The 1970s have rightly been called the last golden age of American cinema, a reference not only to Hollywood and independent movies of this era but also to movie-going itself. Mainstream American audiences of the 1970s were increasingly staying home, happily entranced by the newfound wonders of television. Marquees were crowded with European art revivals and crossover porn flicks, while midnight screenings at underground theatres offered up avant-garde works and cult films in the making. The youth market was heading out of the drive-ins and into the theatres, drawn in by the sympathetic portrayals of adolescent angst that had begun cropping up in the late ’50s – Marlon Brando and James Dean fighting the power in The Wild One (Laszlo Benedek, 1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955); Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood’s doomed love in Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961) – and continued blossoming into adult angst with Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1968) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). The old Hollywood auteurs (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Lang) had all but petered out, leaving studios scrambling for wunderkinds upon whom to bestow financing. Those same studios, so threatened were they by competition from television (and, later, the dawning of the video age), were desperate enough to take a risk on the unproven talents of “moviebrats” like Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg. And the newly relaxed censorship codes that took effect when the Ratings System replaced the Motion Picture Production Code in 1968 brought a new leniency to the content of American films. In other words, all the stars were aligned.
It’s unlikely that so many cultural and artistic factors will again combine so flawlessly in one place and time as happened in 1970s Hollywood. For nostalgic, cranky critics (and I count myself among them), this is a fact of great consternation. This yearning for the ’70s is an unproductive, rose-hued exercise that clouds my appraisal of the many talented auteurs around today, but I am powerless to stop it. (Of course, America’s current prize crop of auteurs – Tarantino, Spike Lee, Jarmusch, the Coen brothers – were weaned on ’70s cinema and are frequently as backwards-glancing as myself.) I’m just as likely to over-appreciate the charms of ’70s films (and filmmakers) that haven’t aged well, in a kind of nostalgic misremembering. Did we really once consider Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969) groundbreaking for its frank depiction of changing sexual mores? Is The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) really all that incendiary or is it just a run-of-the-mill (albeit affective) schlock-horror flick dressed up by a pretentious director and the casting of a certain highbrow Swedish thespian? And when was the last time you actually managed to get through a full viewing of Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) at least without wanting to muzzle Dennis Hopper five minutes in? Or Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969) for that matter, or Rafelson’s interminable retelling of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981)?
Formerly the author of The Euro-American Cinema and a study of Claude Lelouch, Lev has compiled a solid yet accessible retrospective gaze on the era. Though he is obviously a lover and connoisseur of the American New Wave, Peter Lev admirably keeps American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions free of sentimentalizing. He rightly applauds the stylistic innovations of Roger Corman-style exploitation films, for example, but without overlooking their often blatant disregard for cohesive narratives. He questions the motivations of the blaxploitation cycle (typically made by white producers and intended for white audiences) and probes the reason why, in this decade of Women’s Lib, not a single feminist filmmaker or feminist film of significant note (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda’s consciousness-raising characterizations in several ’70s films) emerged.
Lev is also fair to films that have been loudly dismissed by liberal critics outraged by what has been construed as rampant conservatism like Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971). Not that those critics were wrong, but Lev’s even-keeled approach gives the films the objective look they deserve. In the case of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Lev refers to the not unfounded accusations that Spielberg’s film is most directly responsible for Hollywood’s downfall (opening the floodgates as it did for the high-concept blockbuster and opening weekend mania that currently rules the cineplex) but reminds us that no one film can carry such a burden and that Jaws remains an extremely well-executed film. And while he’s at it, Lev performs the highly appreciated service of taking George Lucas down a notch by displaying the formulaic, deeply conservative underpinnings (not to mention Triumph of the Will overtones) of the Star Wars trilogy.
Lev employs a well-formulated genre approach that encapsulates hippie films, disaster flicks, teen films, apocalyptic sci-fi and more. His writing style is highly readable, full of well-put observations, though he frequently digresses too deeply into plot synopsis. Throughout he maintains a no-names-barred metacritical dialogue with scholars who have gone before, taking them to task or applauding them. As he sets out in the preface, Lev intends his critical approach to be a pluralistic (rather than dialectic) dialogue according to a Bakhtin model, and his filmography reflects this. He strikes a much-needed balance between the iconic films that crowd most ’70s cinema surveys and more unassuming fare, rarely discussed and largely forgotten. Lev kicks off with the widely agreed upon American New Wave startup, 1969’s Easy Rider, and includes most of the other big ones (Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Nashville, Alien) along the way, but peppered throughout are ruminations on such lowly, but no less laudable, ’70s works as Claudine (John Berry, 1974), Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978), and the criminally overlooked Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970). Middlebrow (Coming Home [Hal Ashby, 1978], Diner [Barry Levinson, 1982]) and even lowbrow (Animal House [John Landis, 1978], Airport [George Seaton, 1970]) selections vie for attention – and get it – alongside a chapter-length dissection of Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973), though it’s odd that Lev pays such elaborate attention to what is not really an American film despite his unconvincing argument to the contrary. Perhaps a more appropriate chapter would be an examination of some of the cinema vérité works of the period, particularly Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, 1970).
Lev makes the point that for all their counterculture spirit, many ’70s “protest” films ultimately fail to forward any specific philosophy or program for change (synonymous, perhaps, with ’70s liberalism itself.) Ambivalent protagonists, ambiguous narratives, unhappy endings…all signal the death of ’60s idealism and the general malaise and cynicism of the American populace during this troubled decade. What I think Lev loses sight of at certain points is the magnitude of the structural innovations forwarded by ’70s filmmakers. Spurred on by growing recognition of and influenced by the New York avant-gardists (especially the structuralists), ’70s Hollywood auteurs changed the way we thought about storytelling and altered our expectations of character and plot. If we fault these films for allegedly wimping out, it’s because we’re missing the truly revolutionary aspects buried deep beneath the surface narratives.
Throughout the book, Lev is fastidiously cautious (occasionally to the point of redundancy) against being reductive in characterizing his subject – but this is a valuable reminder as more and more studies claiming to chronicle “the ’70s” emerge. A decade is an arbitrary designation and to generalize on the basis of a handful of films is ill-advised. For every ’70s masterpiece there were a dozen highly forgettable – and some downright awful – films being made. In his first chapter, Lev lists the top-grossing films of 1969 (the disparate entries range from The Wild Bunch to 2001: A Space Odyssey to I Am Curious, Yellow to Disney’s The Love Bug) as proof of the lack of rhyme or reason evident within. As he wraps up his analysis a decade later, Lev is no closer to realizing a pattern – a self-defeating conclusion, perhaps, but a truthful one. The only pattern fully emblematic of 1970s American cinema is that there was no pattern – and that above all is what made this era of filmmaking great. The homogeneity of contemporary American cinema is all the proof you need.
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