Pictures At A Revolution
By Mark Harris
Published by The Penguin Press (2008)
Before I started doling out caffeine to the fine citizens of Mason (and the fine citizens who pass through Mason) I was, for lack of a better word or words, a filmmaker/videographer. Which was cool, since I have a film degree (which was almost worthless until I needed kindling for a fire one night and it filled in admirably) and all. Anyway, I guess you could say I like movies. And the movie I like most is The Graduate. There are many reasons for this but a viewing of the movie for a history of film class clinched it for me (the cool part about film school is that your “lab” consists of going to the movies). See, there’s a scene in the movie where Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman) is floating in a pool (as he’s done just about all summer) and his father asks him what his plans are now that he’s graduated, “Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?” In reply, Ben simply deadpans, “You got me.” After the line was uttered I, along with everyone else in the auditorium, erupted in laughter because we all shared a common knowledge: like Ben, we were all twenty-odd years old with no clue what to do after college. For me no film has ever captured that portion of life better.
Lucky for me then that The Graduate is one of five films Mark Harris profiles and dissects for Pictures At A Revolution. The other films happen to be the other four best picture nominees for 1967: Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle. What Harris discovered and brilliantly illustrates is that these five films represent a proverbial line in the sand between old Hollywood (Dr. Doolittle) and the rising auteur driven new Hollywood (The Graduate). With hindsight it is easy to simply pinpoint these films and that year as the start of a cinematic revolution. But like most things in history it’s not really that simple. Many things had to converge for the revolution to take place and very rarely, if ever, is their one key moment or item that separates “then” from “now.” And for me this is where Pictures At A Revolution really soars.
Harris starts Pictures a good five years before any of these films were released. This is critical because, one, it makes for really good storytelling and two, it shows that the gears of revolution are already in motion. The difference between the standard studio picture (Dr. Doolittle) getting up and running and that of a film like Bonnie and Clyde is amazing. Dr. Doolittle got the backing because The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady were huge financial successes. So the studio tried to piggyback that success on to yet another monstrous musical. This was made even more of a no-brainer (to the studio at least) when they were able to attach Rex Harrison as the film’s lead. Contrast that with the long, arduous task of bringing Bonnie and Clyde to the screen: basically two dudes (David Newman and Robert Benton) in New York with little or no Hollywood connections who were infatuated with the French new wave (Godard and Truffaut in particular) and had an idea about turning a somewhat sympathetic eye on two depression era gangster wannabe’s. The histories of the five films are fascinating stuff (Dustin Hoffman cast as a blond Californian?) in their own right. Great anecdotes abound as Harris had unprecedented access to all of the parties involved (unless they were dead of course). These anecdotes are often hilarious (Rex Harrison was a drunk jerk albeit a funny drunk jerk), sometimes moving (Spencer Tracy’s last scenes in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and some deeply personal (the trials of being Sidney Poitier while filming In the Heat of the Night).
Most of my favorite films or novels share one big thing in common: they present a small, personal story but in the telling of that tale a portrait of a larger event or era surrounding that story emerges. In many ways that’s the difference between the studied films here. The problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is that it seems like the filmmakers tried to make a movie about race relations instead of a movie about a black man and a white woman falling in love. Harris doesn’t make that mistake with Pictures At A Revolution. He tells a specific story about five films and via that storyline sheds light on an entire movement and an entire era. That is storytelling and writing at its best.