Sunday, February 19, 2023

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: An Interview with Charles Taylor

Author and film critic Charles Taylor. (Photo: Lelia McCabe)

I've long been a fan of 1970s American movies, a time when American cinema mattered and when it was a far cry from the mostly bland, pallid fare on tap in America today. Films from that era – The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Nashville, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Conversation, Carrie, The Sugarland Express, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Picture Show, Blue Collar, The Landlord and many more – were nuanced, complex, often morally ambiguous, and reflected the breadth and depth of American society and the issues of the day that mattered. And the many talented filmmakers making those movies, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Mazursky, strived both for relevance and for impact but also displayed a sheer excitement in making movies that translated to the screen and the audience's enjoyment of what they were seeing.  For that reason, that thrilling era of moviemaking has also been the subject of a favourite course, American Cinema of the '70s: The Last Golden Age, that I have taught over the years and that I'm constantly tweaking – and, hopefully, improving – with each iteration. When Charles Taylor's superb book Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s (Bloomsbury USA) came out in 2017, I was so impressed that I switched things up and made it the subject of one of my classes. 

Taylor’s book focused on fifteen '70s American films, across all genres, lesser-known ones for the most part, that he felt had value and relevance but for various reasons – too many higher-profile titles for the film critics of the day to review, too many quality films in general for all of them to get their proper due – hadn't been noticed or lauded like they should have been. Taylor wasn't saying that any of those movies he covered, except for Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, were masterpieces but that they still needed to be written about and explored. (My personal pick in Taylor's vein, which I taught in my Shadow Cinema class, was Jonathan Kaplan’s Truck Turner, an African American-centered urban drama starring Isaac Hayes, whose many pleasures include Nichelle Nichols, Lt, Uhura from the original Star Trek TV series, essaying a foul-mouthed madam.)  And unlike fan/filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who in his new book Cinema Speculation (2022, Harper), writes about '70s American films he was influenced or struck by, I think Taylor, a smart, perceptive critic, makes his case for his choices. Conversely, I still don't feel compelled to check out many of the films Tarantino pushes in his book (The Getaway, Daisy Miller, Funhouse) that I haven't seen.

For the record, I had previously seen about half the movies covered in Taylor's book: Citizen’s Band, Winter Kills, Hard Times, Foxy Brown, Coffy, Robert Aldrich's revisionist Western Ulzana's Raid (a film I consider a masterpiece) and Eyes of Laura Mars (which I rewatched after reading Taylor’s take on it). The other films in the book I sought out on the basis of Opening Wednesday at a Drive-In or Theater near You. And while I didn’t like all of them, it’s a mark of Taylor's smarts and abilities that I could reappraise Irvin Kershner’s urban horror film Eyes of Laura Mars, which I hadn’t much liked the first time around, and would even consider revisiting Peckinpah's modern Western, which I’d deeply disliked.

I interviewed Taylor at the end of 2019 for a piece that was to be tied in with my (then) upcoming '70s American Cinema class but due to COVID’s interruption that course didn't resume again until late last year. 


Ulzana's Raid (1972).

Shlomo Schwartzberg:  How did you decide on these specific films? You write about White Line Fever and Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary in the introduction but they're not given chapters of their own. 

Charles Taylor: Well, it was mainly what I had seen, what I was seeing as I got interested in catching up, and what movies I thought I had something to say on. I explain in the book how that discussion about abortion in White Line Fever sort of crystallized everything for me. But I scratched the essay on WLF from the final book because I couldn't make it live past its politics to my satisfaction. That's my limitation, not the movie's. I didn't want to make these movies sermons.

SS: Are there any movies you wanted to include in the book but couldn’t because you weren’t able to get your hands on a copy of the film? I want to teach frank Perry's comedic Western Rancho Deluxe, for example, but can't acquire that one.

