Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When Movies Still Mattered: 1970s American Cinema

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
If you consider the films now touted as classics from that period – The Godfather - I and II, Taxi Driver, Cabaret, Mean Streets, The Conversation, Shampoo, The Last DetailNashville, Jaws, Carrie, The Last Picture Show, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ChinatownThe Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Badlands, Annie Hall, and M*A*S*H*, among so many others – you also note these are all movies that are accessible and easy to get into, much like the movies of the French New Wave (The 400 Blows, Breathless, Claire's Knee) which were a direct influence on would- be American filmmakers. That’s a salient point in our present and simplified film culture, where today so many film critics seem to think that glacially paced movies, where almost nothing really happens, are the bar to which filmmakers should aspire. How else to explain the critical acclaim for deadly dull films like Ballast or Meek’s Cutoff? American moviemakers in the '70s never forgot to entertain their audiences, partially because of the palpable excitement they felt on tackling previous taboo subjects. Many of those movies were also box office hits and even the unique, challenging films of Robert Altman (California Split, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville), though often dropped by one studio like a hot potato before being picked up by another, still eventually saw the light of day. I doubt too many original projects made today would get far past the proposal stage.

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
Most significantly, the movies from that time were relevant ones, reflecting concerns, issues and subject matter that was regularly being debated and talked about in the daily newspapers, and on the 6 o’clock news. However, the movies often went farther in exposing the ‘evils’ of the establishment, or the turbulence, ennui and violence roiling America, past and the present itself, in films like All The President’s Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blue Collar, Klute and many of the others mentioned above. I’d be hard-pressed to think of too many recent Hollywood pictures – besides L.A. Confidential, The Social Network, Inglourious Basterds, perhaps Win-Win – which can make that claim. Today’s Hollywood cinema is largely a comfortably escapist, mindless one where important issues, like the excesses of the Tea Party, America’s out of control gun culture, and the still noxious politics of race relations, is never uttered or at most glancingly addressed on screen. (TV, particularly HBO, has inherited that job, but that’s fodder for another post.) Even the so-called, and more substantive, American independent movies rarely break a sweat, if only because they seem hell bent and determined to eschew the entertaining aspects of telling a good story and telling it well. For example, critically praised movies like Winter’s Bone, Frozen River or Meek’s Cutoff are hardly aesthetically pleasing, or emotionally compelling films. It helped, too, that there were film critics, in particular the estimable Pauline Kael, who had enough cachet and clout to help turn potential bombs, like Nashville, into financial successes; critics today have been pretty much been entirely removed from the filmmaking equation. The rep house cinemas also played their  significant role, turning neglected and discarded films like Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show into cult hits. Nowadays, their perilous existence, due to the too hasty release of movies on DVD, renders them negligible.

(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.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and will be teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s, beginning on May 4, 2012.


  1. Hi Shlomo,
    That was a great read and very timely for me. I haven't seen many of those films, which is criminal. How could I have not watched Taxi Driver? Oh well, I'll get to it.

    I see a lack of comedies mentioned in your article. What do you think of comedies then and now? Warning, I'm a big, big "Hangover" fan.

  2. Great read. I couldn't agree more, especially about today's younger audience's short attention span. When I tell my younger co-workers that I watched one of the films you mentioned on DVD, they just don't understand, or worse, have never heard of them.

  3. this article completely sums up all my thoughts towards film today. I especially agree with the part where you say that "today so many film critics seem to think that glacially paced movies, where almost nothing really happens, are the bar to which filmmakers should aspire". i never watch newly released movies; i stop at the 90s. Its a shame. Thanks for the great read!

  4. Loved the article, and I am a member of the younger generation of film-goers you obviously lament(don't give up on us!). I've read Easy Riders and Raging Bulls and seen many of the films you cited (appreciated the mention of good recent films like Greenberg, Win Win, and Social Network as well). I wanted you to know I'm citing this article for a term paper I'm writing. Thanks for the info/opinions!

  5. I was a young adult during the 1970s, and fondly remember many of the films. I agree that it was the last great era of Hollywood. When movies were made for adults, and not as they are today---for the attention span of 10 year olds.

    However the decade also had its downside. Kung Fu flicks, women-in-prison films, and Blaxploitation movies were common during the decade.