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Even at the time, it was obvious that the late-60s-early-70s American New Wave (as we call it now) walloped Hollywood movies the same way puberty wallops a 7th-grader - the baby fat fell away, hair grew in peculiar places, and consciousness itself suddenly throbbed with cynical, wary, insurgent brio. By now the fantastically homely, sincere, interrogative, thorny, often scorchingly rigorous movies of the Nixon/'Nam era are finally perceptible as a genre unto themselves, a distinct phylum of cinema arisen from a spicy cocktail of social protest, international cinephilia, postwar neo-realism, and prole restlessness. They're the most mature and fearless mainstream American movies ever made; beside their ruddy aesthetic, today's Hollywood product and resume indies can roundly smell of cowardice and childishness. Certainly, the best of them date less than last year's Oscar® winners.
Despite blooming in the midst of a worldwide youth culture siege, our New Wave was inordinately interested in the lostness, melancholy and frayed edges of middle age. (This was the era in which Gene Hackman, in his 40s, became a bona fide movie star.) But there was so much new social terrain being pioneered by the under-30 set, filmmakers couldn't help but focus there as well, in a new variety of ways. Spurred by European art films and the country's own psychosexual climate, American movies started taking seriously looming slices of life it had previously either neglected or idealized into froth: relationships, sexual norms, gender inequality, maturation, modern ambivalences about social roles, and so on. The Graduate (1967) may well have initiated this trend and is justly famous for it, but a subsequent and wholly ignored launch into this fresh territory was Peter Yates's John and Mary (1969). A conscientious effort to thoroughly excavate the brainpans of the average twentysomethings of 1969, as they collide, ricochet, succeed at growing close quickly but fail at maintaining intimacy, Yates's film begins in bed, prowling across the snoozing forms of Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, and as she wakens and looks around, it's clear she doesn't know where she is, or even with whom. She gets up and wanders, looking for clues (on the bookshelf, where Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe loom ominously), and he wakes up and pretends not to. Then he hits the bathroom, rummaging a bit through her purse for a hint toward her identity. Not a word is spoken for some time.
Clearly, the protagonists (they and we don't learn their names until the very end of the movie) did things in reverse, as modernity would have it - they had sex before getting to know each other at all, and now that task, over breakfast and rainy-day slumming, is all the more vexing and difficult. They banter, flirt, bicker, interrogate, while Yates and screenwriter John Mortimer (of Rumpole of the Bailey  fame, working from a novel by Mervyn Jones) fill out the two of them with flashbacks, both short-term (to the night before, in a very real Manhattan bar) and long-term (their last few years of doomed affairs), and lay the couple's unspoken and often sexist thoughts in as whispered narration right over and amid dialogue. (This was eight years before the subtitles in Annie Hall, 1977.) Thematically, the movie is almost anthropological in the purity of its intent - casting an analytical eye upon men's and women's roles and rules as they're changing right under our feet, leaving the new generation to, essentially, reinvent the romantic wheel.
Which could have been all very schematic, but John and Mary, being a New Wave film, pulls no punches and at the same time fulfills no conventional expectations. For one thing, both characters are remarkably prickly, reserved, wary, ungenerous - unlikable, even. Hoffman's young, shy designer nerd is an anal control freak, hip enough to be fastidiously converting his own warehouse-attic loft and to whip up a souffl for lunch, but compulsively doing the dishes before a meal is even completely finished. She is a defensive, acquiescent and somewhat slow-thinking art gallery clerk bruised and lost after being toyed with by a married man, as blank in her life's desires as she is secretly ashamed of her will-nilly sexual choices. What we see built between them is assiduously, fiercely unromantic - the two of them are at odds with each other at nearly every step, or at least mystified about how much they might be doing what they're supposed to be doing. ("Hard work," Farrow's slack New Woman muses to herself silently, "for something I might not really want... Perhaps.") They are nice without being, by rom-com standards, terribly nice at all, and not very inspiring. We know more or less from the outset that they're not "destined" for each other, as lovers in all Hollywood films are supposed to be, neither are they even remotely "in love." They're just glancing off each other, like particles, and however much the film suggests a romantic coalescence in the end, the characters are so clearly drawn and so four-dimensional that we aren't convinced for a second that the relationship, should it last out the weekend, has any chance of surviving for more than a month after that. Nor do we have reason to hope that it might.
This odd realization is fueled further by Hoffman and Farrow, whose thoughtful, awkward lack of chemistry seems like a casting coup - you never get a sense of what one likes about the other, and at times the actors seem to actively dislike each other. This may also well be why the movie did not and has not found an audience, but it's also unique and insightful, a type of romantic experiment that happens, however fleetingly, in real life all the time, and is never seen in movies. This is the rare film about dating and sex that tells the truth: to find love you have to bumble around and sort through ill-fitting options; chance plays a disquietingly large role; and sometimes things do not click, despite the appearance of good fortune and sexual compatibility and a good souffl.
Yates, coming off the Steve McQueen hit Bullitt (1968) and predominantly a mucho-macho action director, never misframes or mistimes this uneasy pas de deux - or gives too much away. In the end, we're still a little mystified by the eponymous pair, like we often are with real people, even those we love. This is the New Wave in action - encouraging us to contemplate the human enigmas, not directing us toward an easy and dishonest happy ending. By Michael Atkinson