Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bert Schneider

Anyone who shoved Vietnam up Bob Hope's ass on an international stage is okay by me.

When Hearts and Minds won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975, co-producer Bert Schneider dispensed with standard showbiz thanks. Instead, he read a telegram from the head of Vietnam's Provisional Revolutionary Government delegation to the Paris peace talks.

Dinh Ba Thi conveyed "greetings of friendship to all American people," eliciting applause, boos and hisses. Francis Ford Coppola thought this was a beautiful gesture, especially in the wake of massive US violence in Vietnam. But Bob Hope was incensed and had Frank Sinatra read a statement deploring Schneider's behavior.

Hope had been Hollywood's biggest war booster. His annual Christmas specials from Southeast Asia tried to paint Vietnam in 1940s colors. But each year, Hope's message grew dimmer. His early upbeat commentary became sullen, resigned. To have some hippie producer celebrate American defeat while waving an Oscar was too much for Hope. He shot back, but history muffled its effect.

That was perhaps Bert Schneider's final victory. Up to Hearts and Minds, Schneider was New Hollywood's main engine. He, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner (BBS) produced Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, Drive, He Said, and The King of Marvin Gardens. After producing Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven in 1978, Schneider faded from view.

The revolution in American film that he helped foster succumbed to mall movies directed by Spielberg and Lucas. But for such a brief window, Schneider got a lot through.

Schneider not only saw potential in underground narratives, he created the space for their development. He found an audience hungry for relevant films, open to experimentation in mood and structure. Business was conducted in weed-scented air. But when Schneider pulled rank, he did so decisively and without apology.

He gave Dennis Hopper tremendous freedom to direct Easy Rider. As Hopper flirted with a four-hour bike film, violently resisting any changes, Schneider stepped in and cut Easy Rider down to a releasable length. Hopper protested, yet there was nothing he could do. Hopper's then-wife Brooke Hayward observed, "Bert was the heroic savior of that movie. Without him, there would never have been an Easy Rider."

Heroics aside, Schneider could be loathsome. According to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (and its accompanying documentary), Schneider was a drug-fueled egomaniac, given to rants and emotional abuse. There was nothing revolutionary about his success.

Alhough he mocked his capitalist status, gave money to the Black Panthers, helped hide Huey Newton and Abbie Hoffman from the FBI, Schneider remained in his prime a Hollywood power broker. Since his father, Abraham, ran Columbia Pictures, Schneider was familiar with the role.

For me, it was Schneider and Rafelson's creation of The Monkees that still resonates. (Paul Mazursky claimed authorship of The Monkees, saying that Schneider and Rafelson stole credit for the idea from him and partner Larry Tucker. But, aren't ideas like butterflies free?)

Yes, The Monkees were Beatles knock-offs. True, some of their music stretched bubble gum to the snapping point. Yet Raybert, Schneider and Rafelson's production company, assaulted mid-60s television with jump cuts, social satire, long hair, and loud music. They fused French New Wave with documentary pacing, live action cartoon energy with media self-awareness. It may look tame now, but The Monkees rattled TV conventions. It wasn't like any other show.

In their second and final season, The Monkees dropped the laugh track, pushed their sound into new areas, setting in motion their destruction. This literally came to a Head in 1968, as Schneider and Rafelson, with help from Jack Nicholson, deconstructed The Monkees as a money-making distraction. Shallow, corporate, lacking in weight.

"You say we're manufactured/To that we all agree/So make your choice and we'll rejoice/In never being free" sang Davy Jones, just before the infamous footage of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head. A girl's scream is heard, but it's in reaction to The Monkees taking the stage, not to the barbarism just shown.

You'd be hard pressed to find any manufactured teen brand since that juxtaposed war crimes with pop diversion. But then, none of them were produced by Bert Schneider. Imagine the film he'd make for Justin Bieber.