A lively look at the themes of '60s cinema

December 02, 1990|By GEORGE GRELLA

Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s.

Ethan Mordden.

Knopf.

301 pages. $24.95. On the one hand, it seems like only yesterday, and on the other, it might as well be a hundred years ago. In his very lively book about the films of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden not only resurrects memories of a turbulent decade, but also reminds us of many perhaps forgotten moments in the dark. Sure, everyone remembers the big flicks of the '60s, but Mr. Mordden recalls quite a few others, not all of them of the Academy Award variety -- including some that don't seem like '60s films at all -- but showing their importance to their time and ours.

A prolific historian and critic of popular entertainment, Mr. Mordden has written with knowledge and enthusiasm about jazz, opera, musicals, theater and cinema. He combined several of those interests in his previous book, "The Hollywood Studios," a study of the various industry house styles that is far and away the most entertaining history of the movies around. He brings to "Medium Cool" an encyclopedic knowledge of the art, some exceptionally perceptive readings of film, and a bright, witty, energetic style that makes the book a thorough delight to read. Such a combination, surprising as it may seem, makes it just about unique in contemporary film study.

To begin with, the book isn't one of the usual dutiful film chronicles that simply record the release of any number of movies, supply a bit of commentary and sum it all up with familiar banalities about the time. The author instead organizes the work around some of his typically individual and

occasionally eccentric ideas, which he sees as the primary themes of the decade, and presents them clearly and reasonably.

Some of those themes are obvious, like the breakdown of censorship after more than 25 smothering years of the production code, which may be either a cause or an effect of the sexual revolution, or the rise of the new stars (along with the related decline of the older ones) who come to prominence playing very different sorts of parts from the past.

Mr. Mordden asserts, rather sweepingly, "Writers, actors, and directors suddenly retire the traditional character models." Some of his ideas, like the central one of children rebelling against their parents, force Mr. Mordden into some rather contorted arguments to locate them in the '60s rather than in the previous decade, where he wrongly believes nothing at all important happened in the movies.

He also discusses Hollywood's search for novelty of any kind and the often regrettable emergence of auteur theory, which he rightly calls "the cult of the director." Related to that cult, he argues, is the new recognition of film as a subject for intellectual exploration, mostly inspired by the rise of film critics, who interpret movies for viewers willing to take movies seriously. Mr. Mordeen's perception of the new power of the film critic to educate and influence audiences is one of the most basic and important insights of his book.

To illustrate these and many other points Mr. Mordden chooses not only some of the best-known and influential films of the time -- "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Easy Rider," "Midnight Cowboy" -- but also some slightly more obscure works, like "Splendor in the Grass," "The Manchurian Candidate," "A Thousand Clowns," "Point Blank" and the one that supplies his title, "Medium Cool." He also takes a look at some of the important actors who came of age in the decade, citing not only such familiar stars as Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, but also Tom Courtenay, Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin.

His examination of the pictures and the people who made them, if occasionally contrary and eccentric, invariably provides incisive analysis of both film and culture in the 1960s. At times Mr. Mordden seems too deeply committed to pushing certain ideas to develop them as they deserve; sometimes one wishes he'd stay just a little longer on one or another title. But those complaints are minor -- "Medium Cool" displays its knowledge gracefully, sparkles with insight, and provides sonorous pleasure from beginning to end.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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