By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
After the success of Easy Rider, the studio doors opened long enough to admit a cadre of Bolshie longhairs. Dennis Hopper wasted the opportunity by becalming himself in the Sargasso of useless celluloid from which The Last Movie was finally, incoherently extruded. But the others -- Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, et al. -- gained a more permanent foothold on Hollywood‘s lower cliff faces. Those who prospered -- along with sympathetic older directors like Siegel, Peckinpah and Aldrich -- then embarked on the same cycle of painful iconoclasm and revisionism that had galvanized every other American institution -- campus, union, congregation, corporation, government and military -- from the mid-1960s onward.
Forget the artists. Look at the work. The films of the 1970s benefit in retrospect from the fact that never before or since in Hollywood have filmmakers been so directly engaged with the tumultuous times in which they lived. Given Vietnam and Nixon’s resignation, and with the Bicentennial falling in the middle of the decade, it‘s hardly surprising that the primary subject matter, directly or indirectly, is America itself. You’ll be amazed at how many of the films use the Stars and Stripes as a frightening totem, how many small-town patriotic parades are depicted, along with other empty, dying rituals, from beauty pageants to election campaigns. Genres are ripped apart and rebuilt for new ends (not the least of which is the destruction of genre itself), or have their structures transposed into other eras, other genres altogether (Alan Pakula‘s ’70s paranoia movies are built on a Western template). Long-disparaged genres like the gangster movie and the horror film were retooled for serious purposes. (The two Godfathers are less crime movies than a prolonged examination of the personal costs of what John Gregory Dunne called ”the passage from steerage to suburbia in three generations.“) Along with genre and narrative structure (which absorbed the influence of the Europeans, especially Godard), national icons were also up for grabs. In The Long Goodbye and Chinatown, Philip Marlowe and J.J. Gittes are far from white knights. Little Big Man‘s General Custer is vain and insane, Wild Bill Hickok a shambolic, cowardly drunk. Popeye Doyle is a racist asshole. Bonnie and Clyde are misunderstood heroes, not murderous psychopaths. And veterans like the insane Travis Bickle are a million miles from the decent trio that returned from WWII in The Best Years of Our Lives.
The result is a gigantic, unplanned collective critique, a mosaic of the times, one that the American Cinematheque has gamely resurrected in a scaled-down version that offers most of the highlights. For the record, it’s a little perfunctory when it comes to blaxploitation, regional fringe indies like Romero and Waters, and movies by women (of which there were admittedly very few). Personally, I wish they‘d capped the series with a death-of-the-’60s double bill like Who‘ll Stop the Rain and Cutter’s Way. But this is to carp unnecessarily: The Cinematheque offers endless avenues of exploration for those encountering the period with virgin eyes. Oh, how I envy you.
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