Much as we like to look to the future with the coming of a new year, for the retrogressively minded, the turning of 2016 also brings us to the 50th anniversary of a very special time for pop culture: 1966.
Music fans, consider yourselves well primed for the year-long critical hosannas that will be dished out as the world marks 50 years since the release on 16 May 1966 of both The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and (by some sources) Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Then, on 5 August, of another quantum leap in LP form: The Beatles’ Revolver. On 18 August, it’ll be 50 years since The Four Tops’ immortal single ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ came out. In the lead up to 10 October, all the talk will be of ‘Good Vibrations’ hitting the half century point. And so it goes on… Our reissue/repackage/nostalgia culture may well slip-slide into meltdown with this 12-month payload of commemoration.
Can cinema hold a candle to 1966’s pop-music purple patch? And then some. But you generally have to look further afield than the Hollywood mainstream, which in 1966 was still a year off the rejuvenations of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Instead, you’ll get your kicks of 66 in – especially – France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Senegal (where sub-Saharan cinema was doing nothing less than being born), the USSR, Poland, Sweden and, yes, in Britain. If there is a film that is more 1966 than Blowup, the film that Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni made as an enigmatic document of swinging London, we don’t know what it is.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
If the film year had its own Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde and Revolver – totemic masterpieces of an art form that was rapidly reinventing itself – then they may be Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Only one of those made our 1966 top 10, which goes to prove how little you should trust top 10s. On another day, any of these could have been included here too: Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac, Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin, John Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies, Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, Alain Resnais’ La guerre est finie, Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Barrier, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another, Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise to Power of Louis XIV…
Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director Robert Bresson
It’s no easy task to sum up a film that Jean-Luc Godard felt had managed to “contain the world in an hour and a half”. A religious allegory percolating with both piety and doubt, Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthasar must stand as one of the most compassionate works of art in cinema history.
Loosely, one could describe it as the simple tale of a donkey, passing hands from owner to owner – and subject to both tenderness and monstrous cruelty. It is also the story of those individuals who buy and sell the beast of burden – most are stricken with such poverty of spirit that there’s little doubt as to Bresson’s view of humanity. The Jansenist simplicity of his style imbues the film with a mysterious power; it offers the purity of the animal’s martyrdom as a pacifying antidote to the sinfulness of man.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Director Gillo Pontecorvo
“Political cinema” suggests something that dates rapidly, but Gillo Pontecorvo’s incendiary masterpiece is even more relevant today than half a century ago. Back then, it looked back at Algeria’s asymmetrical war against the country’s French colonial occupiers between 1954 and 1957, but it now seems to anticipate and criticise almost every subsequent flare-up between the west and the Middle East with astonishing prescience – it was even screened at the White House in September 2003 to illustrate guerrilla tactics that might be used against US forces in Iraq.
Although the film was part-financed by the newly-independent Algerian state and initially banned in France, Pontecorvo’s tactics are admirably even-handed: atrocities on both sides (French torture, Algerian terrorism) are unflinchingly depicted, and the most sympathetic figure is the French colonel (Jean Martin, the film’s only professional actor), who clearly knows that he’s on history’s losing side but still has to go through the expected motions.
Black Girl (1966)
Director Ousmane Sembene
Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema, once said: “I don’t just want to make films for entertainment but films to trigger thought.” His debut feature, Black Girl, not only embodies this philosophy perfectly, it also put Africa on the world cinema map. Winner of both the 1966 Prix Jean Vigo for best feature film and the Tanit d’Or award at the Carthage Film Festival, its story follows Diouana (Thérèse M’Bissine Diop) from Dakar to France, where she takes a job as a nanny. Christian Lacoste’s exquisite cinematography juxtaposes the natural beauty of Dakar with the charm of the French Riviera and the lethargy of its bourgeois inhabitants.
Following a major new restoration supported by the World Cinema Foundation, the film has never looked or sounded better. Its nostalgic ambience, use of close-ups and the magnificent score offer a feast for the senses, while its central message that money doesn’t bring happiness is movingly conveyed. Look out for Sembène’s on-screen appearance as a teacher.
Director Vera Chytilova
Věra Chytilová’s film looks startling even today, and back then it was a complete one-off. Few women had directed feature films prior to 1966, and none had done so with this much style, verve and brazen cheek. Far from distilling their proto-feminist message into an easy-to-swallow narrative pill, Chytilová and co-writers Ester Krumbachová and Pavel Juráček preferred all-out avant-garde experimentalism, as their two protagonists, both named Marie, run rings not just around every hapless male in sight but also every notion of conventional behaviour and indeed film form itself (a game with a pair of scissors ultimately cuts the screen up into jagged shards). Chytilová’s husband, virtuoso cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, was encouraged to go for broke with every photographic effect imaginable.
It’s little wonder that Daisies was banned by the Czechoslovak communist authorities: every frame feels intensely subversive on multiple levels, which is precisely the effect that Chytilová intended.
