Hal Ashby's 1975 iconic SHAMPOO may well be a good movie, but my eyes can't recognize it. The indications are there: natural, confident acting, dialogue that does not sound overly written (most of the time), loose, friendly direction, good color photography, nice capture of Los Angeles locations. Watching it, I felt like I was privvy to a well preserved document that had been stored in optimal conditions for future analysis. Arguably, any film with any fiber of importance should feel that way.
But is SHAMPOO dated? Is that even avoidable? What about great films like THE RED SHOES and THE WILD BUNCH, filmed even longer ago but remain timeless? It isn't just about the time period being captured, but also the technology and the attitude brought to the table. A film about a hedonistic Beverly Hills hairdresser(Warren Beatty) and his various entaglements with women of various ages (Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Carrie Fisher, et. al) in the late 1960s by its very nature is almost unavoidably going to feel quaint at this late date. But the screenplay and the point of view (which had the benefit of hindsight) are the culprits for my lack of enthusiasm. An examination of 60s mores through a 70s sensibility should've been more telling.
It's a generational thing; that's what I've concluded. As much as I am fascinated with and well read on the time period in which it is set, SHAMPOO is a movie I just don't get. I was just a child when this film was conceived and shot and I was not around in the 60s to have an informed jadededness about them later. By the middle of the Me Decade, it seemed everyone with a platform was complaining at how everything had fallen short. The revolutions, the counterculture energy. Nixon had left office in disgrace, Vietnam was ending but the scars would never heal. The creators of SHAMPOO look back when Nixon was about to be elected, when the anti-Establishment brio was suddenly threatened. The party was ending. If there was doubt, one could consider Kent State and the Rolling Stones' Altamont Freeway disaster, so brilliantly documented in GIMME SHELTER.
Beatty's character, George, is also watching his own little world disintegrate. A straight male hairdresser may well be a rarity, and accordingly he beds many of his female clients. There are older women like Felicia (Grant) with rich husbands who can bankroll a dream salon for George, possibly, and also kooky younger, playful types (Hawn). Christie plays George's former girlfriend, Jackie, someone he actually had feelings for. There's a problem with any potential rekindling: Jackie is the mistress of Felicia's husband, Lester (Jack Warden). Thus, SHAMPOO is a political film, but of a different sort than in Nixon's realm, you see. This movie tries to infuse the two, with very limited success.
SHAMPOO could've gone in many directions. Ashby and co. could've taken a good hard look at George's hedonism, seen so clearly in that harsh Southern California sunlight, and passed judgment. It could've also been a feel good dramedy playing George's life for laughs and titilation. But this movie has a conscience, if not a pulse (it is slow paced and dull, often). The screenplay is a disorganized, fuzzy mess, but it wants to show that actions have consequence. There is a moral justice at work, even in L.A. Many moments are contemplative, including the bleak finale as George assesses the wreckage. We're privileged to view these events with knowledge that George can't have: the 60s will burn out and fade away. There will be malaise and catatonia to follow.
But you may argue that George was already catatonic, going about his narcissism with nary a regard for things beyond the SoCal landscape. He barely cares even for those who play in his sandbox, except for Jackie, who may prove to be even more self-centered by the end. Beatty's character doesn't undergo a metamorphasis so much as he finds himself face down in his own soullessness. SHAMPOO is a somber pictorial of this empty lifestyle, but the characters are barely more than paper thin magazine models (the point?). Ashby's direction is just there, and things feel a bit too improvised. There should be more fire and grit in this story. Instead, it feels as ineffectual as its lead character. But that's Southern California for you, brother. Maybe I'm all wrong about this.
And maybe that's what a notable film of the 1970s dealing with moral decay was supposed to feel like: an unspooling of laid back insouciance? Many hold SHAMPOO in very high regard. I'm stumped. There are so many truly great social dramas of the same era (THE LAST DETAIL, TAXI DRIVER, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) that I feel really are worthy of the accolades that it again comes back merely to my chronology. I didn't live it then, so I can't feel it now. While many of us can identify with the ultimately dissatisfying aftertaste of an aimless life, there's something about George's story that requires more from the viewer. Not merely experience, but experience of a specific time. I wasn't there on election night 1968 in Los Angeles, and how things felt and how perhaps portentuous things were is alien to me. I could say it is Ashby's failing that he doesn't convey it effectively to me. Recall from other reviews that the simple fact that a film doesn't move me does not dicatate whther it is good or bad. As I said, SHAMPOO may well be a good movie. I dunno.
But....Ashby, mostly otherwise a director with a highly impressive resume (check out his THE LANDLORD, a fine drama) should've made SHAMPOO more immediate, I feel. Many others did feel it. Rock on.
Part IX, The Great Overrated