Pictures at a Revolution (2 page)

PART ONE
ONE

O
ne afternoon in the spring of 1963, Robert Benton went to the New Yorker Theater to see François Truffaut's
Jules and Jim.
It was not his first time; it may have been his tenth or twelfth. Benton, then thirty years old and the art director of
Esquire
magazine, was using the movie both to nurse a romantic injury—the painful end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Gloria Steinem
1
—and to indulge a passion for European films, particularly those of the French New Wave, which was becoming something like a common language among young, smart, city-dwelling moviegoers.

Jules and Jim
, with its delicate love triangle, its studied disregard for the moral and narrative strictures of Hollywood filmmaking (Truffaut himself called it “deliberately boring”),
2
and its equal doses of hopelessness and romanticism, was a perfect choice for Benton—and it's unlikely that he was the only one to travel that May afternoon up from midtown Manhattan to Dan Talbot's theater on Broadway and 88
th
Street so he could luxuriate in one more encounter with it. The movie, Truffaut's third, had opened in New York more than a year earlier to initial business that was only modest, but its cult was devoted, and the film was still holding on, playing one week on the Upper West Side, then a few days in the East Village on Avenue B, then a week on Bleecker Street. The deep chord of longing the picture sounded in many moviegoers was understandable—emotional ambiguity and grown-up sexuality were virtually black market items in American movies of the time. And
Jules and Jim
's calculatedly casual visual aesthetic, its diffused light and gentle nods to flickering silent-film imagery, held particular interest for Benton as a magazine designer who always had his eye on the next new thing, particularly when it was an unexpected synthesis of old things.

But even if Benton hadn't happened to be so personally taken with Truffaut's style, he would have had plenty of other places to go that day. The last couple of years had brought an almost unimaginable wealth of world cinema to the United States, starting, always, in New York City and then moving west. Federico Fellini's
La Dolce Vita
—an immense exploding flashbulb of a movie—and Michelangelo Antonioni's
L'Avventura—
stone-faced, elliptical, unsolvable—had arrived within weeks of each other; Antonioni's
La Notte
and
L'Eclisse
followed quickly, and that spring, Fellini's
8 1/2
was just weeks from opening. The success of
The Magnificent Seven
, the American remake of Akira Kurosawa's
Seven Samurai
, had spurred the release of five more of the director's movies—
Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo
, and
Sanjuro
—in the previous eighteen months, and despite mostly condescending dismissals from Bosley Crowther in
The New York Times
, some of them were finding audiences. People were still talking about Jean-Luc Godard's
Breathless
—and going to see it repeatedly—two years after its U.S. debut. The options were so rich and varied: The mysteries of Alain Resnais's
Last Year at Marienbad
, the almost punitive austerity of Ingmar Bergman's
Through a Glass Darkly
and
Winter Light
, the begrimed, rough-hewn carnality thrown onto the screen from England in
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
and
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
If Benton hadn't had to get back to
Esquire
's offices that afternoon, where his colleague and comrade David Newman, a staff writer and editor, was waiting for him, he could have stayed at the New Yorker for the second feature, Luis Bunuel's
Viridiana
, a portrait of a novice in the Catholic Church that was a long way from Audrey Hepburn in
The Nun's Story.

Whatever destination Benton had selected when he chose to sneak away from work that day (a decision that wasn't hard, since
Esquire
was a place where talent could excuse many varieties of midafternoon misbehavior), it's almost a certainty that he would not have ended up watching a Hollywood movie. In the early 1960s, the American studio film had bottomed out: Even many of its own manufacturers and purveyors felt they had dragged the medium to a creative low point in the sound era. “It wasn't just that we were sick of the system,” recalls the director Arthur Penn. “At that point, the system was sick of itself.”
3
And with good reason: Though a handful of movies, as ever, either transcended convention or executed it with exhilarating skill, what Hollywood was primarily invested in turning out in 1963 were dozens of war movies and westerns (generally with aging stars and increasingly threadbare and recycled plots), biblical spectaculars of great scale and diminishing returns, musicals with an ever more strident sense of nostalgia, tinny, sexually repressive romantic comedies, and huge, unseaworthy battleships like
Cleopatra, The Longest Day
, and the remake of
Mutiny on the Bounty.
Many of these films would draw audiences, and every year, at least a couple of them would get Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, in stoic recognition of their bloat and expenditure. But nobody, not even their makers, was particularly inclined to defend them as creative enterprises.

When a filmmaker who was considered serious-minded would take on an adult subject (usually smuggled into Hollywood in the respectable packaging of a Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman play or a novel by John O'Hara), his work would be subjected to the censorious standards of the Production Code, which had barely changed in thirty years, and would end up stripped of meaning and sense. When the results arrived on screen—a
Butterfield 8
that was not quite about a prostitute, a remake of
The Children's Hour
that, twenty-five years after the first time Hollywood tried to adapt it, still couldn't refer to lesbianism, an adaptation of
Elmer Gantry
that had to shield timid sensibilities from the full content of a book that people had been reading since 1927—smart critics groaned, audiences applauded the actors and forgot the movies quickly, and the directors themselves expressed impotent disgust. “If you go to France nowadays…you are constantly involved in passionate discussions about the creative side of moviemaking,” said the veteran Fred Zinnemann. “Here in Hollywood we are going in circles. We have moved into a trap, a self-imposed, self-induced trap with our dependence on best-sellers, hit plays, remakes, and rehashes.”
4

