view amongst young people in America. ‘Well, you can’t win.’ It was a very nihilistic time in America when it came to thinking about the America we had grown up in, the America we had been told what America is, the apple pie image. Easy Rider kind of flies in the face of that.”

    Easy Rider is so embedded in a particular worldview that your opinion of that, and how much you embrace that lifestyle (or the romantic image of it), is liable to influence your opinion of the film itself. If these characters are the kind of people you’d enjoy hanging out with, you’ll likely enjoy hanging out with them for 90 minutes of screen time. If you despise that whole way of thinking, this movie isn’t going to convert you (you’ll be glad of the ending in more ways than one, though). For those of us somewhere in between, well, it’s an interesting experience to try out.

    4 out of 5

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
    (1969)

    2019 #117
    Paul Mazursky | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

    If Easy Rider was the freeway, here’s the free love.

    Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) are a middle-aged, middle-class couple who go on a weekend retreat that changes their perspective on the world — they come back with freer thoughts and a freer attitude. Their friends, couple Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon), are a bit bemused by their new outlook and how it seems to have changed them. And things are really thrown for six when Bob has a one night stand while on a business trip and confesses it to Carol, who not only instantly forgives him but also tells Ted and Alice, who have a more complicated reaction.

    At first glance the film looks like a character study, because it’s so centred around its eponymous quartet and their feelings about a specific set of circumstances (I’ve described almost the entire ‘plot’ above — the rest is to do with how the characters feel about it, and what they do in response). But it’s not so much a study of characters as it is of an issue, with the four characters representing four different perspectives and attitudes. And that issue is sex. Or as Alice puts it at one point, “that’s all that’s on their minds, is sex. Sex, sex, sex, and sex.” Actually, that’s a bit of a simplification, because it’s also about marriage, and what sex means relative to marriage. That’s probably what makes it interesting: it’s not about young hippies demonstrating “free love” by shagging everyone; it’s about affluent adults encountering this philosophy and seeing how it adapts to their own situation.

    Married life (before orgies)

    It’s also another film with an ending that’s open to interpretation —even more so than Easy Rider, perhaps, because it’s more ambiguous. It’s given away by some of the film’s posters: the four friends end up in bed together. “Listen, you tell me why do you think we came up here?” asks Alice. “To have fun,” replies Carol. “And what is more fun than an orgy?” What indeed. Well, possibly going to see Tony Bennett, as it turns out. Or possibly not. It looks like the four friends get to a certain point, then regret it and get dressed and go out to the concert they’d been planning to attend… but then the final sequence is dreamlike, clearly non-literal. So did they actually stop, or did they just get it on off camera? Writer-director Paul Mazursky expressed a definitive opinion later in his autobiography, so we know what he intended, but the film as-is kind of allows you to form your own opinion. Depending what you think should happen — which of the different perspectives you became aligned with — allows you to pick what does happen. Or you can just believe Mazursky and then decide whether you like the ending or not, I guess.

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is as specifically about social attitudes of 1969 as Easy Rider was, but the different here is many of those attitudes have endured. There are certain sectors of society that have moved well past the arguments being had here, but many haven’t, and you can almost imagine this self-same series of debates playing out in a modern setting (although nowadays I’d say Bob and Carol’s radical thinking is less likely to come from a weekend away at a camp and more likely to be something one of them read on the internet). Plus it’s got a quote for every occasion, though if you want one that sums up the overall philosophy of the time, perhaps Carol says it best: “It’s just nice feelings. It’s something that we’ve never done before. It’s physical fun. It’s just sex. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!”

    4 out of 5

  • Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #3

    Francis Ford Coppola presents an all new version of his groundbreaking masterpiece.

    Original Title: Apocalypse Now (obviously)

    Country: USA
    Language: English, French & Vietnamese
    Runtime: 202 minutes (theatrical/DVD) | 196 minutes (Blu-ray)*
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    * This appears to be due to the Blu-ray removing the end credits, but the number of disc reviewers who haven’t even noticed the discrepancy is remarkable.

