American Cinema: Watershed Years–Part 1 (Debut of Young Directors, Maturation of Vet Ones)

Part 1 of 3 

The late 1960s and early 1970s, or more specifically 1973-1976, should be considered crucial, even seminal years in the history of the American cinema–for many different reasons.

Organizational Changes

The film industry underwent a major organizational change in those years: All the studios were bought and subsequently managed by conglomerates, which had little to do with film.

Thus, Paramount was purchased by Gulf and Western Industries in 1966, United Artists by Transamerica Corporation in 1967, Warner Brothers by Stephen Ross’ Kinney National Service, then Warner Communications in 1968; Columbia Pictures by Coca Cola; and MGM by the Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian in 1970.

Moreover, in the late 1960s, the Production Code, Hollywood’s arbiter of taste 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, sexual taboos declined and the range of permissible film contents became much wider.

However, artistically speaking, the watershed years of the new American cinema were not the late l960s 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 l930s.

If, as some critics suggest, the history of Hollywood can be told as a history of genres and directors, then 1973 and 1975 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 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 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.

Debut of New Talented Directors

A new generation of gifted directors began to work in the early 1970s: Jonathan Demme, George Lucas, Terence Malick, Steven Spielberg. These filmmakers joined a slightly older cohort of directors who made their debuts in the late 1960s: Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola.

The new directors differed from the contract directors of the studio system. While their backgrounds were varied, most came from 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 and greater technical proficiency.

In the studio system, most directors were considered to be craftsman. In contrast, the new practitioners brought with them a new definition of their director’s role, demanding higher pay and more power and prestige for their services. The younger directors demanded–and received–more control over choice of material, casting, and post-production. The new image of the director as superstar–combining the roles of a craftsman, artist, and even thinker–was modeled after Stanley Kubrick, specifically after the enormous success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (l968) and A Clockwork Orange (l971).

The new filmmakers embraced Jean-Luc Godard’s definition of directors as artists rather than 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 “only transfers” to film. Perceiving themselves as auteurs, the work of the new filmmakers was self-conscious and imbued with stronger personal vision. In the new Hollywood, the director, not the producer or the movie-star, became the industry’s dominating force.

Because the new directors didn’t begin their careers as apprentices, they were less bound by the industry’s institutional conventions. As artists, their goal was to develop a distinctive individual cinematic style. This wishful iconoclasm, as Robert Ray pointed out, often clashed with the system’s inherent trend toward mainstream and rather conservative entertainment.

The New American cinema was influenced by the European cinema, particularly the French New Wave (led by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais). Their exposure to the critical work done at the influential magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, which for the first time praised American directors as auteurs, affected their development as directors. Under the French influence, film was perceived as a personal-artistic creation rather than a mass-marketed product.

Like the New Wave directors, the Americans 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 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 absorbed by the new American films. This radical innovations represented a break in Hollywood’s thematic and stylistic paradigms.

The generation of television-bred and film school-educated directors, labeled by the media as the “movie brats,” often got their first break with Roger Corman. 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 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 l950s.

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 provided the backing for Lucas’ first feature, THX 1138 (1971), an expansion of a 20-minute short he 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 Warners 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 1942), a former journalist and MIT philosophy professor, entered films in the early l970s as a screenwriter, making an uncredited contribution to Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (l971). His output as a director has been minimal, yet his contribution significant, first with Badlands (l973), then Days of Heaven (l978), which rank among the most poignant and richly photographed studies of the American Midwest.

Steven Spielberg (born in l947) was educated at California State University and USC. His short l969 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, garnered him critical praise. Spielberg fulfilled his potential as a filmmaker with his very first feature, Sugarland Express, in 1974.

Maturation of Young Directors

In the l970s, 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, directed the two Godfather movies (1972, 1974) and The Conversation (1974). The turning point in Brian De Palma’s career, which also began in the l960s, also occurred in these 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 or Jaws, Scorsese has earned numerous critical kudos and is considered the most brilliant 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 his masterpiece, Nashville, in l975.

Hal Ashby (born in 1929) directed his first film, The Landlord, in 1970, followed with the cult movie Harold and Maude in l971. But Ashby’s best and most mature films were The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975).

Woody Allen (born in 1935) directed Sleeper, in 1973, 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 politics and the mass media. Allen’s new movies suggested his higher aspirations to be accepted as a serious filmmaker.