Daily Archives: September 4, 2019

Shampoo (1975)

*. Shampoo came out the same year as Altman’s Nashville. What made the connection, for me, is the soundtrack. Not the music, but the layering of voices and other aural cues.
*. This layering is introduced right at the start, as we face a mostly black screen and hear the overlapping sounds of two people making love in bed, a radio broadcast, and a phone ringing. There’s nothing to look at, so your ears are put to work trying to sort this out.
*. Another link to Nashville can be seen in the film’s glancing look at politics. As in Nashville, Shampoo is anchored in a political moment. It’s the eve of the 1968 presidential election. We see (and hear) of this, but it’s something that plays in the background, like the roving speaker van of Hal Phillip Walker.
*. But is Shampoo a political movie? That angle is something that critics try their hardest to play up, but for me it remains mostly background noise, the equivalent of those posters of Nixon (and, in one shot, Reagan) that we occasionally see.
*. Beatty has lent a hand, trying his best to help people find a political message in the proceedings, but I find his efforts entirely unconvincing. Apparently he saw some kind of connection between the hypocrisy of politicians and the hypocrisy of George’s relationships and our attitudes toward sex generally. Which really doesn’t take you very far.
*. Frank Rich: “The movie’s characters — not just Lester’s crowd but also the less affluent George and his harem — are laughably insulated from and oblivious to the violence and political tumult ripping America apart in 1968. They care about the election only to the extent that it may affect their bottom line. Even when the party at the Bistro, in the film’s most mysterious moment, is suddenly aborted by a loudspeaker announcement instructing everyone to evacuate the restaurant ‘as quietly and quickly as possible,’ no one clamors for an explanation (which is never forthcoming) — they simply head on to the next party.”
*. So is it a political film? Is the personal political? Or is the very idea that politics really aren’t that important itself a political stand to take?

*. A final link to Nashville is in the interweaving of different stories. At first this might seem like I’m trying too hard to make a connection, since Shampoo is focused solely on a day in the frantic life of George Roundy, which is very different from what Altman gives us. But how can any movie be more than just vaguely entered on Roundy? He’s such an empty vessel it’s hard to see him as any kind of narrative baseline. The various threads of the story pass through him while he only runs in place. “You never stop moving and you never go anywhere” Jill (Goldie Hawn) tells him, a judgment nicely reflected in the scene at the party where he keeps running back and forth, always just missing getting where he wants to be.

*. Roundy is a himbo. I’ve even heard him referred to a couple of times as the film’s “dumb blonde.” Pauline Kael was clearly smitten by him, calling him “almost a sexual saint,” but one could expect the same salvation from a dildo. Even Carrie Fisher’s teenage Lorna possesses a maturity far in advance of where George is at. He learns nothing, though he does manage to teach others. He doesn’t grow up (despite Jill’s encouragement), but all the women around him do. And I feel at the end as though he never will grow up. Shampoo is the anti-Graduate: we feel sure that Jackie has made the right choice by marrying a square (Lester must be invested in plastics), and getting on with her life. She’s not going to blow this chance. Whereas it’s obvious that Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross have made a big mistake.
*. This isn’t to say that Shampoo is without a tragic dimension. But George’s tragedy isn’t expressed in his tears but in the lines on his face. He’s getting old. And isn’t that the real tragedy of all our lives? We’re always losing something. George won’t be beautiful forever. Hell, he may even start to go bald some day.
*. I wonder how much it would cost to buy the music that’s on the soundtrack here if you were to make this film today. Probably more than the cost of the rest of the movie.
*. Another sign of the times is George riding around on his motorbike without a helmet. But then, if you had hair like that (and the movie was originally going to be called Hair) would you wear a helmet? You’d rather die.
*. Given how we view these things today, would we say that George rapes Jackie? She does say No. Back in 1975 audiences would understand that she didn’t mean it. Maybe this is an answer to David Thomson’s question about why sex was never like this again.

*. The presentation of George as gay is something borrowed from Restoration comedy, with the steam-room scene clearly meant as an homage to the china scene in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. But if you go see The Country Wife today (at least based on the productions I’ve seen) they really play up the gay angle a lot more than it is here. In fact, George doesn’t really give anyone reason to suspect he’s gay. It seems as though Lester is the only person who thinks he might be. So that angle is nicely underplayed.
*. But this brings us back to what I think is the key point, and something else Shampoo shares not only with Nashville but with many of the great American films of this period. In its layering, visual and aural, understatement becomes everything. We’re meant to consider the ways that unimportant things, even things that are hard to notice, may be in some way significant. George doesn’t notice Nixon’s election, so we’re left to wonder how important that was, if at all. On the other hand, while it does seem as though losing Jackie is a blow, can we doubt that he’ll get over it, probably later this afternoon?
*. Is the superficial, finally, only superficial? Here’s a verse from Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire” (1987): “Can you squeeze me into an empty page of your diary and psychologically save me? I’ve got faith in you. I sense the power within the fingers, within an hour the power could totally destroy me, or, it could save my life.” That’s an observation that seems important to me watching Shampoo, and one that is not, in my experience anyway, hyperbole.

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