    Original Release: 15th August 1979 (USA)
    UK Release: 19th December 1979
    Redux Release: 11th May 2001 (Cannes) | 23rd November 2001 (UK)
    First Seen: DVD, c.2002

    Stars
    Martin Sheen (Badlands, The Departed)
    Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather)
    Robert Duvall (THX 1138, The Godfather)
    Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Speed)

    Director
    Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation)

    Screenwriters
    Francis Ford Coppola (Patton, The Godfather Part II)
    John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn)

    Based on
    Heart of Darkness (loosely), a novella by Joseph Conrad.

    The Story
    In the middle of the Vietnam war, burnt out soldier Captain Willard is given a top-secret mission: locate US Army Colonel Kurtz, who’s gone renegade and is leading his own personal army in unauthorised attacks, and terminate his command. Travelling up the river on a Navy patrol boat, its crew unaware of Willard’s goal, they see snapshots of the war and the elements of human nature it exposes — the very horrors that drove Kurtz insane…

    Our Hero
    Martin Sheen is Captain Benjamin Willard — not exactly a hero, but certainly the narrator. Already mentally wracked by his experiences in Vietnam, he may not be the best person to send after another officer similarly mentally afflicted…

    Our Villain
    Marlon Brando — top billed, only on screen for minutes, and a nightmare to work with… but another performance for the ages as the rambling, insane, but insightful, Colonel Kurtz.

    Best Supporting Character
    A Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination rewarded Robert Duvall for his turn as the commander of a helicopter unit, Lt. Col. Kilgore. More than that, though, was true immortality in the form of the movie’s most famous quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

    Memorable Quote
    Colonel Lucas: “When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.”
    Willard: “Terminate the Colonel?”
    General Corman: “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”
    Civilian: “Terminate, with extreme prejudice.”

    Memorable Scene
    The sound of unseen helicopters circle. The Doors playing. A pretty forest… which explodes into flame, under the barrage of a napalm attack. One of the most iconic opening scenes.

    Technical Wizardry
    Apocalypse Now was one of the films that pioneered the creation of surround sound, now the industry standard. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in that opening scene, with the helicopters circling the room.

    Making of
    “My movie is not about Vietnam, my movie is Vietnam.” Apocalypse Now was a notoriously troubled shoot, for all kinds of reasons, from an uncooperative Brando, to Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to the cast and crew’s copious drug use… Originally scheduled to shoot for six weeks, it ended up filming for 16 months, and took nearly three years to edit.

    Awards
    The original version won 2 Oscars and 2 BAFTAs, and was nominated for 6 more Oscars and 7 more BAFTAs. In 2002, the Redux was nominated for 7 World Stunt Awards.

    What the Critics Said
    “this might be the most audience-friendly art-house film ever made, and that’s where the sheer majesty of Coppola’s daredevil balancing act comes into true focus. Coppola’s art is stripped of pretension; what lies on screen may as well be Coppola’s — and probably several other peoples’ — heart, laid bare for all to see, somehow expressed through arguably the most populist of all mediums. It may be messy, but it’s also vivaciously alive.” — Rob Humanick, Slant

    Score: 93%

    What the Public Say
    “The most critically acclaimed movie of 2001 was made 22 years ago… The new material isn’t entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive… But Redux’s virtues far outweigh its flaws. Apocalypse Now in any version remains one of the richest, most extravagant moviegoing experiences of my life.” — Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer

    Verdict

    The first (and, indeed, last) time I watched Apocalypse Now was shortly after the Redux version had been released, when Francis Ford Coppola was busy proclaiming it was the only version that would be made available ever again. That didn’t last, of course. Adding some 49 minutes of footage to the praised theatrical version, Redux divides viewers and critics on whether the extensions make a classic even better or just dilute it. If there’s a consensus, it’s that in either version this is a great movie. I’ve never got round to the original cut to compare for myself, so it’s the longer one that makes my list. My favourite quote about it comes from Danny Boyle: “It’s imperfect; which every film should be.”

    #4 will be… the 13th.

    Blue Velvet (1986)

    2014 #35
    David Lynch | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Blue VelvetBefore he brought the disquieting underbelly of small-town America to television audiences with Twin Peaks — and revolutionised the medium in the process — auteur David Lynch subjected cinemagoers to its perversions in this 1986 cult masterpiece, the first cohesive expression of concepts, themes and motifs (and cast members) that would inform the rest of his career.

    Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, home from college to visit his hospitalised father when he discovers a severed human ear in a field (as you do) and, unable to resist playing private eye, gets drawn into a bizarre web that includes a burgeoning romance with Laura Dern’s high school student, a twisted sexual relationship with Isabella Rosselini’s trapped nightclub singer, and, most famously, Dennis Hopper, whose character and performance invites descriptors like “creepy” and “perverted” but transcends such notions to the point of their obsolescence.

    There’s a mystery plot to tie things together, but it’s not really Lynch’s point: by the end, things that would be The Big Twist in other movies are almost glossed over; present because they’re needed for clarity, but not what Lynch wants to focus on. The film is heavy with symbolism, although for once you don’t need to be a genius to spot the major signifiers: it opens with a shot of a lovely suburban lawn, but moves closer until underneath it we see a swarming nest of nasty bugs. I was always led to believe Blue Velvet was about the secrets lurking behind small-town America’s white picket fences, and parts like that opener suggest such a reading.

    Lynchian love triangleBut… is it, really? The white-picket-fence-dwellers are pretty clean; it’s the people inhabiting the scuzzy apartment blocks and industrial estates nearby who are the problem. Those characters are as corrupt and degenerate as their abodes might lead those with regular prejudices to suspect. It’s a less subversive point of view, and I don’t think it’s what Lynch was actually going for. Anyway, the entirety of his moviemaking technique is so outré that you can’t help but find the whole twisted nonetheless.

    Exposing the (sometimes-)reality behind the perfect veneer of American suburbia was not something all audiences at the time were prepared to embrace, though a couple of decades or so of emulation — not to mention the odd news story exposing reality — have led such a perspective to be less controversial. Yet the extreme ways Lynch employs to depict this nastiness mean the film hasn’t lost any of its impact. Back in 2001, critic Philip French wrote that “the film is wearing well and has attained a classic status without becoming respectable or losing its sense of danger.” Another 13 years on and I think that quote is still on the money. Blue Velvet is a film that features on respectable “Best Ever” lists (it’s in the top 100 of Sight & Sound’s latest, for instance, tied with Blade Runner (amongst others)), but is still quite shocking to watch. It’s not so much that it’s sexually or violently graphic — though, in places, it is a little — but the mood and feeling Lynch evokes is so darn unsettling and weird.

    Each to their own“It’s not a movie for everybody,” Lynch himself said (to Chris Rodley for the book Lynch on Lynch). “Some people really dug it. Others thought it was disgusting and sick. And of course it is, but it has two sides. The power of good and the power of darkness.” He’s not wrong. Despite the acceptance of it in some mainstream circles (arguably, you don’t get much more “mainstream” than the Best Director Oscar nomination Lynch received), Blue Velvet remains the very definition of a cult film: some will (and do) love it unreservedly; some will (and do) hate it with a passion; and some, like me, will look it and kind of go, “…hm.” The more I read about it, though, the more I warm to what Lynch was tilting at. Given time, and inevitable (though, knowing me, a long time coming) re-views, I can only see my appreciation growing.

    4 out of 5

    Blue Velvet was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery and the Missing Pieces Blu-ray box set is a surefire contender for “release of the year” even before it is released — which is tomorrow, Tuesday 29th July, pretty much worldwide.