Silver Mining

Digging for the genuine article at the Telluride Film Festival's 25th anniversary celebration

In 1966, Lee Marvin was shooting The Dirty Dozen in England when Boorman approached him about appearing in the director's first American movie. Marvin liked the lead character enough to say he'd do Point Blank on one condition: they throw the script out the window. In seconds, the pages went fluttering to the ground from Marvin's seventh-floor hotel room. Without committees offering script notes or advance plans for marketing, Boorman was soon jetting to San Francisco to make the movie. Boorman testified that a quarter-century ago, even when the conditions of mounting a project were comparatively conventional, they were at least more casual and based on trust than they arein 1998.

"On Deliverance," he said, "I wrote a draft of the script, I showed it to [Warners production chief] John Calley, and he said, 'Sure, let's do it.' " Executives such as Calley gave budding auteurs like Boorman the idea that "directors were in charge -- and that's not so today. Now it's the studios first; then the stars; then the producers; then the directors." The movies' great leaps forward have always occurred when directors have been allowed to seize control of their art.

It's the impersonality of the current movie landscape that directors like Boorman find daunting and dispiriting. What's changed the reality of movies, he says, is pictures being sent out with thousands of prints and insidious advertising: "Now you're asked, 'What's the TV commercial going to be?' "

The age of making a few prints of a film and gradually "rolling it out" is gone. 2001: A Space Odyssey, "which opened to mixed reviews and didn't do well until the potheads discovered it," today would never have a chance to catch on. In 1998, the model for success is Titanic, opening on 6,300 screens inundated with wall-to-wall Celine Dion.

Michael Ritchie, who last displayed his off-the-cuff insouciance when he made The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) for HBO, backed up Boorman. Waxing nostalgic for the wide-open '60s and '70s, he gave Easy Rider (1969) the credit for forcing studio bosses to face their confusion over how to capture the baby boomer audience. For the answers, the executives turned to tyro directors, who got the chance to make their statements sans wheedling or compromise. Even with golden boy Robert Redford in the role, Ritchie said, "The Candidate could win the election but lose his soul." In those days, filmmakers gauged audience reactions by observation and instinct, not elaborate pseudo-scientific testing, so it was easier for them to get away with unconventional structures and unsympathetic central characters.

The filmmakers agreed that freedom from formula and from second-guessing made mainstream movie art possible. Zaentz said he tried to pattern his producing principles on those of United Artists, a studio run like a distribution center for independents. Ritchie added that "negative pickup" deals -- in which banks finance independent movies based on studios' agreement to buy them for distribution -- allowed the other studios to act like United Artists. They'd still get approval of "major elements," like script and lead casting, but they left the filmmaking to the filmmakers. Warners, for example, never saw a foot of dailies on The Candidate.

Bogdanovich gave credit for what Telluride dubbed "the Silver Age" to a renewed critical appreciation of directors in the '60s and the example of the French New Wave. He sounded one of the evening's last pure euphoric notes when he said the Americans "took confidence from the French." He then said something absolutely salient: that the directors' era fell apart when some of them "proved not to be infallible." After all, there are more flops and outright fiascoes on average studio slates than there are in the resumes of most working directors. With rare exceptions, like Cimino's Heaven's Gate, studios don't change hands over one or even two controversies or disasters. On the other hand, from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom to Coppola's One From the Heart, critical or financial debacles have short-circuited or re-rerouted directors' whole careers.

Bob Rafelson was one of the focal points of '60s-70s ferment, not just as a director but also as a partner in Raybert and then BBS Productions (for which Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider and Bogdanovich The Last Picture Show). In a pre-interview in the Telluride Times-Journal, Rafelson attacked the play-it-safe mental-ity of contemporary Hollywood, the deterioration of art houses, and the fecklessness of filmmakers who mount indie productions as calling cards to the studios. "The '60s are gone, the '70s are gone," he moaned in print.

But in person Rafelson backed off. He failed to articulate what was special about the most influential American movies of the '60s and '70s -- that, like the American films of Orson Welles, they united an artist's sensibility with Hollywood savvy, craft, and showmanship. He depicted himself and his friends as a bunch of guys who had to find their own way to work in movies because no one else would employ them. He insisted that they were strictly the fortunate beneficiaries of a golden historical moment. To illustrate his point, he attempted to list all the social-cultural landmarks of the fecund year of 1968. When it came to writers he blanked after John Updike (who published his radically sexual novel Couples in '68), and asked Buck Henry, "Who else?"

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