Two years back, Monte Hellman invited me up to his house to sip vodka tonics in the dark and watch the new restoration of Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), one of a pair of earnest Westerns he made in collaboration with his longtime friend Jack Nicholson. He didn’t know it at the time, but that day was my birthday—and there was no other way I would have preferred to spend it.
On a Saturday morning this July, I went up yet again to the Hollywood Hills to pay another visit to Hellman. Best known as the director of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), a reaction to Easy Rider (1969) and the mother of all existential road movies, Hellman now lives a rather quiet life in a sweet, sequestered hillside bungalow; maybe he’s always preferred solitude and solemnity, but most of the time he’s at home watching movies while the powers that be work toward getting the green light on a new picture: Love or Die, a romantic thriller with supernatural elements. The world needs more films by Monte Hellman. His most recent film, Road To Nowhere (2010), was an unnerving marvel; as much about the filmmaking process as it was a film in its own right.
Hellman is of a generation of American filmmakers who made their names as Hollywood was in the midst of a radical transition, with the major studios championing the highly personal cinema from directors who decades later remain household names and titans of the industry. Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, and Robert Altman all come to mind as artists who flourished in the age of New Hollywood, but Hellman’s films have always seemed more personal than necessarily commercial, as if every film—no matter its genre trappings or plot assignations—is actually about the same thing: the journey forward, no matter the purpose, no matter the cost, foolhardiness be damned. Like the last lines of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Hellman’s dog Kona, a shaggy-haired sheepdog that is intent on toppling you over until you rub its tummy, announces visitors with great fanfare. This time was no different. I arrived around noon. The dog, whose eyes are ever-obscured by its considerable mane, was right there to greet me. “Visitors come and go,” Hellman admits. Old friends stop by to see him unannounced, occasional house guests known and unknown rent a room from him by way of Airbnb, and even newer friends—the author included—reach out and make a plan to swing by now and again. As a result, Hellman rarely finds a need to leave the house. A nice dinner in Studio City here and there, but at 85-years-old that’s an OK way to be. After a mandatory cuddle with Kona, the canine cacophony died down enough that we could have a conversation. Hellman sat down for breakfast, one of the undisputed masters of American cinema enjoying his morning pancakes.
Hellman is much more enthusiastic about talking about other people’s films than his own, so that’s exactly what we did. We both watch a lot of movies in our spare time. It was only natural.
NOTEBOOK: Seen anything good lately?
MONTE HELLMAN: No.
HELLMAN: I take it back. I did see Garden of Evil. Henry Hathaway. 1954. And it was actually very good.
NOTEBOOK: Seen anything new lately?
NOTEBOOK: Are all new films incompetent?
HELLMAN: Mostly, yes. Except The Counselor by Ridley Scott - and only the Director’s Cut. Don’t see the Theatrical Version. It butchers what is otherwise a beautiful film filled with great performances from top to bottom. Even the smallest parts are filled with life—characters who only exist for a single scene are as fully realized as the main characters. A wonderful film. You oughta see it.
NOTEBOOK: Another filmmaker friend of mine, Spencer Parsons [director of Saturday Morning Mystery (2012) and Bite Radius (2016)], refers to The Counselor as ‘the 21st century Skidoo.’
HELLMAN: What does that even mean?
NOTEBOOK: Something about a woefully misunderstood film with a cast that captures its era, I think. What is it that most new films lack, in your opinion?
HELLMAN: They aren’t learned in the language of the cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Does it have anything to do with digital versus 35mm?
HELLMAN: No, no, no. I love digital. That’s got nothing to do with it…
NOTEBOOK: What do you think that it is then? Is there a shared quality among new releases?
HELLMAN: American films these days are all designed by committee, by a team of people.
NOTEBOOK: What is it that they say? That a camel is a horse designed by committee?
HELLMAN: [laughs] Yeah, something like that. 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.
NOTEBOOK: But aren’t there still some exceptions to what you’re talking about?
HELLMAN: Not really. The films that got made used to be the job of just one man or woman [per studio]. He or she had taste, good or bad. It didn’t matter whether it was right or wrong.
NOTEBOOK: But what about independent films? Surely, there’s hope there.
HELLMAN: Of course, there are exceptions, but most independents are just another arm of the studio.
NOTEBOOK: You know... I’ve been seeing a lot of new releases as of late.
HELLMAN: Have you been feeling a certain compulsion to punish yourself?
