On a more commercial front, the boundaries were also being tested. Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968) pushed soft-core pornography to new extremes, while Roger Corman, who began the decade with a series of inventive horror films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), ended the decade with socially conscious (and highly profitable) youth films such as The Wild Angels (1966), centering on the exploits of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, featuring real members of the club as extras in the film, and The Trip (1967), the first Hollywood film to seriously explore the use of LSD.
Through his connections as a director and producer, Corman also continued to give younger filmmakers a shot at directing their first films, so long as they stayed on time and under budget. In 1968, Corman gave film critic Peter Bogdanovich the chance to make his debut film, Targets, based on the real-life Texas Tower sniper killings by Charles Whitman in 1966. With only $130,000 at his disposal and a minimal schedule, Bogdanovich, who deeply admired the work of Howard Hawks, crafted an elegantly structured narrative centering on aging horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff in his last truly distinguished role) doing a press junket for his final film, while clean-cut American boy Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) goes on a shooting rampage, killing his family one by one and then picking off strangers from the top of a huge oil tank. The fading star and the sniper cross paths in the final moments of the film, as Orlok attends a drive-in screening of his film while Thompson shoots at the patrons from behind the screen. The sharp, spare film was a revelation, launching Bogdanovich’s career and earning the respect of the Hollywood veterans he idolized.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first Hollywood film was Zabriskie Point (1970), a flawed but ambitious attempt to examine America’s youth culture that used many of the techniques of the Hollywood independent film (location shooting, nonprofessional actors, minimal script) to become Antonioni’s most quintessentially American production. Mark (Mark Frechette) goes on the run after killing a policeman during a demonstration, stealing a light plane to escape to the desert. There he meets the disenchanted Daria (Daria Halprin), who is disgusted by her job as secretary for the relentlessly corporate Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who also implicitly wants to keep Daria as his mistress.
After a brief romantic interlude, Mark and Daria are separated, and Mark is subsequently killed by the police. Disconsolate, Daria gazes off into the distance, looking at the enormous, ultra-modern desert house that serves as the conference center for Lee’s company. In a stunning final sequence, Daria watches as the enormous glass house explodes over and over again, symbolizing Antonioni’s rejection of materialist culture. To the sounds of Pink Floyd’s mesmeric “Careful with That Axe, Eugene,” we see the house repeatedly self-destruct from numerous vantage points, and then we move inside to watch a television set, a refrigerator, racks of clothing, and other consumer goods explode in super slow-motion, as chunks of food, shreds of clothing, and bits of glass and metal drift serenely off into space. In the film’s final shots, we see that the house is actually intact; the entire series of explosions has occurred solely in Daria’s mind. While marred by the uncertain performances of the two leads (both nonprofessionals) and some rather unconvincing dialogue, the film is visually stunning. Antonioni continued with his thematic preoccupations of loneliness and loss of identity in such later films as Professione: reporter (The Passenger, 1975) and Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995), despite a debilitating stroke in 1985. He died in 2007.
John Cassavetes, an intense young actor who was deeply impatient with what he viewed as the mediocrity of the many Hollywood films in which he appeared, shocked audiences with Shadows (1959), his first film as director, a 16 mm feature shot for less than $40,000. He went on to direct the dramas Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), and many more deeply personal films in the 1970s, all made entirely according to the dictates of his own conscience while still appearing in more conventional films to fund his work as a director. Using improvisatory techniques and a handheld camera, Cassavetes made decidedly independent films that were uniquely his own and existed entirely outside the Hollywood mainstream.