American Cinema: Revisiting and Revising–Hollywood Watershed Years (Part 1)

The subject of my new book, Hollywood History: Revisiting and Revising, offers a new and fresh look at some of the crucial events and turning points in the history of the American cinema.

Part One of Three

Watershed Years: 1973-1976

For many different reasons, the late 1960s and early 1970s should be considered crucial, even seminal years in the history of the American cinema for many different reasons.

Organizational Changes

During that era, the film industry underwent major organizational changes.  All the studios were bought, rebought, and subsequently managed by conglomerates and organizations that had little to do with film as commerce and art..

Paramount was purchased by Gulf and Western Industries in 1966;

United Artists (UA) by Transamerica Corporation in 1967;

Warner Brothers by Stephen Ross’ Kinney National Service, which became Warner Communications in 1968;

Columbia Pictures by Coca Cola;

MGM by the Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian in 1970.

Moreover, in the late 1960s, the Production Code, Hollywood’s arbiter of taste and morality, and the studios’ official ideological stricture, was entirely dispensed with. As a result of the relaxation of societal standards and court rulings concerning obscenity laws, former sexual taboos declined and the range and depth of permissible film contents became much wider.

However, artistically speaking, the watershed years of the new American cinema were not the late 1960s but the mid-1970s. More specifically, this article proposes to view three years, from 1973 to 1975, as the most significant years since the “Golden Age” of Hollywood of the 1930s.

If, as some critics suggest, the history of Hollywood can be mostly told as a history of genres and directors, then the years of 1973 to 1976 were momentous years in which the American cinema was at an extremely high creative peak.

It is tempting to single out a short period of time (three or so years) as a crucial or quintessential era.  However, I am tempted to do it by justifying the above rationale by providing specific cinematic and extra-cinematic indicators.

The following indicators (or variable) are offered as empirical documentation for the argument that the years of 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1976 have been the most significant in the evolution of what is now known as the New American Cinema:

1. Debut of new and talented directors
2. Maturation of young filmmakers
3. Creativity and innovation in contents and styles
4. Production of high-quality and influential movies
5. Intimate link between films and their socio-political contexts
6. Self-reflexivity and intertextuality

These six criteria are not conclusive, and there is some overlap among them. Still, they point to the direction of comparative historical analysis, one that will enable a systematic reassessment of the relative significance of different eras (say, the 1930s and the Depression era, as opposed to the 1940s and WWII) in the evolution of Hollywood as national cinema.

Debut of New Talented Directors

A new generation of gifted directors began to work in the early 1970s: Jonathan Demme, George Lucas, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg.

These filmmakers joined a slightly older cohort of directors who had made their debuts in the late 1960s: Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola.

The new cohort differed from the contract-directors of the studio system. While their backgrounds were varied, most of them were graduates of prestigious films schools, such as UCLA (Coppola), USC (Spielberg, Lucas), NYU (Scorsese), the American Film Institute (Malick).

This formal education led to a greater awareness of film history, deeper technical proficiency, and infusing features with dimensions of reflexivity, self-reflexivity. and intertextuality (more about it later)

In the studio system, most directors were considered to be craftsman, not artists.  Most of them even defined themselves in such was.

In contrast, the new practitioners brought with them a new definition of the director’s role, demanding not only higher pay, but also more control, power and prestige for their careers in general and their features in articular.

The younger directors demanded–and received–at least for a while, more control over selection of material, choice of crew and casting, and final say in post-production.

To a large degree, the new image of the director as a star or superstar–one combining the roles of a craftsman, artist, and even ideological thinker–was modeled after Stanley Kubrick, specifically after the enormous success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), both of which critically acclaimed, commercial successful–even cult movies.

The new filmmakers embraced Jean-Luc Godard’s definition of directors as artists rather than workmanlike craftsmen. This conception stood in diametric opposition to classic Hollywood cinema, in which the belief was that there was a screenplay (a prepared text) that the director had “only” to interpret or transfer to film.

Perceiving themselves as auteurs, the young filmmakers were more self-conscious of their wok, which they imbued with a stronger, subjective, personal vision. In the new Hollywood, the director, not the producer or the movie-star, became the industry’s dominating cultural force and significant authorial voice.

Because the new directors didn’t begin their careers as apprentices, who climbed up the ladder (first working as editors or assistant directors, or cameramen), they were less bound by the industry’s institutional conventions. As artists, their goal was to develop a distinctive individual cinematic style within the system.  This wishful iconoclasm, as the scholar Robert Ray pointed out, often clashed with the system’s inherent trend toward mainstream and conservative mass entertainment, which tended to resist any kind of changes.

French New Wave

The New American cinema was influenced by the European cinema, particularly the French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s, led by  the quintet of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Rivette.  Their exposure to the critical work done at the influential magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, which for the first time praised American directors, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Hitchcock as auteurs, affected their development as directors and their self-images. Under the French influence, film was perceived as a personal-artistic creation rather than a mass-marketed product, one oriented toward the largest potential audience (the notion of “will the movie play in Peoria, Illinois?).