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] No, but I admit it’s out of character. I just recently saw Kong: Skull Island, for instance.
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, the new King Kong movie. I had low expectations, but I genuinely thought it was great.
NOTEBOOK: Unbelievably, it’s been consistently in theaters since its release in March. That’s not nothing.
HELLMAN: I can usually tell within the first minute whether a film is good. And, if it’s bad, I turn it off after ten or twenty minutes.
NOTEBOOK: That quickly?
HELLMAN: That quickly.
NOTEBOOK: What is it that you’re looking for?
HELLMAN: I’m looking for something to surprise me.
NOTEBOOK: What’s an example of something that you turned off after a few minutes?
HELLMAN: La La Land.
NOTEBOOK: I should’ve guessed.
HELLMAN: I just couldn’t watch it.
NOTEBOOK: I couldn’t make it more than thirty minutes into La La Land myself, but it obviously has some appeal. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that the Hollywood Bowl had ‘La La Land in Concert?’
HELLMAN: You know I don’t know the answer to that question.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think might be the appeal for La La Land’s acolytes?
HELLMAN: I don’t know, but I’d bet almost anything that they’ve never seen another musical before.
NOTEBOOK: It’s the biggest, loudest musical of the moment and maybe it’s just easier for people to like it?
HELLMAN: Something like that.
We talked about La La Land for some time, then mercifully moved on to other topics. However, we landed on something much heavier: the irrefutable specter of death and the ever-present reminder of mortality. I made a reference to a previous time I had been visiting when the actor Leonard Mann [Dr. Dario Favella in Wifemistress (Marco Vicario, 1977); Bart Winslow in Flowers in the Attic (Jeffrey Bloom, 1987)] stopped by without remembering exactly when it had been. “Yesterday, today, a month ago; it’s really all the same for me. I’m just here in the present. When you get to be my age, hardly a week passes where you don’t lose someone you love.” He mentioned the late Martin Landau. Monte and Marty had been friends for over sixty years. “It’s painful to lose someone you’ve known for as long as that.” I didn’t dispute the claim. We sat in silence together for a few moments, having so recently shared laughs over something as monumentally superficial as La La Land. Maybe therein lies La La Land’s mysterious appeal. Then again, it seemed like that earlier part of our conversation existed from a whole lifetime ago.
When the silence lifted, Hellman said, “Let me show you some of the recent films I actually liked.” He led me to a back corner of the bungalow. As soon as we stood, Kona instinctively raced off and beat us both to the screening room. A modest space surrounded on most sides by stocked shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays, Hellman picked two titles down off of the shelf and cued them up. He asked me to shut the door on our left. A curtain hung loosely on our right, only letting in the faintest noticeable sliver of light from outside. He gently guided the fabric until no light shone through to interrupt our focus on the screen. It felt as if we were engaging in a ritual of sorts; preparing a holy space for worship. Our own private temple of cinema. In the darkness, I would finally see clearly the rare sort of film that is simultaneously contemporary and learned in the language of cinema, contrapuntal to the American independents on display just down the hill.
He showed me the opening sequences of two films: an Ecuadorian film, Silence in Dreamland (Tito Molina, 2013) and an Albanian film, Three Windows and a Hanging (Isa Qosja, 2014), both examples of slow or durational cinema. The first recalled Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) insofar as it depicted a woman alone in her flat, engaged in a series of mundane tasks; exasperating to witness, yet oddly rewarding to behold. The second began with a comical prologue of three ornery, elderly men leaning up against a tree, arguing about which among them has drifted into senility. These men might have nothing to do with the film’s narrative, but they are observers—a kind of lazy chorus for the comparatively very serious subject that is gradually revealed in the next scene. The camera begins on a woman and a translator, talking to an unseen figure and gently coaxing out of her a kind of testimony. Just as gently, the camera invisibly tracks back over the course of a few minutes to reveal the women being spoken to by the other characters. Only when the camera at long last reveals the unseen woman does she reveal herself in an emotional sense. Both are films that take their time, that exist in the moment, and that leave a space for their audience to breathe; that communicate meaning instead of simply telling a story.
As we sat in silence together, taking it all in, sharing the same sacred space, Hellman wordlessly conveyed to me this was what had caught his eye, what had surprised him: pure cinema—of the sort that shows without telling, that embraces cinematic language in even the smallest gesture.