If it’s not already obvious, my picks for Filmpocalypse Now aren’t all overtly apocalyptic. Most of them are films like Shampoo: a picture that was supposed to be about one thing when it was released, but thanks to the way history tends to repeat itself (albeit with new and ever more hideous, poorly-coiffed mutations), now takes on a more pungent bouquet. I love this movie, just like all the other movies I love that end up making me both profoundly depressed and naively hopeful that maybe somebody will do something before this science experiment we call humanity completely goes off the fucking rails.
Imagine, if you can, a high stakes presidential election in which everybody is too busy trying to get their rent paid to vote.
Shampoo is set across three days: the eve of the 1968 Presidential election, the day of the election, and the day after the election. Yet none of the main characters are ever depicted voting. Did they even have the time? They’re all so preoccupied with their interpersonal dramas that they miss the fact that a wife-beating fascist is about to wiggle his way into the White House and roll the Constitution into toilet paper. Sound familiar?
The twentysomethings and thirtysomethings that populate this central ensemble, represented by a hairstylist, an aging sugar baby, and a model, are by turns too busy defending their shabby credit, trying to score the next billable gig, and taking refuge in messy sexual encounters to vote or even have an opinion about what’s at stake for their country. The older generation, represented most prominently by the salon owner, an eerily familiar, orange-hued businessman with bad hair, and a middle-aged black shampoo attendant, are also by turns too insulated with wealth or too preoccupied with business concerns to care who the next leader of the free world is, or simply too ground down with labor to pay attention to to anything other than the work immediately in front of them. All the while, a seemingly endless, unjustified war plays out on media broadcasts that characters are either constantly talking over or turning down.
Again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Shampoo was certainly an interesting moment in Warren Beatty’s evolving career as a filmmaker. (I mean, if he wasn’t already planning to become a serious artist after this ass-blistering 1967 Esquire profile, his only other choice was the federal witness protection program.) He claims he’s the reason the film has any plot at all; his main collaborator, Robert Towne, was notorious for his tendency to tell better stories than he could actually complete on paper. Knowing what I know about Robert Towne pictures, I’ll buy that.
Though he intended it to be a satire about sexual politics and not such an overt wink and nod to an audience who had just endured a term and a half of Nixon, said Beatty: “The Nixon-Agnew scenes get much larger laughs than I had intended, because of what has happened since. I didn’t really plan it that way.”
Well, that’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? We plan, and Republicans laugh.
Are we Americans just doomed to keep reliving the 70s until we finally learn from them?
What’s crazy about watching Shampoo these days is how aggressively evident it makes our collective societal failure to learn from Watergate, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and well, the entire span of the late 60s and early 70s in general. While Nixon’s criminality might have seemed particularly anomalous at a time when you could probably still smell some of JFK’s aftershave in certain corners of the White House, with the benefit of 21st century hindsight we can now see that the main Watergate takeaway for most politicians of both parties was to do a better job of not getting caught doing their own dirty work. Michael Moore’s made a career out of belaboring this point, so I won’t, but suffice it to say, while Nixon may have made a hasty exit stage left off the White House lawn, that one sweaty apple did succeed in poisoning the barrel before he was shown the door.
Equally sad is the realization that the free love generation ended up in a hell of their own making, succumbing by the 1980s to the same greed and privilege they swore they’d never find themselves beholden to in the heady upheaval of 1968. Perhaps it was that there was nobody left to hold them accountable to their promise after a wave of assassinations and inside jobs stopped or effectively silenced the last truth tellers. Gone are the days of RFK quoting Aeschylus off the cuff on the Indianapolis Airport tarmac; we now settle for watching AOC assemble her Ikea furniture on Instagram Live to give us a glimmer of hope that statesmanship isn’t totally dead.
Of COURSE I found a way to work in both Kierkegaard and an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls mention!
There are a lot of crazy good performances in Shampoo, but the one that should really haunt the shit out of you is Julie Christie as Jackie Shawn, a mistress on the move. She’s a stone fox of a hustler doubling as Kierkegaard’s clown*, playing dumb just to get her rent paid and adamant to ignore what a terrifying signal that sends about the world she lives in, surrounded by people who want her to represent anything other than herself. One of the most pivotal haircuts in the film results when her ex insists that swing cut is an intervention to stop her from appearing so blatantly as an aging sex worker.
Shampoo, like Christie’s performance, is only sexy if you’re determined not to pay attention to what’s happening below the surface. Beatty wanted it to be an indictment of sexual and political hypocrisy. Pauline Kael wanted it to be an homage to Smiles of a Summer Night (or, according to the Bible of New Hollywood gossip, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Robert Towne told her that’s what she should say about it). Here’s what it’s ultimately become: a gorgeously sad picture about the year that a whole generation solidified its place as the canary in the coal mine.
The work of surviving this capitalist hellscape tends to keep the people who care from successfully demanding what they deserve.
In Shampoo, Goldie Hawn’s character Jill Haynes stands in for the audience, and thus spends the movie pondering when enough is really and truly enough. Satire is only useful if it compels productive reflection, and the only person who weighs the stakes accurately is Jill. She towers over Warren Beatty in her final scene, affirming the truth so she can carve a new path for herself. Or so she claims. The final shots, in which George Roundy stands atop a hill, watching another woman that he thinks he loves drive away with the rich old Republican who’s promised to take care of her, are a pretty harrowing portrait of the first in a series of generations that grew paralyzed with despair and preoccupied with survival as the world around them grew hotter and less hospitable.
Shampoo does a fairly good job of depicting an industry that gave me plenty of day work as an artist. I spent a good chunk of my twenties in salons, and as I was giving myself my first quarantine home-haircut this morning, it felt less like a self-esteem booster and more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Globally speaking, we’re at least five months into a scientific and medical event that, like climate change, is going to inexorably influence the way we participate in modern life from here forward. Many of us are in the unfortunate position of having to tune out political theater, as perilous as it may be, to focus on the more pressing issue of keeping our lights on.
But if there are those among us with the privilege to worry about anything greater, isn’t it about fucking time we demanded more, participated more, and also—collaborated more? I’m not talking about merely voting yet another old ignorant white guy out of the big chair, so much as I’m begging anybody with even a lick of means to meaningfully empower the less privileged in the furtherance of global unity, as a species; to set our greed and our philosophical differences aside for a few weeks to focus on meaningful survival.
After this shit’s under control, then by all means, I’ll fetch my popcorn and let Congress go back to giving each other titty twisters all day long (though you would hope quarantine would be the thing that breaks them of their fondness for it). But talk about fiddling while Rome flambés, my dudes.
*Here’s what Kierkegaard said:
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
And here’s what Jackie Shawn said:
“Well, first of all, I’d like to suck his cock.”