Silver Mining

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

"I wasn't listening," Henry replied. It was a moment worthy of Henry's best bits in the early years of Saturday Night Live, but Henry's performance went downhill from there. He, too, was intent on practicing the Higher Cynicism. His main message was that "everyone proceeds by accident and luck." He contended that Boorman could make his '60s and '70s hits today, though his only reason was that studios still need product to fill theaters.

And Henry appeared to have survivor's guilt all mixed up with survivor's glee. He recalled being part of the New Hollywood at the 1967 Oscars, which pitted Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate against Old Hollywood's In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Dolittle, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; he remembered that none of the new boys got to stand up very much, but that since their movies were such big moneymakers, the studio heads figured, "Somebody knew something. That was their first mistake."

Yet even the jokey Henry and the hipper-than-thou Rafelson couldn't help supporting the argument that in those days unknown filmmakers had unique opportunities to make personal movies -- and distribute them -- on a grand scale. Rafelson and his partners financed Easy Rider out of their belief in Dennis Hopper. Rafelson remembers showing the film to 25 Columbia Pictures executives on Madison Avenue and having just one of them -- a "young marketing guy" -- stay to the end. It was only after the movie won an award at Cannes (for best film by a new director) and arrived back home "doused with vintage wine" that the studio began paying attention to it.

Bogdanovich, who befriended older directors like Ford and Welles long before he became a luminary himself, said that Welles hated the script to The Last Picture Show. Welles later asked BBS Productions partner Bert Schneider why he let Bogdanovich make the movie. "Peter liked the script," Schneider replied, "and I believed in Peter." This anecdote, with its merger of old legendry and new energy, and its evidence of faith in an individual talent, summed up what was most hopeful about that bygone era.

Henry decried the way the broadcast media determine the conditions in which moviegoers respond to movies. "By the time the audience sees a movie they know too much about it," he complained. In particular he blamed puff coverage for studio-backed product on shows like Entertainment Tonight. "Nobody used to know grosses, nobody knew how successful a picture was," Ritchie chimed in. "People thought The Candidate was a big hit because it did well in a few major cities." There was nothing like the we're-No.-1 advertising that tries to translate a first-place showing at the box office into an art-and-entertainment victory.

Ritchie named another specific factor for the taming of mainstream American movies: the collapse of "blind bidding." This practice allowed studios to force exhibitors into booking films they hadn't seen -- an aesthetic boon for cutting-edge filmmakers, and a legal nightmare for distributors (hence its demise).

Ritchie was like Rafelson without the jadedness. As he admitted in a follow-up chat with Monte Hellman the next day, he thought that the creative explosion in American filmmaking couldn't be separated from the cultural revolution. Before '67, Ritchie noted, exploitation filmmakers tapped young audiences by appealing to their taste in music. After '67, the revolt of college kids and dropouts against the Vietnam War, their (albeit temporary) urge to undermine the conventions of middle-class "success," and their dabbling in psychedelia led filmmakers to blaze trails in volatile new terrain. Ritchie prodded Hellman to explain that the biker films he'd edited for Roger Corman were subculture sensations that paved the way for Easy Rider. What emerged from this pop cauldron were amalgams as canny as Barry Shear's Wild in the Streets (1968). At the first crest of the youth culture, it imagined a singer/pusher becoming president when the voting age is dropped to 14. (Ritchie cited the success of the 1970 Woodstock documentary as another wake-up call to geriatric studios.)

Ritchie, who had rotten luck with his finest pictures (his small classic Smile drew tiny audiences), said he began to feel a change when executives started making suggestions like renaming The Bad News Bears (1976) because they didn't want "bad" in the title, or proposing that the misfit little-leaguers win the climactic game instead of losing (but gaining self- respect). By the '80s, questioning authority, celebrating outsiders, and breaking the rules were anathema; the dominance of formula had become near-totalitarian. It wasn't enough for a movie's villain, or even a mere antagonist, to be defeated: "Your bad guys had to be publicly humiliated." That went not just for a Rambo flick, but for a Bad News Bears knockoff like Ritchie's own 1986 high school football comedy Wildcats. To Ritchie, the key evidence that we're in a trigger-happy culture lies not in the proliferation of high-tech shoot'em-ups, but in this "need for vengeance."

Even when the conversation gets gloomy, the past-present-future nature of Telluride can put movie-lovers into a rueful sort of high. The festival's historical prism lets you see how life-giving energy sources can hop from era to era -- as they do from The Informer to The General.

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