American Cinema’s Sixties Crack-Up

American Cinema’s Sixties Crack-Up

Nervous breakdowns, shock treatments, killing sprees, brainwashing, political assassinations—in the 1960s, disturbing themes began popping up everywhere in American cinema. These scenes of psychic strife are the focus of a new Criterion Channel collection, Hollywood Crack-Up: The Decade American Cinema Lost Is Mind. Curated by filmmaker Nicolas Saada (Taj Mahal) and veteran scholar and programmer Richard Peña, the selection proposes an intriguing set of connections between the psychosis playing out on-screen, the chaotic state of the film industry, and the era’s turbulent politics. The 1960s were the decade that the declining Hollywood studio system began to fracture beyond repair, as well as a time of seismic change in American life. Long held back by the Production Code and the Blacklist, American filmmakers were now free to break taboos, play with cinematic form, and put sexuality, violence, and subversive politics on-screen. It’s no wonder that various films of the period seem to converge on an image of the United States as a massive mental ward. I spoke to Saada and Peña to discuss this transitional moment in film history, which they consider an underacknowledged link between old Hollywood and the so-called New American Cinema of the ’70s.

How did the idea for this series come about?

Nicolas Saada: It was just an intuition that I’d had for years about watching these movies from the ’60s and thinking they were connected through various themes. And then when I mentioned this to Richard, he said, “actually, what you describe makes sense.” These movies are not only a transition from the old Hollywood to the New Hollywood. They’re really stating something about what was going on in the U.S. at this moment, on different levels. And they expressed something in a very rash, original, different way. And they come from both sides: from the studio system, which is kind of collapsing, and from an emerging independent cinema, which is going to be the next thing. This moment of American cinema was not considered as interesting because of all the attention that was brought to European cinema during the ’60s. And then it was also overlooked because of the attention toward the American cinema of the ’70s. So I was wondering, where does that stand? In the history of art, there’s a transition between the late Renaissance and the baroque, and it’s mannerism. But there’s no discussion of that moment of American cinema.


And I like to group these films into this idea of a “crack-up.” It’s not really a “school,” but it’s definitely a moment, something that binds these films together. It makes even more sense when you watch the fantastic teaser on the Criterion Channel: it’s striking.

Top of page: Seconds; above: The Manchurian Candidate
Shock Corridor
In Cold Blood
The Chase
Point Blank
The World’s Greatest Sinner

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