restricted access 19. A State of Great Disorder

From: Arthur Penn

The University Press of Kentucky colophon
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198 19 A State of Great Disorder “No civilization in history ever survived by turning over its reins to the young,” insisted writer-director John Milius, one of the young filmmakers to whom Hollywood turned over its reins in the 1970s. Milius was in the forefront of the “film generation” that resuscitated—though some say homogenized—American cinema in the decade after the final collapse of the studio system. Like every other institution that eventually kowtowed to the youth juggernaut, Hollywood became a land of rebellion, optimism , experiment, and naked fear. Foreign films were arriving and bringing with them a broader worldview to those whose eyes were open. An art house circuit sprung up in major cities giving venue to specialized films that were a thoughtful alternative to the spread of mall multiplexes. Midnight shows, repertory, and revival theaters celebrated the remembrance of pictures past, though not always respectfully or quietly. Filmmaking equipment was getting cheaper; videotape was leaving the TV stations and hitting the streets; and colleges began offering courses in screen studies. Audiences from fans to aesthetes chose sides when the New Yorker’s populist critic Pauline Kael took on the Village Voice’s auteurist critic Andrew Sarris. The only thing everybody agreed upon was that cinema was the art form of the twentieth century. Everybody seemed to know it except Hollywood. Despite the guerilla success of 1969’s Easy Rider, which showed that a raw, low-budget film could score as long as it told the truth, the studio A State of Great Disorder 199 ostrich still had its head in the celluloid sand. The triple punch of Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, and Little Big Man conferred oracle status on Arthur Penn, and after Little Big Man, he should have been able to get any funding he wanted. Yet his Attica project was deemed too risky for its cost, and he took himself out of consideration for The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Confessions of Nat Turner because he didn’t feel qualified to direct the black experience. At a time when it seemed like everyone had a camera, Penn hadn’t been behind one in a year. David L. Wolper didn’t care about cameras. He didn’t need them; he spliced together pieces of other people’s movies. First with the compilation documentary The Race for Space (1959) and then with Hollywood: The Golden Years and the Biography series (both 1961), he did what no independent documentary producer had ever done: he cracked the television networks with independent productions. He also bent the rules of nonfiction filmmaking with the philosophy “Documentaries are not reality, they are the creative interpretation of reality.” In 1970 Wolper, who had expanded into fiction films, was shooting Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in Bavaria when he was invited to make the official documentary of the Twentieth Olympiad, to be held in Munich in 1972, the first time the Games were to take place in Germany since Hitler hosted them in 1936. Mindful that by the time his film hit the screens, live television coverage would have sapped his audience, he decided to take a bold approach. He commissioned ten international filmmakers to see the event through their eyes and planned to assemble the resulting short subjects into a single anthology feature. “This film wouldn’t be reportage,” Wolper declared. “Instead, it would capture the feeling of the Olympics. I wanted to make poetry rather than prose.”1 The film, which Wolper intended to call Visions of Ten, was accorded a $1.5 million budget. Each auteurist poet would focus on one aspect of the Games: England’s John Schlesinger the marathon ; Japan’s Kon Ichikawa the hundred-yard dash; Sweden’s Mai Zetterling the weightlifters; Germany’s Michael Pfleghar the women; Czechoslovakia’s Milos Forman the decathlon; France’s 200 Arthur Penn Claude Lelouch the losers; Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene Senegal’s basketball team; the USSR’s Juri Ozerov the moments before the race; Italy’s Franco Zefferelli the Torch; and Arthur Penn boxer Bobby Lee Hunter. Almost immediately, a petulant Zefferelli cancelled in solidarity with the African nations’ withdrawal over the Olympic Committee’s insistence on the presence of racist Rhodesia. Later, Ousmane Sembene left the project for unspecified reasons and never finished his piece. “Which,” concludes Wolper, “is how it finally came to be called Visions of Eight.” Penn’s segment was to be on Bobby Lee Hunter, a young black boxer who had...


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Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
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