Friday, November 30, 2007

Go, Hippie

While I was watching Robert Altman's 1971 movie McCabe & Mrs. Miller (again), I was struck by how many chords of Americana this film covered: gambling, sex, drugs, entrepreneurship, Manifest Destiny, violence, shady lawyers, the little guy being stomped on by big business -- even though it was shot outside Vancouver. At the same time, McCabe seems totally reflective of the time it was made, a time when people set out to make great movies that told the entire story of America in a neat two hours. Maybe it's because of Julie Christie's frizzy curls, or maybe it's just because that's when Altman was at his peak, and Altman's films are so distinctive that they are capable of defining an entire era, like Seinfeld defined the mid-Nineties or Elvis defined the mid-Fifties.

But even McCabe doesn't capture those times as well as a full-page picture of Michelle Phillips and her then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson, strolling together down some Hollywood boulevard in the evening twilight, taken in that same magical year of 1971 and appearing in the current issue of Vanity Fair. It's not just the copious, unashamed armpit hair that Michelle is sporting, or the navy sleeveless dress that seems designed for maximal axillary exposure. It's that Michelle has carted all that copious, unashamed armpit hair to some kind of formal Hollywood shindig -- Nicholson is wearing what passed for a tuxedo back then, with black tie, black shirt, black jacket and blue jeans, and there's an older gentleman seen behind Nicholson in more traditional formalwear. It was a time -- the first time -- that women could unshave their armpits and still be received at the highest reaches of American culture.

This was the moment when the hippies not only stormed the gates of America but were invited in and offered a seat at the table. The yin-yang distinction between flower children and the Establishment had been chopped down, carded into wool, and knitted into a macrame sweater vest. Let a thousand underarms bloom.

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