As it turned out, there was no need for Zinnemann or anyone else to go to France; the French, and the conversations he was envying, were coming to America in the form of the movies themselves. Godard and Truffaut had both written for
Cahiers du Cinéma
—Truffaut's reviews in particular were both deep appreciations and youthful, swaggeringly belligerent manifestos—and the movies they made were themselves implicit acts of film criticism. And ironically, if Zinnemann had gone to France in 1963, the conversation he would have heard was that the French New Wave was now
passé
, and the
cinematheques
he would have visited in Paris were filled with old work by Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and underappreciated Americans like Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann,
5
whose movies had been used to lay the cornerstones of the
auteur
theory that was becoming central to any movie discussion in the early 1960s. Those discussions filled the air at every cocktail party. Were Bergman's solemn, unsensual new movies a hermetic retreat from innovation or signs pointing toward a new formal rigor? Was
Marienbad
solvable, or was the whole point not even to try? Had Antonioni left Fellini in the dust with his defiance of narrative convention, and was he the cold-blooded moralist he seemed, perversely, to claim he was? People who cared about culture armed themselves for an evening out with an arsenal of stances, opinions, and positions that thickened the air as fast as cigarette smoke. Ten years earlier, the topic would have been literature or theater; these days, movies filled the agenda. “When
La Dolce Vita
and
L'Avventura
opened at about the same time, there were fights!” says Newman's widow, screenwriter Leslie Newman. “There were
Dolce Vita
people and
L'Avventura
people and you were one or the other. The average American movie at that time we didn't even go see, except for revivals. We were totally snobs! American movies meant Doris Day and Rock Hudson.”
6

But a hope that the studios could eventually incorporate some elements of European cinema and the French New Wave was very much on the minds of a new generation of directors trained largely in New York television production and theater—Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet. And the possibility that American movies could, one day soon, break the shackles of old-Hollywood thinking excited Benton and David Newman as well. At
Esquire
, they made a slightly Mutt-and-Jeff-ish pair, Benton low-key, precise, bespectacled, and single and Newman impulsive, hyperkinetic, unruly, and already, at twenty-five, a husband and father. Newman had arrived in New York from the University of Michigan a couple of years earlier. Despite their differences in temperament, they made an exceptionally effective professional team. “He'd ask me to design a story he was writing, I'd bring him in to write the text for something I was working on,” says Benton.
7
Their friendship became collegial and then personal. And it was fueled, as much as anything, by their compatible tastes.

By 1963, Harold Hayes was turning
Esquire
into the repository of a free-swinging style of writing that eventually became known as New Journalism. It was a place where Norman Mailer could serialize his novel
An American Dream
, a home for Tom Wolfe, a reporter for the
New York Herald Tribune
who had just started publishing stories in the magazine that year, and a venue in which Gay Talese was reinventing the magazine profile with long takes on director Joshua Logan and the boxer Floyd Patterson that, in their language, their shaping of scenes, and their sense of drama, felt cinematic in precisely the way American films of the time didn't. But beyond its status as a home for influential prose,
Esquire
, under Hayes, was becoming the monthly exemplification of a way of thinking about what it liked to call “today's man”: urban, sophisticated, unshy about sexual appetite and a love of “the good life,” but also cynical, suspicious of cant, and contemptuous of mediocrity, conformity, and 1950 s-style groupthink (not, however, of hyperbole). The scent of tobacco, Scotch, and heady after-hours arguments wafted off every page. And on many of those pages, style
was
content, which meant that a collaboration between someone with as keen and witty a sense of presentation as Benton and a writer as sharp as Newman (together, they were largely responsible for the look and tone of the magazine's famous Dubious Achievement awards) was bound to be fruitful.
8

Benton and Newman had jobs to do at
Esquire
, but also time to spare and energy to burn. In 1963, the two of them spent many afternoons and evenings mapping out their own manifesto for the magazine: a massive, sweeping piece they planned to call “The New Sentimentality” that would define by brash dictum what was in and out, arriving and over, modern and hopelessly maudlin, in pop culture. “We were sort of bad kids,” says Benton. “Anything we could do to get attention, we did.”
9
On afternoons when their absence might go unnoticed or be justified with a relatively straight face as “research,” they would run over to the Museum of Modern Art, where their friend Peter Bogdanovich, who was helping to curate a six-month retrospective on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, would run the films for his friends at lunchtime. “We came away babbling, excited, thoroughly converted believers,” they wrote later. “There wasn't a day spent…that didn't include at least one discussion on what
he
would have done.”
10
Newman and Benton shared other tastes—an appetite for true-crime books, particularly John Toland's just published history of Depression-era outlaws,
The Dillinger Days
, and a ceaseless fascination with Godard and Truffaut (whose second movie,
Shoot the Piano Player
, was based on an American crime novel and had toyed knowingly with Hollywood gangster-film tropes).

The appendix to Toland's book made reference to two of the era's minor criminals, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Benton had grown up in the small East Texas town of Waxahachie, and their exploits—they were killed in 1934, when he was two—were more familiar to him than to Newman. “Everybody in Texas grew up with Bonnie and Clyde,” Benton says. “My father was at their funeral. You'd go to a Hallowe'en party as a kid and some boy would always be dressed as Clyde and some girl would be dressed as Bonnie. Nobody ever dressed up as Dillinger.”
11

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