Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Socio-Cinematic 70s: When the Movies Had Something to Say

On the last Sunday of each month--or occasionally the one before, in case of conflicting holidays and Philadelphia Eagles games (whose fans take over the same bar)--the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group gathers to discuss a given monthly topic. 

Over the past 4-5 years, I have gotten to as many of these Lunch Meetups as I could--there are also meetups at film screenings--and have enjoyed discussing and learning about certain directors (Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, etc.), Genres such as War Movies, Comedies and Documentaries and the cinema of Italy, France and Japan, among other countries.

Although we have previously discussed "Films of the 80s," it is rare for the conversation to focus on a certain decade.

But at my suggestion, "The Seventies" will be the topic of the next Film Discussion Lunch on Sunday, March 30. (All are welcome but & group registration and an RSVP are preferred.)

Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend.

Although what I hear at the meetups is always more substantive than what I share--and knowing the 30th wouldn't be conducive I haven't been devouring films of the 70s of late--I have given the topic some thought and thus am writing this post.

I feel somewhat sheepish to share my favorite film of the 1970s, but feel compelled, as I would asked to do so at the meetup by means of introduction to other attendees.

Without arguing that it is the best film of the 70s, nor even of 1976--the year it won the Best Picture Oscar--my favorite movie made and released between 1970 and 1979 is:

(Fanfare please...)


Yes, I know most critics and serious film fans--at least of the male persuasion--would likely cite The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, or Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now or Clockwork Orange or even Star Wars.

But perhaps due to it being one of the first movies I acutely recall seeing, with its tale of a plucky down-and-out boxer being dear to my 7-year-old heart and its Rocky-like melodrama lacking the syrup that would increasingly coat its sequels and imitators, I just like Sylvester Stallone's underdog opus more than any other movie of its decade.

Even if it isn't a prime example of what I most like about "Movies of the 1970s" on a macro level

As with any Film Discussion Lunch topic, group moderator Brad Strauss has compiled a "Suggested Viewing" list of noteworthy films from the Seventies. (Though beneficial, it is not imperative that you watch any or all of these before attending; you are more than welcome to regale with your love of The Bad News Bears.)

Included with Rocky, The Godfather, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now on Brad's list are such films as M*A*S*H, Patton, Blazing Saddles, Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever and Three Days of the Condor.

Obviously, Brad couldn't readily name every great, important or influential movie of the decade in the space allotted (though he likely could otherwise). But a few that I would add are Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange, Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President's Men, Network, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer.

Now, look back at the 20 movies cited in the last two paragraphs. What commonalities exist between most or all of them?
While this is obviously subjective, most if not all would be considered high-quality movies. Seven won the Best Picture Oscar and nearly all were nominated.
Most revolve around an iconoclastic and/or anti-establishment (or anti-authoritarian) character (or two).

Several overtly, surreptitiously or metaphorically question and even battle governmental entities or "the establishment."

Many address substantive topics: war, corruption, crime, greed, mental instability, divorce, etc.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, all 20 movies were among the box office leaders of their given years. Most ranked among the top 10, with Network the lowest at #21 in 1976.
For comparison's sake, take a look at the Top Grossing Movies of 2013. Even with nine Best Picture Academy Award Nominees (instead of five, formerly), only two--Gravity at #6 and American Hustle at #17--wound up among the 25 top U.S. box office draws.

Without seeing all of these, I imagine the numerous superhero or similar films--Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.--have a slight anti-authoritarian or underdog bent, but I doubt many would argue that any of 2013's top-grossing movies offer congruent thematic heft when compared to the aforementioned films from the 70s.

Now certainly, the decade of the 1970s in general, and any given year in particular, had its share of "popcorn movies" that may have been entertaining--and even among the top box office hits--but didn't offer much social consciousness or historical resonance.

Still, I would argue that films like Love Story, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Every Which Way But Loose, Halloween, Animal House, The Goodbye Girl, Silver Streak, Slap Shot, Grease, Heaven Can Wait and the aforementioned Bad News Bears have a certain amount of anti-authoritarian verve and/or artistic merit not all that present in mainstream movies today.

