Scorsese Screens - May 2021
This month’s slate of California movies on TCM is split into two parts: the southern end of the state, L.A. in particular, on the 13th, and San Francisco and northern California on the 20th. They’re like two distinct worlds, and they’ve each produced their own unique cinematic traditions. The light and landscape of the L.A. area stood in for the entire world during the studio era, but the history of pictures grounded in the L.A. (and Ventura and Topanga) is something else entirely. I’m an admirer of What Price Hollywood?, the prototype for all versions of A Star Is Born, and Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture. And then there’s Shampoo, a real three-way collaboration between Warren Beatty, Robert Towne and Hal Ashby – it would have been a very different experience without the DP Laszlo Kovacs and the production/costume design team of Richard and Anthea Sylbert, not to mention a cast that included Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Tony Bill, Carrie Fisher (in her first film) and Beatty himself, of course. Shampoo is a time capsule of a particular place at a particular time in history. I lived in L.A. during those years, and the filmmakers perfectly captured the mood and the feel of it all: of people drifting from one moment to the next, of the “lifestyle” that used to be called “laid back.” And the light… always a little diffuse, falling on all those hills that always look strangely new, like they were just thrown down from above.
San Francisco is a city that’s made for the cinema, in the same way that Paris is; they’re both small, jewel-like and beautiful, and they seem to pulse with mystery and a sense of timelessness. The light is even more diffuse in San Francisco than it is in Los Angeles, and everywhere you look—up or down, close or from a distance—there’s a vista that invites contemplation, reflection. TCM is showing five films set in San Francisco and the surrounding area, including titles made in Monterey (Monterey Pop) and Big Sur (The Sandpiper). There is such a rich history of San Francisco-based moviemaking that I feel compelled to name a few of the many titles that haven’t been included from Greed, The Maltese Falcon (shot in the studio but it really gets the feel of the city) and The Lady from Shanghai to The Line-Up, Point Blank, Dirty Harry and, of course, Vertigo. That’s not to mention the city’s tradition of avant-garde filmmaking, which includes Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, Bruce Conner and Jordan Belson. For me, the key title in TCM’s program is Richard Lester’s Petulia, shot by Nicolas Roeg (and very close in spirit to the pictures he would soon be making as a director), which really belongs in the company of the work coming out of Europe in the early ‘60s, from Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda and Michelangelo Antonioni in particular. Julie Christie, a beautiful and exceptional actress, is the link between Petulia and Shampoo, two great American films.