Karen Black's demise leaves us with an opportunity to revisit a great decade of personal cinema
The reason for remembering an artist who’s passed on is usually personal. Unless you’re a writer for a publication and you’re asked to do the obituary, you respond to someone’s death because you connected with them. You remember a singer’s songs or a director’s films or a performer’s scenes because you were touched in some way — and the movies, with their bigness and their pervasiveness, have a way of touching us that produces immense gratitude (for what we have received from these artists) as well as sorrow (for what we will no longer receive from them).
Karen Black, who passed away earlier this month, wasn’t exactly one of my favourite actresses — mainly because I’ve seen her in just a handful of films, and none of them on the big screen. And yet, her passing made me stop in my tracks because she was part of some very significant 1970s films. That happens to be my favourite era of Hollywood.
There was definitely something in the water then. Of course, no one in their senses would authoritatively declare that the moviemaking of the 1970s was better than that in, say, the 1950s — if the former, thanks to directors influenced by European New Wave cinema, could be praised for breaking censorship taboos, then the latter could be praised for creating great art within those very strictures. But what I love about the films of the 1970s is how personal they are.
That’s again a loaded word, and this is not to say that personal films had never been made earlier, but a great many of these films speak to me personally. There’s one aspect of personal where we say that the films mirror the personalities and concerns of the filmmaker, but there’s another aspect of personal that speaks to us, mirroring our own personalities and concerns and escapist what-ifs — no matter where we are on the planet, no matter what race or ethnicity we belong to. And the films of the 1970s were very rich in that aspect of personal.
Take Five Easy Pieces. The idea of “dropping out” resonated strongly with me at some point. What would it be like if I dropped everything, everyone and just... disappeared? What if I started, from scratch, a new life, inventing a new persona so different from the older one that no one would believe that I had existed as the earlier I. Or take Jeremiah Johnson. What if I unplugged myself from the world around and retreated into Nature, using my hands not for tapping on keyboards but for the things they were originally intended, like procuring food and building a shelter?
Or take Scarecrow. What would it be like if I found a friend on a long road trip, a friend who seems more in sync with me that anyone before, and most likely anyone after? Or take Annie Hall. Why should one’s neuroses and prickly peculiarities be hidden from a lover? Why not just lay everything bare and see if they’re up for the challenge?
Karen Black was the girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces. I’ve talked about this film before in the context of Jack Nicholson, but this is as much Black’s story. As the film opens, we see images of Nicholson, the dropout from high society, working on an oil rig. But what we hear is her song: Stand by your man. For a film that’s not a musical, it’s astonishing how much in sync the lyrics are. (That was another thing about these older films. Music wasn’t just wallpaper, it actually meant something.)
Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman... Giving all your love to just one man... You’ll have bad times... And he’ll have good times... Doin’ things that you don’t understand... But if you love him... You’ll forgive him... The lyrics could have been written for her. That’s who she is. She loves just this one man. He’s all she wants. And he has good times with other women, and when he comes back to her, she forgives him, because her neediness is so much. It’s a heartbreaking character. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal.
The final scene, of course, is hers, but in case you haven’t seen the film, let me direct you to the part where Black hops into a cab and lands up at Nicholson’s upscale house. (It’s his father’s house really, and he’s there to check in on the old man.) He lodged her in a motel and didn’t call her and didn’t leave her with enough money. Still, she doesn’t complain. Over a meal, she tries to ingratiate herself with this posh set, and this irritates him because he’s seeing his two worlds collide, the one he left, the one he made for himself.
And through her, we face his existential conundrum: Where does he really belong? It’s a question I faced with an NRI over the phone recently.
Does she belong in India, where she was born, where she grew up? Or does she belong in the country she’s made her home? It’s as personal as cinema can get.