Peter Bart: Forgotten Classics And Sixties Softies Revived Amid Pandemic Purgatory

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Peter Bart
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Now that we’re entering Year 2 of our pandemic purgatory, here’s at least one positive takeaway: We’re coming to terms with our past — our movie past, that is. Two films circa 1951 and 1966 represent a personal case in point. Miracle In Milan (1951) starts with a lost baby and an operatic cop, but it’s touching and absurdist. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) delivers an empathetic protagonist with a Trumpian addiction to violence that seems relevant.

The fact that films like these are being re-visited and debated tells us something about our post-viral culture: A vacancy sign hangs over what passes for the movie scene. But viewing classic movies demands qualities I am deficient in –- patience, for example.

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Pre-streamer filmmakers were leisurely in their pacing, which by today’s standards seems gratifying, yet soporific. “Leave lots of string between the pearls,” Billy Wilder used to advise his acolytes, which translates into more time for narrative and ambience. Filmmakers of his generation tried to base their movies on plays or novels rather than story pitches, as in the streamer era — thus they often reached too high; but at least reached.

Critics lately (having little else to do) have been celebrating films released 50 years ago, from Midnight Cowboy to Five Easy Pieces. They even summoned up a retro sob on Valentine’s Day for Love Story.

As revenge, I decided to re-engage with Harold & Maude, also after a 50-year absence. Wallowing in the ’60s, only Ruth Gordon would be sharing weed with her teenage lover, Bud Cort, while Cat Stevens sings “Where Will the Children Play?” in the background.

Full disclosure: I was present at the creation of H&M, even bought the script by Colin Higgins, then a pool cleaner. And set up the meeting between Hal Ashby, the director, and his soon-to-be-best friend, Cat Stevens, who was really Steve Georgiou, soon to become Yusaf Islam. It was one of those meetings that wouldn’t Zoom: Cat sang to Hal who read poetry to Cat. From this unlikely encounter two unplayable film roles somehow became a sixties soufflé.

I wasn’t on hand for The Graduate, but again much of the movie’s magic emerged from mistakes or inadvertencies. In his excellent new biography of Mike Nichols, Mark Harris reminds us that the director kept warning Anne Bancroft to be chilly to her boyfriend, played by Dustin Hoffman, who, in turn, was instructed to be Waspish, but “Jewish inside.” The Graduate itself was an edgy movie that fought its romantic plot, which itself reflected the personality of Nichols – a then-neophyte filmmaker who maintained a state of war both with himself and those he worked with (Jack Warner tossed him out of the editing room on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

Deftly avoiding the conceits of the ’60s, some pandemic escapees have turned to more orthodox cures for ennui. Singin’ in the Rain endures as a sort of cinematic chicken soup — a remedy as much as a movie. For that matter, so does Duck Soup. On the other hand, fervid cineastes find comfort by revisiting and dozing off at Palme d’Or winners – Winter Sleep (2014) being the classic example.

To some, the 3-hour, 48-minute Lawrence of Arabia is equally demanding. Still, columnist Maureen Dowd, a movie buff, admires the scene in which Peter O’Toole, draped in his Bedouin robes, describes the act of killing. “I enjoyed it,” he acknowledges, which, to Dowd, is reminiscent of our past President.

In contrast, it was Francis Coppola, a cineaste of different background, who put me onto Vittorio De Sica’s overlooked classic Miracle in Milan. During the lockdown the filmmaker’s eclectic menu for his family ranged from A Place in the Sun to Empire of the Sun. The comforting darkness of a movie theater still requires some artistic sunlight, he reasons.

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