CT: Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, directed by Dick Richards and written by John Kaye. It's a lovely road movie. I've seen it exactly once, the weekend it came out, and not since. It played a few years back in NYC and I couldn't get to it. In the case of American Hot Wax, I relied on memory. The movie isn't available on DVD or Blu-ray, reportedly because Paramount will not pay the money needed to clear up the music rights. I also would like to have re-seen Buster and Billie, a kind of combination rural romance and revenge movie with an actress named Joan Goodfellow who I remember was pretty terrific. As for things I didn't write about that were available, I have still never seen Richard Fleischer's Mandingo, which has developed a strong reputation since it came out. Part of me wishes I'd taken another look at Across 110th Street, but Greil Marcus wrote about that so memorably in his great Mystery Train. In retrospect I might have taken another look at Outlaw Blues, a kind of hybrid of Nashville and The Harder They Come. And Andre de Toth's unbelievably nihilistic war movie Play Dirty.

SS: You write a lot about how today's American movies are formulaic and soulless. I'd argue, too, for their lack of moral ambiguity, which has only popped up in a few movies of recent vintage: The Social Network, Spotlight, Zodiac, Nightcrawler, Black Swan. The '70s American cinema also really reflected how Americans lived then, in their locations all across the U.S., not just in a few big cities, and in their milieus, including working-class. American TV is where you get a sense of how people are living now.  

CT: I don't watch much TV. A recent piece said it's become like homework, which I think is true, something you must keep up on. I used to think that long-arc storytelling on episodic TV gave the lie to the idea that TV destroyed attention spans, but people binge nowadays – and the opposite of binging is purging. It seems to me the purpose of this for so many people is not to watch it but to be able to say they watched it. And I got tired of being disappointed by highly touted shows. I lasted two episodes of Mad Men, which I found moralistic and superior to the era it showed, and the same for Breaking Bad, in which I thought the "darkness" was ladled on and, because of that, almost wholly phony. There's this push, I think, to make things dark and it would be more honest if they just did it the way exploitation movies did instead of claiming they're making a major statement. What I have enjoyed is The Deuce, which is remarkable in that without sugar-coating anything it doesn't fall prey to that idiot moralization about porn and sex work you can find in almost any police show where it comes up. I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Was nuts about the Twin Peaks reboot, and the current Veronica Mars reboot.

SS: Beyond letting newcomers make uncompromising movies for a while under the studio system, why do you think film audiences were so receptive to these movies, many of which did well at the box office? The impression I get from the docs on the subject is that the populace got tired of these negative, “defeatist” (as Elvis Mitchell called them) '70s, films but is that true? Or did the filmgoers figure that if Star Wars and Rocky were all they were going to get onscreen, they would just make the most of their limited choices? 

CT: Well not all of these movies did well at the box office. Certainly, most of Altman's didn't. Mean Streets didn't. I think the audience slowly but surely got out of the habit, or were getting out of the habit, and when the MBAs who were taking over the studios saw, with SW, a path forward, they took it. People blame Jaws for this, and while it showed the suits it was possible to make a lot of money fast, it was also an adult movie – which you can't say about Star Wars. (The Empire Strikes Back is another story  –sci-fi noir, and directed by Irvin Kershner.) And I'd say, for all its wish fulfillment, Rocky has some real grit. And that's picked up on in Creed, which I think is a wonderful movie, and a movie on some level about the passing of white America. So just as the '70s boom was a confluence of events, so was what ended it.

SS: You mentioned in one interview on shadow cinema that even some of the bigger movies of the era – Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind had an emotional  core entirely missing from the current American cinema. Don't today's talented filmmakers still want to impart that in their films? Who do you think does that today?