And other films that can be cited among the decade's biggest and best--Airport, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Poseidon Adventure, Cabaret, Young Frankenstein, American Graffiti, The Sting, The Conversation, Chinatown, Jaws, Nashville, Shampoo, Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 10, Alien, Manhattan--offer not only impressive qualitative depth, but substantial social commentary especially if one looks beneath the surface (i.e. at the subtext).

But before this becomes misconstrued--though not inaccurately--as yet another article about me loving the past, artistically speaking, a whole lot more than the present, indulge me another favor:

Look at the U.S. top grossing films of any year from the 1980s. (You can do so easily here; for the 1970s you'll have to search "19__ in Film" on Wikipedia.)

Though there are a few successful comedies with a mild anti-establishment strain--often thanks to the late, great Harold Ramis--year-after-year, you'll see almost no movies in the Top 20 that offer acute or even subtextually substantive social commentary about contemporary times.

Even most of the high-brow, decorated and/or "socially important" movies of the 80s--Chariots of Fire, Reds, Gandhi, Amadeus, The Right Stuff, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, Mississippi Burning--were historical in nature, with even Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket set about 20 years prior to their release.

In other words, even just by 1980 when The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 9-to-5, Private Benjamin and The Shining were about as iconoclastic as popular American cinema got, the type of creative and/or rebellious verve that begat Network, The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, etc., etc., was largely erased from Hollywood, or at least not embraced by mass audiences.

(For those wondering, Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull was #27 in 1980 box office and Goodfellas #26 in 1990; his Taxi Driver was #17 in 1976.)

Before I broach on why socially commentative cinema flourished in the 1970s, let me note that I am not suggesting that it had not existed prior (even keeping this to domestic filmmaking), or that it has completely disappeared since. 

Just in the last few days, I've watched Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) and have noted an anti-establishment strain--or at least, anti-bullshit, which seems to go hand-in-hand--far ballsier than you're apt to find in today's cineplexes.

Similarly "populist" directors like Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, The Great Dictator) and Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, The Apartment) weren't afraid to use their art to decry societal ills, highlight hypocrisy and/or focus on weighty subjects.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) took on the most powerful man in journalism--William Randolph Hearst--and Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove) pointed out the evils of military meglomania amidst the Cold War.

While the truth that Do the Right Thing ranked #43 in 1989 box office, The Insider #69 in 1999, The Hurt Locker #116 in 2009 and The Social Network #32 in 2010 actually supports the notion that even when movies about modern, often troubling, realities are made and widely distributed, they aren't all that popular, I know that even if their films go straight-to-Netflix, there are still directors willing to say something with their work. (Look to the oeuvres of Ramin Bahrani and the Dardenne Brothers, who both provoke deep thought with films of deceptive intimacy.)

But this does suggest that the answer as to why socially conscious films have largely evaporated from the American zeitgeist is, same as the answer to nearly all questions...


And this is not incorrect. The almighty dollar goes a long way to explaining why so many gritty films sprang up in the Seventies, and why they largely evaporated.

But perhaps not entirely.

(Note: The following is largely supposition supported by brief internet research; it is not stated as fact or even scholarly intelligence.)

Around 1966, Hollywood was in a doldrums. Though I can't find Yearly Box Office totals dating back that far, the two highest grossing movies in the U.S. in 1966 (per Wikipedia) were two I had never heard of until looking it up.

The Bible: In the Beginning and Hawaii each grossed under $35 million in 1966. By comparison, two films--The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago--had tallied well over $100 million each in 1965,

With the Baby Boomers coming of age, suburban cineplexes starting to spring up and a distinct youth culture mushrooming in the wake of the Beatles, movie audiences were starting to skew forever younger.

Given its disastrous results of 1966, the movie "business" recognized the need to reach younger audiences. Not incidentally, foreign films with fresher styles and subject matter were beginning to gain popularity in America, notably among increasingly disaffected youth.

I don't know if the production of Mike Nichols' The Graduate--a film about a college graduate facing uncertainty--was a direct result of this or if its 1967-topping $105 million gross merely propelled what was to come, but the age of New Hollywood was ushered in.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on New Hollywood for a more in-depth introduction, but essentially young directors with new ideas were not only given the opportunity to make movies, but largely allowed creative control to make films the way they wanted.

