Monday, April 26, 2021

Monte Hellman, a master of "the language of the cinema"


(Monte Hellman in 2013)


Monte Hellman, one of the best but also least well-known of the New Hollywood directors of the 1960s and beyond, died last week at the age of 91. With films like the ultimate road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), the twin existential Westerns The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), and the neo-noir Road to Nowhere (2010), Hellman established himself as a daring minimalist in Hollywood, the Samuel Beckett of the Big Screen.


Hellman was trained in the theater, an intellectual whose Theatergoers Company  brought Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the Los Angeles stage in a premiere production in the late 1950s. Working with producer/director Roger Corman early in his film career, Hellman cut his teeth on biker and terror films as well as in radio and television productions before emerging as a truly unique force behind the camera.


I spent a couple days at Hellman’s Airbnb in Hollywood’s Laurel Canyon back in March 2018. I was doing research for my biography of actor Harry Dean Stanton, whom Hellman had directed in three films: Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Cockfighter. He wasn’t feeling well the day I interviewed him, but he sat down with me for probably an hour and talked about movies.

(Yours truly at Monte Hellman's Airbnb in Laurel Canyon in March 2018)


As he talked, I looked at our surroundings--books everywhere, a wide collection of Asian art, a workout machine, pool outside, a framed photograph of a young Jack Nicholson, whose career got its start via both Corman and Hellman.


“When I look back at my movies, I basically made movies unconsciously,” he told me. “I am an intellectual in other areas, but not in making movies.”


He said he never thought of his filmmaking as art. “We didn’t think of it as anything. The problem was getting through each day, getting your pages shot.”


I learned during the interview that Hellman could be contradictory, or maybe he was also playing with me a bit. He told me he hadn’t read British film writer Brad Stevens’ book on the director’s life and work, yet Stevens in his Acknowledgements thanks Hellman for his “thorough proof-reading/fact-checking of the manuscript.” Hellman frequently downplayed his own legacy. “In reality, I have always been a hired gun,” he said back in 1987. “I have usually taken whatever job came my way.”


Yet, in an interview with Notebook in 2017, he was quite critical of much modern filmmaking. “They aren’t learned in the language of the cinema," he said. “American films these days are designed by committee, by a team of people. … It’s true even in Europe nowadays. You’ve got a lot of people involved in making a lot of decisions, when it used to be one person’s call to make.”


As for independent filmmakers? “Of course, there are exceptions, but most independents are just another arm of the studio.”


Born Monte Himmelbaum in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles, Hellman went to the South for two of his most important films, Cockfighter and Two-Lane Blacktop, the latter of which begins in California but ends up in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Cahiers du Cinéma called it “one of the greatest American films of the 1970s.” For Cockfighter, a film based on Charles Willeford’s novel, Hellman went to rural Georgia to tell the story of cockfighting champ Frank Mansfield, played by Warren Oates.


Hellman told me he had always been fascinated by subcultures like the rural South’s cockfighting world. “The people who were the cockfighters were really interesting. They actually contributed a lot to the screen. They were cockfighters, a lot of them.”


Hellman chuckled about the film’s alternate title Born to Kill. “I like to say `Hatched to Kill’.”


Hellman’s success as a director—a success that didn’t translate to big Box Office earnings—can in part be attributed to how he worked with actors like Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson, Millie Perkins, Laurie Byrd, and Harry Dean Stanton. “I think in order to make an actor comfortable in doing all the things they have to do to expose themselves in the process of acting, you have to make them feel like you are not going to hurt them, that you will protect them,” he told me. “Except for the very beginning, when nobody knew anything about me, I have managed to convey that to actors I’ve worked with.”


Hellman put his actors in austere settings—the American West, the rural South, the Philippine jungle—where everything is primitive, stripped down to its essentials.  Even the language is stripped down. It’s a stark, clear-eyed way of looking at life, a cinematic language as practiced by Hellman’s own favorite directors—Samuel Fuller, John Huston, Carol Reed—and one he mastered in his own life.


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