Like the New Wave directors, their American counterarts began as film buffs and cinephiles.  Their growing awareness of developments in the international cinema resulted in a desire to assimilate the new sensibilities and new techniques into American movies. The new directors adopted some of the New Wave’s formal devices, which have not been seen on the American screen before.  Indeed, a rapid dissemination of innovations (freeze-frame, slow-motion) were gradually accepted and then absorbed by the new American films. This radical filmic inventiveness represented a break in Hollywood’s thematic and stylistic paradigms.

The generation of television-bred and film school-educated directors, often labeled by the media as the “movie brats,” often got their first break with Roger Corman and his factory.  Their collective contribution was in elevating horror, action, and sci-fi movies–at once the most vital and most disreputable genres–to unprecedented commercial popularity and to a new artistic consideration. The “movie brats,” as  the Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman noted, were Hollywood’s delayed New Wave–as ambitious, self-confident, and steeped in cinema as the movie-crazed Frenchmen who haunted the Cinematheque Francaise in the 1950s, and wrote film essays for Cahiers de Cinema.

Who Were the New Directors?

Jonathan Demme (born in 1944) began his film career as a member of Roger Corman’s stable of writers. His first feature as co-producer and co-screenwriter (with director Joe Viola) was Angels Hard as They Come (1971), for Corman’s recently formed New World Pictures.  Demme then worked on four features under Corman’s auspices, before making his directorial debut in 1974 with Caged Heat, followed by Crazy Mama in 1975.

George Lucas (born in 1944) served as intern on Coppola’s musical, Finian’s Rainbow, while a graduate student at USC.  Coppola then provided the financial backing for Lucas’ first feature, THX 1138 (1971), an expansion of a 20-minute short he had made as a student. An intelligent sci-fi work, it displayed Lucas’ keen understanding of the genre and offered inventive imagery with minimal reliance on special effects. Despite the fact that Warner reedited the film and gave it only a limited release, THX 1138 later achieved a cult status and earned Lucas a reputation as a cerebral sci-fi director.

Terence Malick (born in 1943), a former journalist and MIT philosophy professor, entered films in the early 1970s as a screenwriter, making an uncredited contribution to Jack Nicholson’s B-picture, Drive, He Said (1971). Over the next two decades, Malick’s output as a director has been minimal, yet his impact significant, first with Badlands (1973), then Days of Heaven (1978).  Both films still rank among the most poignant and richly photographed studies of the American Midwest.

Steven Spielberg (born in 1946) was educated at California State University and then USC. His short 1969 film, “Amblin,” earned Spielberg a job with Universal Studios’ Television Unit, where he directed episodes of such weekly series as “Night Gallery,” “Colombo,” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”  One of his three television movies, Duel (1972), which was theatrically released in Europe, but not in the U.S., garnered him critical praise.  Spielberg fulfilled his potential as a filmmaker with his very first feature, Sugarland Express, in 1974, followed by Jaws, a mega-hit that introduced the concept of summer blockbuster into American pop culture.

Maturation of Young Directors

In the 1970s, a large group of relatively young, though not necessarily new, directors came of age, i.e. made their first major work that established their reputation as artists of the first rank. Francis Ford Coppola (born in 1939), who made his debut with You’re A Big Boy Now in 1966. He then directed the two Godfather movies (1972, 1974), both winners of Best Picture Oscar of their respective years.  That same year, he also helmed The Conversation (1974), which competed for Best Picture against his own, The Godfather, Part II.

The turning point in Brian De Palma’s career, began with small indies in the 1960s, also occurred in the aforementioned quintessential years, first with Sisters (1973), then Phantom of Paradise (1974), and finally with his breakthrough film, Carrie (1976).

Martin Scorsese (born in 1942), the most consistently passionate and inventive director of the new American cinema, rooted his films in his own experience, exploring his Italian-American Catholic heritage and confronting the themes of sin and redemption in a contemporary, yet universally resonant, fashion. Scorsese made three crucial films in this brief era: Mean Streets in 1973, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974, and Taxi Driver in 1976.

Scorsese has worked largely outside the traditional Hollywood establishment, making films for relatively small budgets, which have attracted relatively small, yet dedicated, audiences. Although he has never enjoyed the box-office success of The Godfather movies or Jaws, Scorsese has earned numerous critical kudos and is considered to be the most brilliant figure of the new generation.

Quite older, Robert Altman (born in 1925) also made the three most important films of his career during this time: The Long Goodbye, in 1973; Thieves Like Us, in 1974, and arguably his first masterpiece, Nashville, in 1975.

Hal Ashby (born in 1929) directed his first film, The Landlord, in 1970, followed with the cult movie Harold and Maude in 1971. But there seems to be a consensus that Ashby’s best and most mature films were The Last Detail in 1973 and Shampoo in 1975.

In 1973, Woody Allen (born in 1935) directed Sleeper, a sight-gag comedy in which he plays a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle who, after being frozen for 200 years, wakes up in a futuristic America. But it was his next movie, Love and Death (1975), a spoof of the Napoleonic wars with references to history, Russian culture and classic films, that showed Allen’s innovation and challenging of the comedy genre.  Both films showed the maturation of Allen’s creative and intellectual talents and were better works than his previous enterprises: Take the Money and Run (1969), a loosely structured send-up of gangster movies, or Bananas (1971), a visually inventive satire whose targets were American politics and the mass media. Allen’s new movies suggested his higher aspirations to become–and be accepted by critics and audiences–as a serious filmmaker.

Please read Part 2.

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