Sex & Death & Rock 'n' Roll or, The Kids Weren't Alright

by Michael Barrett

10 December 2010

From Pretty Maids All in a Row 

Messed-up Innocence

Much more seriously, Barry Shear’s The Todd Killings is a true-crime film in early ‘70s beady-eyed, neo-realist mode, with its associational jumpcuts and downbeat air of alienation and desperation. Think Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens without being that good, although maybe it could have been if it starred Jack Nicholson. This is based directly on the Schmid case mentioned above. Some reviewers now compare it with River’s Edge (1985), based on a different incident that occurred in 1981 California. There are points of comparison, although it should also be compared with Smooth Talk, since that was indirectly inspired by Schmid while going in a very different direction.

Schmid is now called Skipper Todd (Robert F. Lyons). The name Skipper signals his lingering childishness as a 23-year-old who hangs out with high school kids, and also that he’s skipping any number of things, like the oft-mentioned “responsibility”. In fact, he’s diagnosed and anatomised glibly and often by all others in the cast. There’s his mom (Barbara Bel Geddes), who runs a dumping ground of an old folks’ home that her son compares to murder and which he swears he won’t live off of as he collects his allowance (the irony isn’t allowed to escape us).

cover art

The Todd Killings

Director: Barry Shear
Cast: Robert F. Lyons, Richard Thomas

There’s his high school English teacher and “only intellectual in town” (James Broderick), who lectures on Moby Dick to local housewives because “they know they’re under a death sentence”. He praises young people who protest society’s problems and sharply defines them against Skipper, whom he declares more bourgeois than any of the ladies he mocks. There’s his main girlfriend Roberta (Belinda Montgomery), who sounds much too wise for 16 when she dresses him down (“Are you afraid you’re just like everybody else?”), then consistently behaves like an idiot who must be raped into love.

The observational scenes of restlessness and pointlessness are often well handled, like the bits in the old-age home. Skipper had been a promising student but now he crashes in his room surrounded by books and a Guernica print, supposedly composing songs while partying with the kids. “Nobody’s ever watching,” he declares existentially at the beginning, just after the first body is buried. We don’t know what happened, but our knowledge that a murder has occurred colors our perceptions for the next hour of this sociological tract and lends meaning to Skipper’s philosophical remarks.

“You know, fornication isn’t much but it’s about all that Darlington has to offer,” he explains to Roberta, and he could just as be well be quoting from The Last Picture Show or any contemporary movie about kids on the cusp of growing up hopeless. Actually it’s not quite true about Darlington, though. They have a one-screen theatre, and it’s playing A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with The Boys in the Band promised for next week. That’s an evolution worth pondering.

Richard Thomas plays Billy Roy, who falls under Skipper’s exploitive mentorship (he calls him Billy Boy), perhaps not too far removed from the mentor relationship in Pretty Maids. Billy Roy is just out of reform school and hoping to score with a girl on whom he has a crush, but who only has eyes for Skipper. Gloria Grahame and Edward Asner have cameos, the latter as a local mobster. There’s talent all over this thing, including the spare music by Leonard Rosenman. It’s very much a sour, brooding product of its time that doesn’t make the top cut but falls somewhere in the middle of this period of cinematic soul-searching.

Also new to Warner Archives is Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). How refreshing to run across a youth movie from the dawn of this cinematic era (also the dawn of the MPAA) that’s actually made by a guy in his 20s and that has something sweet and hopeful to say about youth. After the other pills, it feels like a bracing antidote.

Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner) works in the New York Public Library like his father, I.H. Chanticleer (Rip Torn), curator of incunabula. Bernard has a vision of goddess-like Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman), a remote, impossible, wish-fulfillment figure of fantasy who, absurdly, invites him to move in with her. Bernard, like the hero of many an American no-sex comedy, can’t actually go through with the act about which everyone spends all their time talking and thinking, and it’s because he’s so nice and klutzy and inhibited and neurotic and can’t see the nice girl (Karen Black) right in front of him. This is a good-natured, casual and predictable story that serves as a pretext for travelogues of New York (including pre-Disney 42nd Street, where Bernard tries to enjoy pornography), songs by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the sheer energy of camera and editing, and quirky comedy from troupers like Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Michael Dunn, Tony Bill and Dolph Sweet.

cover art

You’re a Big Boy Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Peter Kastner, Elizabeth Hartman

Bernard’s sweetness is illustrated when he sees a graffiti that says “Niggers go home”. Since his brain is always playing word games and making associations, he instantly translates this through “Home is where the heart is” and “My heart is in the highlands” to an imaginary scene of black children dancing among lovely green hills to bagpipe music played by a black man in kilts. How’s that for a pied piper? Bernard has a magical power to turn ugliness into joy through imagination, after which he erases the graffiti. He has neither ignored it nor allowed it to get him down.

So, like the later Pretty Maids All in a Row and The Todd Killings, there’s a central male virgin who just wants to get laid. Like all these other movies, it acknowledges that young people have sex, take drugs, and act rebelliously, and unlike them, it says “God bless us every one”. In the world of this movie, the idea that kids are getting buried in the Arizona desert or invading people’s houses “in cold blood” or getting swept up in California cults is part of a world very far away from the exciting and bewildering jungles of Manhattan and Long Island. It makes the movie seem innocent, even with its messed-up women and hapless men. I won’t ask which message we’d rather hear about American youth, but I think it’s worth asking which vision of the Pied Piper is really the more naive?

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