Bad Trips

Sax von Stroheim writes:


I watched the 1970 Paul Newman movie WUSA the other day. It was directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who had previously worked with Newman on Cool Hand Luke, and written by Robert Stone, who was adapting his own novel, A Hall of Mirrors. I liked it a lot, though it is, admittedly, a downer: a paranoid left-wing fantasy about the paranoid right, it suggests all is going to hell, that only the cynical or deranged will survive, and that the good-hearted will end up being nothing more than patsies or victims.

I’ve never read Stone’s original novel — his first, which he wrote in 1967 — but, assuming his screenplay is a faithful adaptation, it strikes me that WUSA fits nicely into the category of Bad Trip Lit: books from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that are about how America is falling apart. Other favorites of mine from the genre: Don Delillo’s Americana (parts of which now read like Mad Men avant la lettre), Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (an underrated book that, for me, is Roth’s best non-Zuckerman novel between Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater), and Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show, which may be my favorite novel of this (made up by me) sub-genre, and also, probably, my favorite novel that I don’t think has a particularly good story to it (it gets by on the strength of the individual scenes). I’d like to see someone try to turn The Dick Gibson show into a movie or a play at some point, though I expect that will never happen.

Unlike those books, though, WUSA (and maybe A Hall of Mirrors, too) doesn’t have much in the way of phantasmagoria, which is to say that the movie doesn’t even offer the escape of a nightmarish imagination.

WUSA didn’t get great reviews when it came out, and I don’t think it’s ever been particularly beloved, though I think it’s beginning to build up a bit of a better reputation. A lot of “meant to be taken seriously” movies from this period have been somewhat unfairly overlooked and underrated for years because they aren’t as fun as the more genre-fixated work of the New American Cinema (or the Hollywood New Wave or whatever you want to call it). My theory is that the war against the idea that the only worthwhile movies are serious movies went too far, leading to the idea that every worthwhile movie should be fun. But the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s have shown a diminishing return on what we can get out of “fun” movies, and now film buffs are looking back for movies with some substance to them that had been left behind by the zeitgeist. Frank Perry’s movies fall into the same category and are likewise enjoying a well-deserved higher profile now than they have in a while.

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