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The Last Picture Shows

The Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s, subject of the American Cinematheque’s marvelous retrospective, ”Celebrating the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s,“ is the forbidding monolith against which today‘s filmmakers must dash their heads in order to prove themselves. The period looms large in the collective folk memory of today’s Hollywood, ”independent“ or otherwise. In its deep waters we can locate the main currents of American film since: on the one hand, the ferociously personal filmmaking styles of directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Monte Hellman, benchmark examples of bloody-minded creative integrity in the face of all that money and Philistinism; on the other, the patient construction by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas of what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman later called ”The Temple of Dumb.“ The latter, a bread-and-circus cinema machine-tooled to delight and delude the masses, holds sway even today (call it the road more traveled), and both depends on and panders to money and Philistinism. From the New Hollywood we acquired such haggard notions as the director as rock star, the sole governing intelligence of a movie, and the enduring myth of youth as the savior of the studios. Peter Biskind‘s account of the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is even subtitled How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N‘ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Ah, but they couldn’t save themselves. It‘s a truth insufficiently acknowledged that the great heroes of our youth will usually betray us long before their hair turns gray. Or that they’ll lose their talent yet keep on working (Hi, Francis! Hi, Brian D!), or take a seat on the board and acquiesce to the defamation of all their youthful ideals, once so militantly held, now so quietly surrendered. The New Hollywood of the 1970s has become the Old Guard Hollywood of today. Directors who once waged a campaign of parricide against their cinematic forebears are now grown fat and slow. The vital, imaginative Don Vito Corleone has dissolved into dissolute, complacent Don Ciccio, old and deaf, awaiting the inevitable arrival of a younger man with a bigger knife.

He‘s not coming. Look at the work, a stunning collective achievement fit to intimidate any ambitious young assassin. Who would not be cowed by an era that produced work as broad in scope and ambition as Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, Chinatown, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the first two (the only) Godfathers, The Last Detail and Shampoo, Medium Cool, The Last Picture Show, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, The French Connection, Night Moves, Mikey and Nicky, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot? It‘s a body of work so formidable that it almost blocks our view of anything that predates it, much as a dam conceals the river that feeds it. One might be forgiven for thinking that there was no cinema at all before Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider -- no Minnelli, Ray or Sirk, no Hawks or Ford, no Hitchcock, Lang, Walsh or Curtiz -- and for many young people movies weren’t born at all until the day Star Wars was released.

Popular discussion of movies today seems trapped in a referential framework that extends only as far back as 1970. It forgets the traditions against which the new blood rebelled, the studio-employed artists from whom they did draw creative succor, the context -- the America -- in which they were raised, and the fact that this was the first generation of filmmakers actively to engage, not just with the national past, but with a specifically cinematic heritage. In a sense they made movies about America by making movies about, or in response to, other movies about America. This was, after all, the generation that grew up in what Philip Lopate has called ”the heroic age of moviegoing“ (which Paul Schrader has defined as ”traveling across town to see a stolen 8mm print of Nosferatu projected on a bed sheet in a basement“). They‘d gulped down foreign movies in campus film societies and art houses, wolfed everything from the New York Underground experimentalists to porno loops to the scabrous staples of the drive-in circuit. They saw every movie that early TV showed, in black-and-white, panned-and-scanned, eviscerated by commercials, and on tiny oval screens. Movies defined their understanding and depiction of life itself. Today we get the shagged-out last gasps of this approach, including the stragglers in Pulp Fiction’s wake at one extreme, and the endless garden-variety remakes, retreads and rip-offs that constitute today‘s mainstream at the other. The approach was new and productive back then, but it’s tired now: We get movies that are in part derived from movies that were themselves about earlier movies. That‘s already halfway toward six degrees of separation from reality.

One reason there was such an outburst of great filmmaking in the 1970s was that Hollywood more or less sat out the 1960s. When it came to understanding the youth demographic, the studios seemed as clueless and myopic as General Westmoreland. While the Tet Offensive raged, Hollywood was releasing white-elephant musicals like Star! and Doctor Dolittle. The suits were too busy presiding over the slow contraction of studio power, and no one was minding the store. All the action was in the margins, at Roger Corman’s threadbare finishing school for budding auteurs, and in the newly minted film schools, and at the places where Hollywood imbibed the counterculture and the New Left.

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.