Toshi Matsuo and Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

CT: If fantasy movies were being made on the level of Guillermo del Toro, I'd have nothing to complain about. Crimson Peak should be as beloved as Rebecca is. I think Tarantino adores movies, adores writing, adores actors and he invests a great deal of emotion in his obsessions. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is pop Proust in its love and yearning for the past. James Gray is a major American filmmaker who has never had the hits he should, though Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z and The Immigrant are all major works, each one ambitious, each one with human content. Edward Norton's Motherless Brooklyn is far from perfect but wonderful in its way, a kind of dream of '50s New York that never loses sight of the people or story for all its attempts to be this overarching vision of social history. It's not that there are no good moviemakers today, but you can't be a director, can't make creative choices, on a budget of a quarter billion dollars. At that level you're nothing but a manager employed to guarantee the studio a return on its dollar. 

SS: How much of a negative part does political correctness play in stifling potentially challenging cinema? I'm thinking of the scene in Joe where he uses the N word incessantly in his rant in the bar or when Nicholson's McMurphy calls Nurse Ratched a cunt in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Those scenes, and the humiliation of Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H, likely would not pass muster today. Does the millennial generation want everything neatly and cleanly laid out for them in their movies? It appears so to me.

CT: Yeah, I think they do. Not all of them, but enough, and the openhandedness of '70s moviemaking just confounds them. They don't quite know what to say or to think when a character is not presented as definitively this or that. And that's true, it seems to me, for all the art they encounter. But then most millennials are not going to the movies. I'm amazed how little my students see, how little they've heard of.

SS: I thought a while back that Trump's presidency would galvanize American moviemakers to start making trenchant, relevant films again as a form of protest. But that does not appear to be the case. Can another golden age of American cinema comparable to the '70s ever recur?

CT: I don't know if it can ever recur. Certainly, when moviemaking is shifting away from being a communal experience to a solitary one, it's harder and harder for any kind of movement to take place. The truest sign of Trump in the movies is, I think, the superhero movies. Not in their ideology or anything like that, but in their playing to an audience's preconceived notions, their unwillingness to challenge those notions. Scorsese was right: these aren't movies, they are purely product. You can say that about a lot of commercial movies in the past but often, even when they were bad, which was most of the time, those movies were made by people who had a desire to make good movies, to tell stories, to evoke human feeling. Now trailers and ads don't even tell you who are in those movies. People are irrelevant to them. If the studios could figure a way to get actors out of them, I think they would. But to me they are most like Trump in that they play to a base – overwhelmingly male and adolescent – and the studios, just like the GOP, are reluctant to do anything different and lose the base. And the sensibility they are in thrall to, the sensibility of the fans of these movies, is one that calls women critics who pan them cunts or bitches, or threatens them with rape or death. There's to me a real connection between the mentality of the superhero movie fans and Trump's blackshirts. 

SS: Why don't today's movies take the chances that so many films from the '70s did?

CT: It's hard to say. We have drifted further and further into rigid moral certainty, the left as well as the right, and you can't take chances in that kind of atmosphere, when there isn't an audience demanding moral certainty. Also, as more and more adults abandon movies for TV (the vaunted current greatness of which I find dubious) and movies continue to give themselves over to spectacle aimed at an adolescent mindset, movies become about getting a return on investments before anything else. Now, of course, with the right in America championing white nationalism, and the far left succumbing to a kind of vicious moralistic censoriousness, just making something for an intelligent audience is a challenge.

SS: Any feedback from the directors or actors you wrote about?

CT: No. There was a festival of the films in the book at UCLA and I was in LA for the opening weekend. A few weeks after, they were showing Cicso Pike and Bill Norton, the writer-director, was there. I left my old paperback copy of the script for him to sign and he included a nice note for thinking about the movie. 

SS: Finally, what new revelations about the era you wrote about in the book, if any, came to you for the first time as you examined it more closely? And are you surprised by the positive critical reaction to Coming Wednesday to a Theater or Drive-In Near You, and in particular by young people?

CT: I don't know if I have any new revelations (except that Sheree North is incredibly sexy in Charley Varrick). I'm grateful for the nice things that have been said about the book. I didn't know a lot of young people liked it, but that's nice to know.

 – Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He has taught film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.

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