Thursday, August 11, 2011

THE BEST DECADE EVER FOR FILM


Washington is filled with scandal. America is still mired in an unpopular war. The jobless rates are sky-high, plagued by a brutal recession. And the Presidency of the United States is ridiculed on a daily basis. Modern times? No, that was the Seventies. There are many parallels between the crises confronting the nation then and now. Unfortunately, the reaction to all this from Hollywood couldn’t be more opposite from that decade to this one. 
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, about to stick his nose where it doesn't belong, in CHINATOWN (1974)

In the 1970’s, Watergate, Viet Nam, the crap economy and Tricky Dick helped influence the celluloid dream makers to make some of the most daring, socially conscious and political cinema in the history of movies. The product coming out then was absolutely startling. No matter what the genre there was a raised consciousness to it. It was as if the filmmakers took on the decade as a call to arms and vowed to create films that were smarter, more important, and with a lot to say about the world they lived in. Many people, me included, think that the decade of films in the Seventies was the greatest of all time. For many, even the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930’s couldn’t hold a candle to the collection of movies that came out of the town during that Watergate/Viet Nam/Nixon era. Doubt me? Consider this list of classics, all made in a ten-year period:

PATTON (1970)
M*A*S*H (1970)
FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)
KLUTE (1971)
McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
DIRTY HARRY (1971)
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971)
THE GODFATHER (1972)
CABARET (1972)
DELIVERANCE (1972)
THE CANDIDATE (1972)
SOUNDER (1972)
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)
THE STING (1973)
MEAN STREETS (1973)
AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
SERPICO (1973)
SLEEPER (1973)
THE WAY WE WERE (1973)
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
THE EXORCIST (1973)
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1973)
CHINATOWN (1974)
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
LENNY (1974)
BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL (1974)
SHAMPOO (1975)
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
JAWS (1975)
NASHVILLE (1975)
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
NETWORK (1976)
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
ROCKY (1976)
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
CARRIE (1976)
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
STAR WARS (1977)
ANNIE HALL (1977)
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
JULIA (1977)
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
COMING HOME (1978)
ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
HALLOWEEN (1978)
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
ALIEN (1979)
ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)
KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)
MANHATTAN (1979)
NORMA RAE (1979)
BEING THERE (1979)
Liza Minnelli performs in the spotlight as Sally Bowles in CABARET (1972)

And I haven’t even listed all of the great movies that came out then. There were many more that space wouldn't allow me to include. Plus, those were just the American releases. The world cinema introduced audiences to films like THE CONFORMIST, CRIES & WHISPERS, AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD, DAY FOR NIGHT, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, AMARCORD, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, THE GARDEN OF FINZI CONTINI, SEVEN BEAUTIES and THE LAST WAVE. Damn.

In 2011, after all that’s happened in the last few years what with the Wall Street meltdown, the global economic cratering, the surge in Afghanistan, the Tea Party, the controversies between Obama and the GOP, the Arab spring, what do we get? Two TRANSFORMERS movies in three years. To paraphrase Howard Beale from NETWORK, “I’m as mad as hell!”
Peter Finch goes mad as Howard Beale in NETWORK (1976)
 Last year was a very good year for some edgier fare with films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BLACK SWAN and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT reflecting our turbulent times and contending for Best Picture. But where's that kind of fare this year? Heck, I'm not even sure we have films that are just entertaining enough to be on this year's Best Picture list. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS will make the list, but what else? In a year of social and worldwide upheaval most films are going in the opposite direction. Too much so. Rather than socially directed entertainments we seem to be getting an awful lot of robots and aliens. (Stress on the word awful.) I worry that the Academy will not be able to justify five Best Picture nominees, let alone ten.
Gene Wilder starts the tour in WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)


Now, there is nothing wrong with popcorn entertainment, but too often these days Hollywood seems only interested in that. The studios want huge tent pole movies or franchises that spawn multiple sequels,  to get all the 10-year-old boys in the audience to buy tickets again and again. But consider the fact that in 1971 a social satire like WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was released as a kid’s picture and you’ll understand why I’m so miffed. Anyone want to put SPY KIDS 4 up against that Gene Wilder classic? Didn’t think so.

Hollywood needs to have another decade like the 70’s. They need to make fewer fantasy films and more movies that say something significant about the times we live in. Pictures like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE HURT LOCKER should be the norm, not the exception. The 70’s proved that movies can comment on society, be crackling entertainment, and yes, still make money. As a movie fan, I’d love to have difficulty today choosing the Oscar for Best Picture like voters did in the year 1976 when they had to pick the best from these sterling nominees: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, BOUND FOR GLORY, NETWORK, ROCKY and TAXI DRIVER. I would have chosen NETWORK. And I would have been as happy as hell.

2 comments:

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. And struggle to easily define a decade of film that was so diverse, and still seems so superior to me. Sure, there were plenty of bad films then, and plenty of excellent ones today (although I dare say not as many). But as a serious film fan who doesn’t usually go for the “popcorn” entertainment, I’m trying not to let my inherent bias get in the way too much.

    There are plenty of resources out there that can detail better than I, all the influential changes that occurred then. From the decline of the iron grip of the old studio system to the counter culture that more directly influenced the tone of films and allowed more artistic and experimental expression. All this during a time of great political upheaval and increasing internal narcissism. (I can still hear my Depression era-born mother deriding the “Me” decade to me back then.)

    Two things stand out for me. Political/current events; and the Cute Factor.

    You are right, the times then do have a lot in common with today. Political turmoil, a bad economy, a war we don’t want, cynicism and discontent about the government, terrorism (think Munich Olympics), massacres in public places (think Kent State), skyjackings, continued problems with drug use, and energy concerns. Yet I think filmmakers then created films based on that rich fabric of political and social disruption much more than they do today.

    Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement...all were particularly mined for brilliant themes in film drama and acute directorial commentary. Hollywood had a point and they weren’t shy about making it. And not terribly long after the real events that inspired the productions either. These days, it seems like more often than not they (H’wood), and we, would rather “bury our heads in the sand” and watch robots and aliens and fantasy and over-the-top raunchy comedies and just escape all the fuss. Who wants to deal with unpleasant social commentary these days...it seems hard enough just to get by. It’s a different time now that seems to prefer escapism over gritty realism.

    The Cute Factor is a plague upon today’s non-comedic films that annoys me to no end. Virtually non-existent in the deliberate dramas of decades ago, it seems today’s drama and action film stars can’t often let two hours go by without the need to toss in cute, clever wisecracks or expressions. While I am most certainly not against mixing comedy and drama, this need to appeal to humor too often, breaks the tension of dramatic moments. And breaks the “fourth wall” of film for me. I rarely lose myself in films today, like I often do with the ones that played it straight decades ago.

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  2. Wow, Fan! You should be writing a blog. Nicely said. Thanks for your devotion to The Establishing Shot. I am so thankful that you appreciate what's being done here. And let's hope that Hollywood has a change in attitude and gets back to more films like those from the 70's.

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