|Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather|
Years ago, I remember watching Rancho Deluxe (1975) – a modern day comedy western starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston – and marveling how this rather middling, but entertaining, Hollywood movie was still smart, adult and honest. In fact, even a second-tier movie, such as Rancho Deluxe, from 1970s American cinema (the last Golden Age of American movies) was considerably more worthwhile than almost anything coming out from Hollywood, or American independent cinema, in the 21st century. As I prepare to teach a course on this decade in cinema history, it’s worth speculating on why movies turned out so consistently good and gratifying during that time.
Much has already been written, and showcased, about the era in documentaries such as Easy Rider, Raging Bulls (2002, based on Peter Biskind’s provocative 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood) and A Decade Under the Influence (2003). Both looked at how the younger set of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, as well as their elders Robert Altman (who didn’t begin his movie career until he was in his 40s) and Paul Mazursky were given the filmmaking reins in a failing and geriatric Hollywood that was out of touch with '60s American culture. Fearing complete failure, the ageing Hollywood had no choice but to take chances with whom it allowed to make movies. Also remarked upon was how a new breed of (often identifiably ethnic) actors and actresses (ordinary looking folk, and not gorgeous looking movie stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson) were allowed to play front and centre in movies that worked off of their eccentricities and plain appearances. But I’d argue that the dominant factor in why the movies were so good and relevant in the '70s was trust. The studio executives generally trusted (to a point) that these maverick moviemakers would still make films that had cachet and appeal and, more significantly, audiences could be expected to follow them in whatever endeavours they undertook in that regard. (The '30 and '40s movies, the last Golden Age before the '70s, did the same in an assumption of literacy on the part of the filmgoing audiences.)
|Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver|
Things like the war in Vietnam, race relations, the generation gap of the '60s, as well as the sheer joy these mavericks got from making movies, translated itself to the screen, making for vital exuberant and yes, enjoyable, films. (These days, entertainment seems to be a taboo word for certain film critics, who presume if a movie is too popular it can’t be any good.) But it was a two-way street, as moviegoers were prepared to go along with the directors, like Francis Coppola, who could unveil the corruption of Michal Corleone in The Godfather movies, a character who began as a decent, upright war veteran only to have his layers of civility stripped away to reveal a ruthless, evil man prepared to do anything, even kill his own brother if he deemed it necessary. (That’s the main reason The Godfather III didn’t work as Coppola, who basically made the film for the money, tried to redeem an unredeemable Michael.)
Similarly, Travis Bickle, so scarily acted by De Niro in Taxi Driver, was hardly a typical hero for the masses. Bickle was a psychically disturbed, socially inept war vet, who, to save a young prostitute named Iris (played by a 12-year-old Jodie Foster), embarked on a killing spree. While murdering Iris’s pimp, and assorted other lowlifes, could be morally justified, on some levels at least, it’s important to remember that Travis was also considering assassinating a political candidate, because he had been rebuffed by one of the pol’s campaign workers after a botched date. The heavy security surrounding the man is what finally dissuaded him from that path. Hardly a heroic act on Travis’ part. American movies of the '70s were full of such complex and nuanced characters, and regularly showcased actions committed by them that disturbed rather then elevated (elevating and sending the audience home happy is what you can expect and usually get in current American cinema). Be it Carrie lashing out and wiping out her graduating class at the climax of Carrie, or the gruesome fate of the incredibly likable ‘gunslinger’, played by Keith Carradine in McCabe & Mrs, Miller, '70s American cinema didn’t give you what you wanted or expected, but what felt appropriate to the story and setting. Does anyone think today that a supporting character like the pretty, innocent girl played by Susan Sarandon in the Robert Redford film The Great Waldo Pepper, would be allowed to die in an accident as she was in that film? The suits objected to that plot twist but, notably, they allowed it to occur anyway. That risk taking is also why even the so-called perceived failures of the 70s, like Scorsese's New York, New York, Spielberg's 1941 and William Friedkin's Sorcerer, still offered much of interest since chances were routinely being taken on screen.
Brave actors, too, played their part in the maturing process of American movies. Paul Newman’s profane hockey-playing asshole in Slap Shot; Al Pacino’s excitable, irresponsible bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon; Martin Sheen’s killer in Badlands, amongst others, were all characters that forced you to confront their negative sides, or tolerate their illegal actions or both. Today, you don’t often find American actors willing to challenge their audience by playing bad, stupid or mean. (That’s one reason the Brits have cornered the market on essaying villains on screen; their culture has never frowned on those types of roles.) The movies from that time also looked great, courtesy of ace cinematography, another departure from the present day where serious American movies, usually made independently of Hollywood, everything from Greenberg to The Kids Are All Right to Another Earth, look like washed out, faded copies of their brightly lit and beautifully shot predecessors.
|Martin Sheen in Badlands|
(In actuality, the films of the “'70s” I am teaching doesn't just cover the movies from the 1970s. For the purposes of my course, I begin in the late '60s with the groundbreaking violent Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch. and continue into the early '80s when movies like Diner, Heaven’s Gate. Pennies from Heaven, and Prince of the City, essentially products of the complex '70s, made it to screen; the corollary was a 1977 film like Star Wars, a simple-minded blockbuster that was the opening salvo in the death knell of the layered American cinema.)
For all the above reasons, it’s no surprise that I’d rather watch movies from that time period than most of what’s on offer today. I fear though that things won’t improve anytime soon even as American society reveals polarizations and divisions similar to those of the '60s which inspired and influenced the cinema of the '70s. Not too long ago, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan wrote a piece about today’s lamentable film culture, and related an anecdote about his 17-year-old son Arshile’s friends who found movies like The Godfather too slow, and films like Pulp Fiction too complicated. The former, of course, was leisurely but with lengthy and necessary scenes that had a point (heck, the opening and pivotal Corleone wedding sequence runs over 25 minutes; today it’d be cut down to ten, at most.) The latter, with its fractured narrative was hardly revolutionary, but to today's kids whose attention span is that of a gnat, I guess it would be. But if that’s the dominant perception of today’s younger film-going cohort, who can’t sit still for two hours without feeling the need to text or phone someone about what they’re watching it’s no revelation that the fast paced, quick cutting movies are pretty much all we’re stuck with. Fortunately, we have DVD to capture and preserve what’s been so well made in the past, even though I’d still rather have film prints in circulation for that purpose. Immerse yourself in the films of the '70s and see what great movie making was all about and remind yourself that today’s pallid offerings are no substitute for the real thing.
a course on American cinema of the 70s, beginning on May 4, 2012.