YOUNG DE PALMA "DRAWING DIRECT PARALLELS BETWEEN KENNEDY'S DEATH & AMERICA'S OVERSEAS QUAGMIRE"
"In 2016," Adam Nayman explains at The Ringer, "the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I’m introducing a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliffhanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured funhouse mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions."
The second part in the series, "States of the Union, Part 2: A Failure to Communicate," covers 1964-1967, "as Lyndon B. Johnson took office—just after JFK’s assassination and just before the Vietnam War." Even so, Nayman finds space in there to touch on Brian De Palma's 1968 film, Greetings:
Both box office hits, neither In the Heat of the Night nor Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was necessarily an explicit shot across Johnson’s bow: For that, you’d need to survey the margins of American moviemaking, where subversives were marshalling a belligerent resistance to LBJ’s efforts. The president’s central role in forming the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination—and identify Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone shooter—was critiqued in Emile de Antonio’s 1967 essay-documentary Rush to Judgment, an adaptation of a book by lawyer Mark Lane that stands at the epicenter of subsequent conspiracy theories. De Antonio, the son of Italian immigrants who attended Harvard alongside JFK, would grow to be a thorn in the side of two consecutive U.S. presidents, lambasting Johnson via selectively edited clips in 1968’s scabrous In the Year of the Pig, which castigated American involvement in Vietnam, and 1971’s Millhouse: A White Comedy, which the filmmaker claimed earned him an (unofficial) place on Richard Nixon’s famed enemies list. In tackling JFK’s death and Vietnam, de Antonio distinguished himself as a genuinely contentious documentarian, adopting the fragmented, fractious filmmaking language of the French New Wave and applying it to his home turf.
Occupying an even more formally audacious space—and drawing direct parallels between Kennedy’s death and America’s overseas quagmire—was the young Brian De Palma, whose 1968 comedy Greetings was styled as a faux-vérité picaresque about three draft dodgers (costarring an impossibly young, handsome, and game-for-anything Robert De Niro) traipsing around New York City, hooking up, pulling scams, and getting off on their own voyeurism. The film opens with television footage of Johnson proudly addressing the country, proclaiming “I’m not saying you’ve never had it so good, but that is true, isn’t it?”—a dubious claim of prosperity rebuked by the remainder of De Palma’s wild counterculture farce. In the film’s incredible centerpiece sequence, a conspiracy aficionado played by Gerrit Graham pores over a photo spread of the Zapruder film and traces the trajectory of the fatal bullet on his half-conscious girlfriend’s body, a bit of choreography conflating sex and violence (and physics and pornography) in such a full-frontal manner that the movie was branded by the MPAA with a dreaded X rating. In a way, De Palma’s broad, politicized version of sketch comedy anticipated Saturday Night Live by a decade even as its style and tone were closer to the contemporaneous provocations of Jean-Luc Godard, who skewered Johnson and his policies in 1967’s La Chinoise, about a group of young Maoist revolutionaries plotting in Paris.
Already ensconced as the great modern auteur of French cinema by 1967, Godard had been lobbied by Warren Beatty to direct his upcoming gangster-Western hybrid Bonnie and Clyde; he declined, and Arthur Penn—a devotee of the French New Wave with Hollywood-style chops—stepped in and delivered one of the most influential American movies of the era, if not of all time. No less than the staunch hero of Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde’s namesakes (glamorously inhabited by Beatty and the stellar, statuesque Faye Dunaway) took aim at the status quo, albeit as career criminals rather than misunderstood martyrs. What gave the film its power—and marked it as a piece of work closer in spirit to Godard, De Palma, and de Antonio than to In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—was its reluctance to flatter its audience.
No sooner has the viewer come to accept the Barrows’ thefts as bloodless, Robin Hood–style high jinks than the senseless, bloody death of a bystander recalibrates our moral compass; by the time the movie reaches its indelible finale, our judgment is once again rerouted by the excessiveness of the pair’s execution by an FBI death squad, a blood-soaked set piece collapsing the gap between Psycho’s shower scene (quoted via Dunaway’s desperate reaching out at the moment of her death) and the Zapruder film, with a little bit of Fail Safe in the form of birds taking flight right before the shots are fired. If it’s possible for a film’s ending to feel at once ambiguous and definitive, Bonnie and Clyde leaves the viewer feeling torn apart without necessarily knowing why. Its mix of lyricism, brutality, and ambivalence would seep into other landmark titles of the late 1960s, as the impending changing of the political guard only deepened the ideological fault lines at the center of American life—and cinema.