Is there anything new left to say about the period of American film production from the late 1960s to the early 1980s?
This is the period that began with the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ and continued with its collapse under the weight of its own cinematic hubris and excess, bumped along considerably by the 1977 release of Star Wars, after which the blockbuster franchise, with its lucrative pre-sold merchandising deals, evolved into the majority of what now passes for the American film industry. Of course, this is just one facet of the story. Influencing this trajectory was Vietnam, the rise and fall of the counterculture, the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism.
To say something different about all of this is a tough task. But it is is precisely the aim of We are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon. That the book largely succeeds in its mission is due to a quality I initially found hard to define until I hit on a way to do so by way of a comparison. The book reminds me of the work of British documentary maker Adam Curtis, particularly his most recent effort, I Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. Constructed purely from BBC archival footage, with the addition of only his narration and a soundtrack, I Can’t Get You Out of My Head mined a huge amount of unknown, forgotten and subcultural history, events and people, to illuminate the hidden history of how we got from the hope of the 1960s to the hi tech, mass surveillance, atomised, market saturated world of today. An historical period in which we have never had more control over our individual identities but seemingly have never been less free and more unhappy.
Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso and Richard MacKenna take a similar approach. They search for, excavate and weave together the overt and deeply subcultural links, influences, events and coincidences, along with a wealth of political history and popular (and unpopular) culture into a coherent narrative that casts this thirty year period of American film in a somewhat different light. I would add that this is largely the tone of the material on the website We Are the Mutants that all three edit. This describes itself as ‘focusing on the history and analysis of Cold War-era popular and outsider culture, with a strong emphasis on speculative (sci-fi, fantasy, horror), genre, pulp, cult, occult, subculture, and anti-establishment media.’ The website, which is a must read (full disclosure – I have also contributed to it), has largely been in abeyance while they have been pulling together this book, and I fervently hope this it resumes normal transmission now that it is out.
We are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon comprises a series of chapters, written by the various authors, that pair two key but, on the surface at least, completely unrelated films. Each then goes on to examine them individually but also their linkages and influences, intentional and not (and as all good structuralists we known it doesn’t matter which). Hence Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is paired with Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970). Polanski’s film is discussed in terms of being a text around the assassination of presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy and the divisions that would eventually cleave America due to the rise of counterculture, and its various occult and spiritual manifestations. Bloody Mama is mined for what it says about what surely must be America’s public fascination number one of the late 1960s, Charles Manson. Both are also analysed in the context of the Vietnam War, which no surprisingly casts a long shadow over the entire book.
Grasso cleverly examines the 1968 dystopian comedy Wild in the Streets alongside Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park (1971) for insights into the debates over strategy between different factions of the late 1960s/early 1970s US left. In what was one of the stand-out chapters for me, Roberts discusses Harlan County U.S.A., a 1976 documentary about a bloody thirteen month strike by Kentucky coal miners in 1973, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to illuminate contemporaneous debates about poverty, labour relations, company town life, energy policy and the unravelling of counterculture. Sorcerer (1977) the release of which was obliterated by Star Wars, is discussed alongside Alien (1979) for what it can tell us about the rise of neoliberalism, the penetration of the market into every sphere of life (even space) and the rise of Reaganism.
You get the general drift.
Although I do want to add what for me was another major highlight, McKenna’s chapter on Silent Running (1972) and Saul Bass’s little seen Phase IV, (1974), for its discussion of both in the context of ecological science fiction, the rise of environmentalism and the prevalence of dome architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Not every chapter hits the spot for me, but that is more about individual taste as anything else. Taken as a whole, We are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon is a fascinating piece of work that breathes new life into the period of cinema, a discursive journey that takes in everything from Tiki culture to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, to the CIA’s little known links to Manson and Dungeons and Dragons.
We are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon is out through Repeater Books.