Pictures at a Revolution: good film history and a great read

I recently finished Mark Harris’s thrilling volume of film history, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, so I’d like to write about it briefly. In his book, Harris (the husband of Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner) writes at length about the planning, production, and reception of 1967’s Best Picture nominees. (To be specific, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Dolittle, and the winner, In the Heat of the Night.) In the process, he’s able to give a wide cross-section of a Hollywood in flux, caught between the studio system’s gradual demise, and the industry’s impending renaissance.

Harris also frames his meticulously researched history as an exciting narrative, full of characters on every end of the roue de fortune, some set at cross-purposes to each other. There are the real-life clashes between Warren Beatty and Jack Warner; Rex Harrison and the cast and crew of Dr. Dolittle; and Stanley Kramer and the late ’60s film criticism community, just to name a few. And they all build up to this greater, intergenerational conflict, in which The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde ultimately win out, aesthetically and financially.

But at the same time, Harris doesn’t oversimplify these struggles, as each major player is presented objectively through interviews, letters, newspaper accounts, and various archival sources. When uncertainty exists, as with the sexualities of Tracy and Hepburn, he footnotes it. Unlike many books which profile movie stars, he fact-checks scrupulously, giving the reader a well-rounded account. For example, he portrays every side of the layered star image of Sidney Poitier – from the viewpoints of black radicals, film critics, filmmakers (like Kramer and In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison), the general public, and Poitier himself.

It’s also a book that gives equal time to each part of its dense story, as the films’ production schedules are charted alongside each other. Harris uses the contrast to show how multiple types of filmmaking coexisted in the late ’60s, with intentions, production models, and end results as different as The Graduate and Dr. Dolittle. And within this broader depiction of rapid, industry-wide trends, Harris finds time for dozens of smaller stories to illustrate points about film history, like how The Sound of Music‘s success helped lead to the New Hollywood. (Studios placed their bets on other big-budget musicals like Camelot, Hello, Dolly!, and Sweet Charity, which turned out to be crippling flops.)

After reading Pictures at a Revolution, my immediate reaction is that I want a book like this about every Oscar year. Preferably by Mark Harris. Since it talks about an era of such social and cinematic upheaval, every event is investigated for historical relevance, but he doesn’t draw conclusions where there aren’t any. But when, say, Oscars host Bob Hope makes unfunny jokes about the ceremony’s two-day postponement (due to King’s assassination), there’s a clear generational divide at work. It’s a symptom of a rift, signaling that one part of (film) history is ending, and another is about to begin. It’s these little fissures that Harris diagnoses so well through what would otherwise seem like trivial anecdotes.

That may be the book’s greatest triumph: using these fascinating stories about filmmaking (which really do make it a fun, accessible read) to back up serious historical arguments about changes in the methods and substance of American cinema, and their significance amidst the broader cultural turmoil of late ’60s and early ’70s. I recommend Pictures at a Revolution both for those seeking new knowledge and understanding of beloved films (like Bonnie and Clyde‘s early history being passed around between Truffaut and Godard), and those with an interest in the greater sociocultural context. Harris provides a helpful window into one of the more intriguing times in film history, and American history in general.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s