American Cinema: Watershed Years–Part 3–Zeitgeist Films, Self-Reflexive Movies, and Intertextuality

American Film: Watershed Years: Part 3 (of 3 articles)

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 1976, as the most significant years since the “Golden Age” of Hollywood of the 1930s.

If, as some critics have suggested, the history of Hollywood can be told as a history of genres and directors, then the era from 1973 to 1976 saw 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 as a crucial era, but to justify such rationale, specific cinematic indicators need to be provided. The following indicators are offered as empirical documentation for the argument that the years of 1973, 1974, and 1975 have been the most significant in the evolution of the new American cinema:

1. Debut of new and talented directors
2. Maturation of young directors
3. Creativity and innovation in contents and styles
4. Production of high-quality and influential movies
5. Intimate link between films and their immediate socio-political context
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 in the evolution of a national cinema.

Reflection of the Zeitgeist

The two major events of the era, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, precipitated a major legitimation crisis, to use Jurgen Habermas’ terminology. Reflected in the ideological arena of the political system, a legitimation crisis occurs when the system fails to supply sufficient amount of motivation for its citizens to participate in the political process. This societal crisis, as Robin Wood showed, resulted in Hollywood’s loss of its own ideological confidence and in the production of incoherent movies.

Film cycles of the late l960s, the urban Western, disaster epic, vigilante films, and road movies reached their peak in the mid l970s. The new films perpetuated a mixture of old and new cultural myths, nostalgia, paranoia, and revenge, reflective of the collective psyche during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. These motifs showed Americans to be alienated from their political and social system, which was described in film after film as corrupt and ineffectual.

Nostalgia, which prevailed in films as a leitmotif of narrative uncertainty, produced such small-town films as American Graffiti. Paranoia resulted in a cycle of disaster-adventure films (Airport and its sequels; The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Jaws). The disaster epic took the form of individuals fighting major catastrophes, be they air-crashes, fires, earthquakes, or sharks. Domestic issues, such as love, family, and children, reached an all-time low in mainstream movies.

Revenge permeated right-wing films (Dirty Harry, Death Wish and their sequels), all violent movies in which their male protagonists’ were crude, but their response was effective to an increasingly violent society and increasingly ineffective government. The revenge motif also crossed over other genres, such as the horror movies.

The male buddie film, which began with Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, celebrated male heroism and friendship, excluding women from their narratives. Male camaraderie reached new level of glorification in Deliverance (1972) and the Oscar-winning The Sting (1973).

Indeed, the 1970s were the worst years for women in the American cinema: A wide gap existed between women’s economic and occupational roles in society and their cultural treatment in film. The most negative screen portrayals, which either trivialized women’s domestic roles and/or condemned career women (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network), occurred in the mid l970s, just when women were beginning to leave their mark in the social structure.

But the film cycle that most intimately reflected the socio-cultural context dealt with politically-induced paranoia. This cycle is better understood when placed against the Watergate Scandal and its aftermath (Nixon’s resignation). Based on real-life events, the conspiracy cycle reflected a strong distrust of authority and bureaucracy, propagating the rights of the individual against the government or against big business. Pitting lone individuals against destructive forces, the new films combined a nineteenth century myth of individualistic ingenuity and resourcefulness of individualism with a twentieth century reality: the omnipresence and impersonal power of huge corporation.

The conspiracy cycle stressed the invisibility of the enemy on the one hand and the breakdown of social bonds in the big cities, on the other. Its films dealt with every form of distrust: Distrust of one’s own senses, distrust of one’s family, distrust of one’s friends. These distrust and paranoia were manifest in truly frightening stories about bugging, theft, character assassination, vote fixing, blackmail of the media.

In the mid-l970s, even small-town and rural life were depicted more harshly than in any previous decade. Three films sharing similar thematics appeared at the same time: Spielberg’s Sugarland Express, Terence Malick’s Badlands, and Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

Two other movies also dealt with anarchy and reflected disillusionment with American society: Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). Despite diversity of styles and variety of settings, all five films were reactions to their immediate political surroundings. And all featured anti-social heroes (criminals and outcasts) in the midst of a seemingly benevolent Nature.

Christopher Lasch has defined the culture of the l970s as the culture of narcissism, one which worships instant celebrity in a society obsessed with electronic images. Indeed, the protagonists of many films (Badlands, Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us) are motivated by a ruthless pursuit of media visibility and mass recognizability. That they lack substance and deserve no celebrity status is precisely their point: They all want to see their pictures in the newspaper or, better, television. Narcissism, an indication of both self-absorption and insecurity, was at the center of these narratives.

Self-Reflexivity and Intertextuality

Finally, the new cinematic era encouraged for the first time self-consciousness and intertextuality, seen as playful allusion to other films within the work. The new flexibility in genre conventions allowed films to tell a story and at the same time comment on it. This trends was inevitable: The body of films has become so extensive and awareness of the filmmaking processes so acute that young filmmakers had to familiarize themselves with the thematic and stylistic conventions of previous films.

In the l970s, the self-consciousness about the history of genre stemmed from the realization that the old conventions no longer worked (Coppola’s attempt at a musical, Finian’s Rainbow, illustrated this point). The late 1960s saw the decline of the “classic,” clearly-defined, genres (Western, horror, comedy, action-adventure) and the rise of mixed, hybrid types, which combined narrative conventions of different genres. In part, it was a result of Hollywood’s failure to adapt the old paradigms to new societal conditions and attitudes.

The new filmmakers set out to expose the arbitrariness of classic Hollywood’s continuity rules and unravel the closed world of genre conventions. For them, the old conventions existed as a springboard for social commentary, psychological revelations or satire. Moreover, the “movie brats” brought an unprecedented degree of celluloid erudition to their work. Their new films were replete with allusions to classical Hollywood films, such as The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Forbidden Planet, and others.

A new generation of filmgoers, the “Baby Boom” generation, came of age in those years. It was the first generation which had grown up with the visually sophisticated television medium. Through hours of watching television, the younger viewers learned the “language of cinema” implicitly. They thus brought new set of expectations and knowledge to the film-viewing experience, what some scholars have referred to as “cineliteracy.” The values of the new audience were radically different from those of its older counterpart, being more permissive toward the representation of such former taboos as sex and violence.

The new American cinema involved realignment of the viewers, which were made aware of the very act of watching a film. Music video forged new codes, but they also made codes that were already operative in television more transparent. MTV’s chain of disparate and incongruous images, which stress discontinuities in space and time, emphasized the primacy of the visuals in the film experience.

Concluding Remark

This three-part article aimed to demonstrate that the watershed years of the new American cinema were not the late 1960s but the early 1970s. The study also illustrated the value of comparative historical analysis in film. The unit of analysis in many film studies has often been a whole decade. But a decade can be too long a unit, as the 1960s demonstrated. The films made in the early 1960s (specifically before 1963) differed radically from those made in the late l960s (after 1967). Subdividing historical eras into relatively short periods may therefore be a usefully empirical way to document different extent of cinematic productivity, creativity, and innovation.

Like the 1960s, one cannot examine the entire decade of the 1970s as one unit–ideologically, politically, and cinematically. As Jim Hoberman noted, if in the early 1970s, the main impulse was to revise and critique old and established genres, in the late l970s, it changed into an attempt to revive and remake them–only bigger, with larger production budgets and more overwhelming special effects. Indeed, after 1976, nostalgia became more prevalent in American films (as Rocky and its sequels proved), and Hollywood became more a cinema of consensus than of experimentation.