Notes from the Completist: Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris
Penguin Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Over at the film-nerd social network I belong to, Letterboxd.com, one of the tasks in this month’s “Movie Scavenger Hunt” is to watch one of the films discussed in Mark Harris’ 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution; and I thought this would give me a good excuse to finally read the book itself as well, which I’ve been wanting to do ever since it came out. An ingenious blend of Hollywood insider tale and legitimate history text, Harris takes the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar — Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dr. Dolittle — then simply recounts the stories of how all five got made in the years previous, showing the sometimes very different circuitous routes based on what kind of production it was.

(Bonnie & Clyde, for example, took three years just to find a financier, because no one in Hollywood thought this bizarre little story full of sex and violence would ever get theatrical distribution, much less past the censors in the Hays Code office; Dr. Dolittle, on the other hand, a desperate last attempt by Hollywood’s old guard to have another hit on the level of the recent My Fair Lady, was warmly embraced by the studios from day one, even as its budget eventually swelled to today’s equivalent of half a billion dollars, at the same time that test audiences were giving every indication that it would become the massive disaster that it eventually turned out to be.)

By stringing all these stories together, then, and especially interspersing their development details based on the chronological order of all five, Harris almost accidentally tells a much grander story about the changing nature of the American arts in general during these years, enfolding a series of related moments that were happening at the same time that helped turn this particular year in film history into a watershed moment that we now know as the birth of “New Hollywood.”

(In the same years as these movies were being made [1964 to 1967, counting the development periods], Walt Disney also died, the last of the active Warner Brothers retired, the Hays Code was officially abandoned, interracial marriage was decriminalized, the first Hollywood studio was sold to a multinational non-filmmaking corporation, and Esquire published its famous “The New Sophistication” article, which for the first time codified the ’60s into THE SIXTIES…not by coincidence written by David Newman and Robert Benton, who also wrote the Bonnie & Clyde screenplay, under the stated goal of making “America’s very first French New Wave film.”)

#MarkHarris' #PicturesAtARevolution is full of literally hundreds of fascinating anecdotes Click To Tweet

I had already known a bit about how the New Hollywood paradigm came about in these years; but Pictures of a Revolution lays out the story in all its messy, fascinating detail, all the more remarkable for Harris taking an “inside-out” approach in actually telling the story, painting a much bigger and more sweeping picture merely through the act of describing how these five particular films actually got made.

Full of literally hundreds of anecdotes that are just begging to be retold at dinner parties to impress your friends, this is an astute, insightful, yet highly entertaining read, a 400-page tome that I blew through in just a day and a half because I literally couldn’t put it down. It comes strongly recommended not just to film buffs but to anyone who’s interested in learning more about how the countercultural era came about in the first place.

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Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd