A version of this article appeared in The Age, August 2, 2012.
The New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early '70s isn't often linked with comedy, as opposed to the kind of satire found in the films of Robert Altman; film historians are more likely to define the period in terms of downbeat realism and the tolerance for anti-heroes and open endings exemplified by Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Yet this was an era when comedy, like most popular artforms, was changing fast. Mavericks like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce transformed the art of stand-up, while comic acting was renewed by the improvisational approach pioneered by Chicago's Second City Theatre, which would lead directly to Saturday Night Live.
This year, the Melbourne International Film Festival is screening a program of films that belong to a strain of “neurotic” New Hollywood comedy – crude yet sophisticated, often openly Jewish, and willing to tackle previously taboo themes. Needless to say, the figurehead of this loose movement was Woody Allen, represented in the MIFF spotlight by Take The Money and Run (1969), his first feature as writer-director-star. It was a sign of the times that the scarcely political Allen should cast himself as an incompetent bank robber, taking for granted that the youth audience would identify with his character's dedication to crime. With the Vietnam War at its height, iconoclasm was par for the course, if not a commercial imperative; of the films in the MIFF spotlight, Carl Reiner's Where's Poppa? (1970) and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) brutally mock the military along with establishment values in general.
Love, the only thing worth believing in, poses challenges of its own. When Allen's bank robber goes on the lam with his girlfriend (Janet Margolin), the film wavers between treating the romantic subplot as an absurd convention and pondering the personal difficulties that arise from a non-conformist lifestyle. In Where's Poppa?, the relationship troubles of the downtrodden hero (George Segal) spring from his emasculating Jewish mother, played by the veteran theatre actress and screenwriter Ruth Gordon. An unlikely cult star whose lip-smacking avidity carried a suggestion of hip put-on, Gordon reappears in Harold and Maude in the precisely opposed role of a life-loving 79-year-old who offers a freaky yet glum youth (Bud Cort) the acceptance he can't get from girls his own age.
The most influential New Hollywood comedy of all would have to be Mike Nichols' overrated The Graduate (1967). Happily, the MIFF spotlight opts for a lesser-known Nichols title – the sour Jazz Age farce The Fortune (1975), with Jack Nicholson as a nebbish bank clerk who enters into a marriage of convenience with an heiress (Stockard Channing) at the urging of a con-man (Warren Beatty). Their three-way living arrangement soon collapses under the pressure of greed and ill-feeling, marking the symbolic end of a dream of liberation. This despondent film would have gained resonance from screening alongside the equally bleak comedies of Nichols' former professional partner Elaine May, whose work is the most glaring omission from a regrettably small retrospective.
Modern Romance (1981), directed by Albert Brooks, is both the highlight of the MIFF spotlight and the ringer in the group. Brooks did not launch his career in features till the late 1970s, developing a rigorous technique of his own from the ground up; the obvious precedent for his pacing lies in Laurel and Hardy's most agonising slow-burn routines. One of the most memorable sequences in Modern Romance involves Brooks' newly single character alone in his apartment staying up all night on Quaaludes: moving at half-speed throughout, he chats with his pet bird, dances to a snatch of “A Fifth of Beethoven,” flips mournfully through his Rolodex and finally phones to arrange a date with a woman he hardly recalls. Taking a culture of serial monogamy for granted, this brilliantly irritating anti-romantic comedy has barely dated aside from a few details of technology and fashion. Brooks' alter ego is neither a rebel nor a loon – just a normal, mild-mannered fellow bent on coaxing reality to serve his neurotic needs.
It's hard to imagine a mainstream American comic filmmaker today going as far as Brooks in suppressing recognisable punchlines. Nor are many modern Hollywood comedies willing to suggest, as do several films in the MIFF spotlight, that there might be something seriously wrong with the social order. All the same, younger American directors from David O. Russell to Wes Anderson have their own means of showing that comedy can be more than entertainment, often paying homage to 1970s cinema at the same time. These days, still more immediate heirs to the risk-taking New Hollywood tradition can be found on cable TV – where Louis CK's Louie and especially Lena Dunham's Girls are exploring new forms of sexual and social discomfort in ways calculated to make us laugh and squirm.