The Reptile (1966)
Director John Gilling
Blowup may have been the peak of auteur-driven cinema in Britain in 1966, but the year also represented something of an annus mirabilis for Hammer Films. These 12 months alone saw the release of their prehistoric adventure One Million Years B.C., Dracula Prince of Darkness, occult drama The Witches, and two rural horrors directed back to back (and on the same sets) by John Gilling.
The first of these was The Plague of the Zombies, released in the second week of the new year, with The Reptile following in March. Though discrete films, both were set in a superstitious Cornwall of the past, where a mysterious illness is killing off the inhabitants of a small village. In The Reptile – the moodier and more subtle of the pair – a newcomer’s investigations in the community bring him into contact with the sinister Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman), his oppressed daughter (Jacqueline Pearce) and their Malay servant (Marne Maitland). Though set at the turn of the 20th century, this creepy classic displays a fascination with Eastern spirituality that’s very 1966, yet fused here with a paranoid terror of otherness that’s worlds away from Revolver.
Director John Frankenheimer
One of John Frankenheimer’s most visually audacious films, Seconds utilises jagged angles and cacophonous sound design to artful and bizarre effect. The unhinged sci-fi stars John Randolph (and then Rock Hudson) as a middle-aged businessman bored by 60s suburbia, seeking a new identity – and a new face – under the auspices of a sinister organisation called ‘The Company’.
Shot by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film is all fractured close-ups and coolly appraising mood. A liberal through and through, Frankenheimer claimed that he had wanted to make a “portrait of […] big business that will do anything for anybody, providing you are willing to pay for it”. Hudson’s casting is wonderfully subversive, and the film follows suit; it’s a well-aimed howl of rage against big business and the vacuousness of American consumerism.
7 Women (1966)
Director John Ford
The two masterpieces that define John Ford’s later period – The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – are pictures concerned with the futility of violence, with the pair serving as weary ripostes to the classical western aesthetic epitomised by American exceptionalism. In 7 Women – the director’s final film – the frontier has moved to the east, to China in 1935, where a Christian missionary post becomes targeted by a group of local bandits.
It’s a subversive twist on the Ford western, acknowledging the end of the genre’s heyday while adapting many of its key facets to a new locale and, crucially, to a new type of gunslinger in Anne Bancroft’s salty, chain-smoking missionary – an unlikely Fordian heroine. With its fury and urgency, it feels less like a swansong and more like the work of a director given a new lease of life.
The Shooting (1966)
Director Monte Hellman
Back from the Philippines, where he’d just shot a pair of features for Roger Corman with Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman repeated the trick with a diptych of westerns in 1966. Ride in the Whirlwind offered another screenwriting credit for Jack Nicholson, but The Shooting would prove to be the masterpiece of the two – an existential subversion of traditional western archetypes that owed as much to Sartre, Camus and Beckett as it did to screenwriter Carole Eastman.
Reconfiguring the female character (Millie Perkins) into a black-glove wearing, woman-with-no-name – a mirror image to Nicholson’s sadistic, “strong and pretty” gunslinger – Hellman plays with genre tropes all the way to the film’s astonishing, fragmented ending. It’s difficult to specifically align the film with the director’s contention that The Shooting is really about Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK and his subsequent capture, but the film could never be mistaken for apolitical, something assured by Hellman’s forceful spatial dynamics and an emphasis on the shifting boundaries of moral certitude, violence and humanity.
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Director Seijun Suzuki
1966 found Japanese cinema in rude health, with Nagisa Oshima’s Violence at Noon, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another and Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers all reiterating the ambition of a new generation of filmmakers. No film was so giddily eccentric, though, as Seijun Suzuki’s pop-art yakuza musical thriller Tokyo Drifter, a film simultaneously as immediate and infectious as a J-pop 45 yet as arty and aberrant as Godard’s mid-60s work.
Beginning in over-exposed black and white before a sudden switch to lysergic colour, it stars Tetsuya Watari as Tetsuya Hondo, a powder-blue-suited drifter caught up in a turf battle between rival gangs. Suzuki uses heavily stylised angles and self-consciously artificial studio backdrops to make the whole thing fizz with strangeness and fun. Everything builds to a violent climax of blood-letting in an all-white room before spitting you back into the real world with the film’s insanely catchy title song looping round and round in your inner ear. It’s a film you know Tarantino must adore.
Director Alain Robbe-Grillet
As one of the progenitors of the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet helped revolutionise French literature at mid-century by divorcing it from its reliance on what he saw as the outdated notions of plot, characters and narrative. With its pursuit of a new kind of film, distinct from the ‘cinéma de qualité’ of the past, it is tempting to see the French new wave as the cinematic equivalent of the literary movement.
After working on one of the movement’s key works, writing Last Year at Marienbad (1961) for Alain Resnais, Robbe-Grillet pushed the movement towards darker territory with Trans-Europ-Express, which hinges upon a film director brainstorming a new project while on a train journey from Paris to Antwerp. The postmodernist set-up is typical of the era, but what reverberates most is the picture’s murky Sadean milieu. A metatextual odyssey into the erotic abyss – a subject to which Robbe-Grillet would return with his novel Projet pour une révolution à New York – it stands as the one of the best and bleakest French films of the time.