Underground Cinema: The 1960s

The  Trip As the Vietnam War expanded and America's "baby-boom" generation came of age, the underground was superseded by the "counterculture" - a youthful amalgam of radical politics, oriental (or occult) mysticism, "liberated" sexuality, hallucinogenic drugs, communal life-styles, and rock 'n' roll that was sufficiently wide-spread (and even organized) to see itself as a movement.

From the onset, the counterculture was a powerful force in the marketplace. Beginning with independent rock documentaries (Don't Look Back, You Are What You Eat, Monterey Pop), post-Blow Up evocations of "swinging" London, and appropriately, as we will see - American International drive-in flicks (The Trip, Wild in the Streets, Psych-Out), youth-oriented films flooded the market. Within two years, The Graduate had been followed by I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, Three in the Attic, Skidoo, Last Summer, Easy Rider, Chastity, Alice's Restaurant, Hail, Hero, and countless others. Mainstream releases (Chappaqua, Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Head, Yellow Submarine, Midnight Cowboy, Medium Cool) assimilated the techniques and themes of avant-garde films, while quasi-underground comedies like Brian De Palma's Greetings and Robert Downey's Putney Swope were considerable commercial hits.

Among the counterculture intelligentsia, the fragmented pop-political meditations of Jean-Luc Godard reached the acme of their prestige. Meanwhile, ever inventive Hollywood was experimenting with suburban wife-swapping sitcoms, homosexual comedies of manners, and even an elaborate biopic of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.

Perhaps in response to the combination of porn sleeze and counterculture commercialism (not to mention the escalating social chaos of American life), the film avant-garde retreated from the populism of the early and mid-sixties into a rigorous involvement with issues of film form. Between 1966 and 1971, many of the most vital and innovative works of the New American Cinema - such so called "structural" films as Tony Conrad's The Flicker, Michael Snow's Wavelength, Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, as well as those of younger men like Paul Sharits and Ernie Gehr - were austere explorations of film's specific qualities as a medium, closer to art-world minimalism than underground movies.

Andy Warhol aside, there were two other major avant-gardists who were temperamentally suited to address the new hippie subculture. However, Stan Brakhage's intensely subjective, visionary home movies proved too demanding for the youth audience, while Kenneth Anger was unable to finish Lucifer Rising, his occult ode to the Age of Aquarius, when his original footage was stolen in San Francisco by Bobby Beausoleil (a future associate of Charles Manson).

The counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970: Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, and Nicolas Roeg's Performance raised the youth film to new heights of artistic pretension: The Strawberry Statement and a half dozen other visions of campus revolt escaped from Hollywood; Woodstock and Gimme Shelter established the opposite poles of the ecstatic rock documentary; Federico Fellini's Satyricon displaced the counterculture to the pre-Christian era and remade Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures in Roman drag; Michael Sarne's Myra Breckinridge repackaged "camp" for the American heartland; exploitation films took on the perverse topicality of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and John Avildsen's Joe; Paul Morrissey's Trash apotheosized the underground comedy.

Still, the "Movement" which had first captured national media attention during San Francisco's 1967 "summer of love" was already in retreat; its momentum halted by the bullets of Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State in the spring of l970. In its waning days, however, the counterculture was to seize upon an obscurely mystical and grotesquely violent film by a peripatetic forty-one-year-old Latin American avantgardist and, in so doing, invent the ritual of the midnight movie. The film was called El Topo, and its director was called Alexandro (Alejandro) Jodorowsky.

See also:

Alice In Acidland | Roger Corman's The Wild Angels | Maya Deren | The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds | Films @ Blowup | Mantis In Lace | Jonas Mekas | Mods & Rockers Films | Riot On Sunset Strip | The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus | Jack Smith | Tonite Let's All Make Love In London | Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls poster | 1968

El  Topo

Copyright © Hoberman, J., and J. Rosenbaum. (From Midnight Movies. NY: Harper & Row, '83.) Reprinted with permission.

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