Dubbed the Film School Generation as many of the directors who would make their mark--including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg George Lucas and many more--were recent graduates of NYU, USC, UCLA and other collegiate film programs, these young filmmakers were well-versed in the movies that had come out of France, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

Concurrent with the rise of sentiment, and outright protest, against the Vietnam War--and consequentially, the U.S. government--New Hollywood adapted the celebration of the anti-hero (as seen in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless), realistic takes on modern life, often with a critical eye and non-narrative arc (Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Antonioni's early 60s trilogy), questions of morality (Kurosawa's Rashomon and High and Low, much by Ingmar Bergman) and contemplations on the effects of war (Japan's The Burmese Harp, Russia's Ballad of a Soldier), among other themes, tones and techniques of world cinema. 

Initially, it seems, New Hollywood created films that celebrated the outlaw (Bonnie and Clyde--which actually predated The Graduate by a few months--and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid); Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns were both examples and influences. 

With Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider in 1969, outcasts and misfits became commonplace in American cinemas, and with much more subversion than Stalag 17 or Paths of Glory had done, 1970's M*A*S*H and Catch-22 dared to ridicule the inanity of war while the United States was in the midst of an unpopular one. 

From there, you had films that focused on gangsters, whether the corporate-type in Coppola's Godfather films or more street-level such as in Scorsese's Mean Streets. (And due to advances that made film cameras more portable, it became easier to capture realistic "street-level" happenings on location rather than within a Hollywood soundstage.)

Though set in slightly earlier times, The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti referenced the confusion faced by kids leaving the high school cocoon, while films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver graduated disillusionment into adulthood.

Observations of disaffected blue collar youth would continue through the decade with films such as Saturday Night Fever and Breaking Away, while "blaxploitation" movies like Shaft, Super Fly and Foxy Brown brought hip African-American protagonists to the fore for the first time, often in stark contrast to bumbling whites in positions of power.

It isn't hard to see how Vietnam and a distrust of authority--exacerbated by Watergate and Nixon's resignation--was woven into the fabric of most substantive 70s, to varying degrees of acuity.

Rocky celebrated the underdog battling patriotic puffery, Star Wars chronicled rebellious renegades facing off against an evil demigod, Animal House trashed the staid--and judgmental--status quo.

More directly, movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation pointed out that real-life spies weren't all valiant playboys like James Bond, All The President's Men turned Watergate's web into a Shakespearean parable on the abuse of power, and The Deer Hunter and Coming Home brutally showed how devastating Vietnam was, to individuals and communities. 

Empowered by the movies of the Film School Generation, a veteran director like Sidney Lumet--who had shown his embrace of weighty topics with 12 Angry Men and The Pawnbroker--repeatedly took aim at the power structure in America with 70s' classics like Serpico (about a whistle-blowing cop), Dog Day Afternoon (which turned a bank robber trying to pay for his lover's sex change operation into a moral crusader and public hero) and Network, whose pushed-out anchorman Howard Beale was "mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore!" as seen in the clip atop this post. 

Supported also by such strident sitcoms as M*A*S*H and All in the Family, it seems clear that the 70s were a time when Hollywood was trying to say something. 

So why did it shut up?

As with anything, a variety of factors seem to converge, but certainly money is a big one. 

Jaws and Star Wars were such huge blockbusters that they clued Hollywood into how much money could be made targeting big-budget movies primarily towards teenagers.

And as Brad points out, "a series of high profile flops in the early 80s caused producers to wrest Hollywood’s center of gravity back to themselves and away from those pesky auteur directors. The most notorious being Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but also Robert Altman’s Popeye and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart."

With Godfather Part II but even more so Rocky II and The Empire Strikes Back, sequels became a way to safeguard big-budget investments by assuring built-in audiences.

Though some of this evolved over time, the studios soon came to realize even more millions could be captured through the emerging home video market, ancillary revenues from action figures and Happy Meal toys, etc., and international moviegoers.

