Girl on a Motorcycle, a starring vehicle for chanteuse and Mick Jagger girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, is vintage 1968. I can’t recommend the film that highly as cinema. Not a lot happens as the main character zips across the French border to Germany to hook up with her lover Alain Delon. Light on plot, though the film struggles to articulate ideas, albeit the kind of half-baked ideas that passed muster as cultural and political philosophy in the late 60s. Mostly, Faithfull looks very good in it, both in and out of the one piece leather zip up outfit she wears with nothing on underneath.
She is fond of reaching orgasm using the motorcycle seat. You’d think this might be dangerous.
I had completely forgotten seeing this when it came out in ’68. If it is worth seeing–and that’s a big if apart from the star–it is as a near perfect example of that rare bird: a movie made in the high sixties that tries to capture something of the era, and not in a sober respectful way, or in a “those crazy kids” way, but through a countercultural lens. The psychedelic coloration of the film; the fast zooming in and out on an object to suggest vertigo or a trip, the disparagement in the constant voiceovers by Faithfull of the normal people who live in the dreary normal houses she rides by.
We read today about how Antifa is made up of privileged types who say they are down with The People but mostly just look down on them. The film is a constant reminder that elitist rebellion is not a new thing.
Still, it is helpful to put the condescension in context. As Michael Caine suggests in his narration to My Generation, a documentary on Swinging London in the 60s, a lot of the rejection expressed in Europe had as its target the grimy old world that had given it war and misery.
Rebellion in the United States was directed most at the increasingly affluent “plastic” suburbs. But as Faithfull looks down her nose at the tired streetscapes she passes by you can’t help but think she is struggling for a way to escape history, not rejecting an older generation who was already trying to live outside of it. Still, she is quite the snob, and comes across as a harbinger of a much better world to come.
The film came our the year before Easy Rider and you can see some parallels, including (spoiler alert) a long panning out in an aerial shot of a fiery motorcycle crash scene which looks for all the world like the final shot in Hopper’s film.
But there are differences. Hopper’s rebels were very American and he put at least some critical distance between his authorial self and his characters–“we blew it Billy”. Girl on a Motorcycle is all in on the Revolution, whatever the hell that means.
Fifteen years earlier Brando the motorcyclist could respond to the question ‘Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” with a chip on the shoulder “what’ve you got?” But by the time ’68 rolls around in Europe this question was framed in existential fashion, complete with nods to the trendy Marxism of Permanent Revolution.
As the movie came back to me I realized I could only remember a couple of things about it. The first was the notion of political and cultural revolution for its own sake. That was much in the air at the time.
The other was Faithfull’s nudity. I suppose this was one of the first movies I’d seen with real nudity in it. It is tame by today’s standards but “art movies” were hard to find in ’68 and XXX was still several years away. It was eye-opening.
Still, the movie is a complete mess–though an interesting artifact and a nice . . . vehicle.
There are a whole pile of 60s cultural artefacts trashing the idea that, say, a factory job for life, a suburban house and a stable marriage could possibly be considered a good thing – music like Mick Softley’s “Gold Watch Blues”, Manfred Mann’s “Semi Detached Suburban Mr James”, Seeger’s “Little Boxes”, Al Stewart’s “The Carmichaels” and lots more, a lot of the BBC’s drama output, films like this and Easy Rider.
Fifty-plus years on, the job for life and three bedroom semi seem a lot more desirable now they’re almost unattainable for a lot of people.
Marianne was fit though. There’s a great photo online of Mick being AMOG’d by Alain Delon.
Yeah music was plenty counter-cultural down to its bones in the moment, whether sincere or not. The revolutionary Jefferson Airplane morphed to the Jefferson Starship to the Starship, where Grace Slick performed on a song some consider the worst rock song ever made: “We Built this City.” But you could find serious messages in the music.
I should have clarified I was referring to film. Other than Easy Rider, which was shocking in its seeming to take it all very seriously, true countercultural partisan screeds were thin on the ground. Lindsay Anderson’s If–private school boys. Trifles dealing with college “rebellion” like The Strawberry Statement. Hollywood just had no idea how to handle it.
Biskind’s book Easy Riders Raging Bulls does a good job of describing how the studio system was inevitably more resistant that music to turning on a dime and putting out revolutionary cultural product. The studio heads had no grasp of it and it takes a lot of money to mount a feature film. It took until the 70s for the 60s generation, so to speak, to seize the director’s chair and infuse their work with the Spirit of a New Generation. But when they did the 60s were already over and I think everyone, including newly chastened boomers, felt faintly embarrassed at the whole thing. So the young turks made movies about boxers and gangsters and space ships not hippies.
Are there even any movies in the 70s that tried to take “the counterculture” as seriously as Girl on a Motorcycle? I can think of one: Who’ll Stop the Rain, an adaptation of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. The book and movie were mostly about Vietnam disenchantment but since Stone had done time with Kesey the material weaves in the good old days of LSD in a mostly respectful way. But even at the time the movie was made the drug, hippie and rebellion things were done as nostalgia.