Movies with flashy special effects, little dialogue and brand-name characters were not only easier to sell to American teenagers, but to non-English speaking audiences and burger chains eager for promotional tie-ins.

Thus, blockbusters and especially franchises--sequelized series based on superheroes or other known characters--propagated across the cineplexes in the 1980s and ever since.

Still, as the Vietnam War faded into the rearview mirror for those not directly devastated, I wonder if the events such as Iranian hostage crisis, the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the election of populist actor Ronald Reagan as President and the attempt made on his life (by a guy smitten with Taxi Driver) put the kibbosh on movies that challenged the American political power structure.

What I'm not sure about is whether America stopped wanting such strident movies or Hollywood simply stopped making them.

My movie buff friend Dave--also a member of the Meetup group--is undoubtedly right when he suggests that the movies made in the 70s were a reflection of the tenor of the country, and for whatever number of reasons the tenor changed with the rise of Reaganomics.

With similar acuity, David Mamet argued in his brilliant 1988 play Speed-the-Plow that Hollywood--always a moneymaking machine--cannot be much blamed for giving the people what they want.

Even--or especially--as the cost of a movie ticket has soared, Americans (at least the dominant ticket buying young) have repeatedly voted for superheroes, quasi-superheroes and re-booted superheroes rather than intelligent thought-provoking movies with great acting.

In the Seventies, American movies were populated by many outstanding actors and actresses, or at least ones with the charisma to ensnare the public.

These included Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Walter Matthau, Warren Beatty, Richard Dreyfuss, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jane Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, Ali MacGraw, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and others, most in the prime of their careers and under 45 years of age.

Nowadays, I doubt most could name even five actors or actresses of similar stature under the age of 45.

Sure, Christian Bale is a great actor, I like Ryan Gosling quite a bit and Jennifer Lawrence has shown both talent and a bit of box office punch, but in general, movie stars are much less important than the franchises themselves.

Heck, how many different actors have played Superman,  Spiderman and the Hulk in just the last 12 years, let alone Batman over the past 25?

All the more reason to miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. At least he had the kind of presence that once stamped "the movies" with a steely-eyed sense of intelligence.

For while I really have meant this piece as a celebration of the socio-cinematic Seventies rather than just another denigration of modern Hollywood, what chagrins me is that the world really could use a voice like Howard Beale's (as embodied by Peter Finch).

With the amount of war, terrorism, corruption, Wall Street malfeasance, unemployment, injustice, environmental devastation and all else that has taken place during this millennium, where are the movies that examine the issues, condemn the culprits and explore the consequences?

And don't tell me to search for them on Netflix or check-out documentaries from the library.

As I have blathered on about, many highly popular mainstream American movies of the 1970s had something to say.

But now "the movies" have almost completely been muted.

As, by now, should I. 

Hopefully, I'd have left a few minutes for someone else at the Meetup to talk.


Bigplatts said...

I really liked this post: a great document on the cinema of the 70s. I do like modern movies but I think this post highlights what's missing from them, which can sometimes be pretty hard to put your finger on.

Your film group sounds like loads of fun, I'd stop by if I was in the right country.

Keep up the good stuff!

Ken said...

Seth, this post is really an insightful piece of analysis. Keep up the great work. May we both live long enough to see one more Renaissance in cinema.

john said...

Hey nice read, saw your post on imdb. I'm always open for film discussion. I don't really have answer for you, need more time to think about it, but a major thing I noticed is I like a lot of the 70s film you are naming, but I did not like one of the current meaningful films you listed (the hurtlocker, insider, or social network).

I don't know what that may mean, I don't have the time to pick out examples of differences in the story telling, but I no the direction I'm leaning is heart and charm vs cerebral and preaching. Just an initial impression the 70s films were about characters, the modern equivalents you listed are about ideas, and much worse there often about why my ideas are better.

Anonymous said...

I dig the whole exploitation market the blossomed in the seventies and then continued in a healthy state into the early eighties. I am working on a project that combines the better parts of the age together with metal. I kind of crucifiction of the golden age of cinema if you will. Here you can find some of my projects. Let me know what you think and subscribe if you enjoy. Thanks.

John Paul

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of great ones everybody's overlooks

Anonymous said...