American Cinema: Watershed Years–Part 2–Innovation in Contents and Styles

American Film: Watershed Years: Part 2 of 3 Articles

Artistically speaking, the watershed years of the new American cinema were not, as it is often assumed, the late 1960s but the mid-1970s.  More specifically, this three-part 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 suggest, the history of Hollywood can be told as a history of genres and directors, then 1973 and 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 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. 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.

Innovation in Contents and Visual Style

The early l970s were particularly conducive to cinematic innovations and acceptance of new talent. Up until Easy Rider (1969), innovation mostly took place outside the Hollywood mainstream, in the independent films made by John Cassavetes and others. But the cultural upheavals of the late l960s and early l970s spawned, as Hoberman pointed out, “a cinema of genre criticism and directorial nonconformity.” Genre definitions became more difficult after Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a film which set the pattern for mixing the conventions of comedy, melodrama, thriller, and action all within one work.

The new movies exhibited a new attitude toward Hollywood of the past as well as to the traditional genres. There was a serious questioning of both contents and forms of the established genres. The old formulas and the means of expressing them no longer seemed adequate. The maverick genre revisionists (Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn) and radical individualists (Stanley Kubrick, Bob Rafelson, John Cassavetes, Dennis Hopper, Hal Ashby) flourished in the early and mid l970s.

In classic Hollywood cinema, as David Bordwell and other pointed out, changes were mostly in contents (fabula), not in style (syuzhet). In the new Hollywood, however, innovation meant the revision of old paradigms, the development of new narrative strategies and structures, the use of new stylistic devices. Some of the new techniques included: undoing the closed and stable story-telling devices, eliminating the clear transition between scenes, replacing objective camera and supposedly neutral point of view with subjective camera, centering whole stories on “unsympathetic” and “inaccessible” central characters.

In its modernist approach, the new American cinema also deviated from classic narrative cinema by subverting the viewers’ absorption in the story or in the characters’ emotions. The new movies went out of their way to expose their codes by revealing the camera work, using discordant editing, and having actors directly speak to the camera.

Like their French counterparts, the new directors forced audiences to take a more detached and intellectual approach to film, which was meant to substitute Hollywood’s long-held belief in the necessity of emotional identification. Reflecting the instability of American society at large, film perspectives were no longer stable: Audiences’ attention was deliberately shifted by a change of focus, often within the same shot.

Moreover, in classic cinema, attention was paid to the central characters (mostly heroes) and their relationships. In contrast, in the new American cinema, greater attention was paid to the peripheral action and characters; events at the edge became as important as those at the center. In the new movies, more was seen and more was heard.

As other critics claimed, the centrality of Robert Altman to the new American cinema is indisputable. Altman used an ironic, irreverent gaze on traditional American movies–and values. Full of quirks and surprises, his style was unusual for someone who actually began his career on television and commercials. In The Long Goodbye, Altman exposed the contradictions in the myth of the saintly private-eye through a canny juxtaposition of the 1940s and 1970s. Nashville, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, was a multi-layered narrative, with new character treatment and witty music.

Altman deconstructed narratives into their various parts, moving his films from center to periphery. Using casual and loose narratives, Altman’s work had the appearance of spontaneity and improvisation, even though it was highly structured. He introduced a new, fractured causality, suppressed motivation, openness, and randomness. Altman’s pictures decentralized visual and aural space; the aural field became busier and more demanding. Altman borrowed from Orson Welles and Howard Hawks the notion of overlapping dialogue–asking his actors to talk at the same time, without posing for the obligatory response or reaction shot.

Brian De Palma’s new work also provided an irreverent satire of old genres, while at the same time toying with their conventions. Using Hitchcock as his master, De Palma demonstrated that mock seriousness and irony were often the only effective means of telling far-fetched tales, such as Sisters or Carrie.

In the early 1970s, comedy as a genre was elevated to unprecedented proportions, with many of the wildest and most original comic talents evolving during this time. Three directors who began their careers in the late l960s made their mark in comedy in the mid l970s: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Paul Mazursky.

Mel Brooks (born in 1929), made his feature debut with The Producers, in 1968, but he came into his own with two genre parodies, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both in 1974. Like Altman before him, Brooks played with the old genres of Western and horror pictures as if they were toys.

Paul Mazursky (born in l930) scored a critical and commercial success with his first movie, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (l969), a comedy about middle-class sexual attitudes, but he made wittier and more elegant comedies in l973, Blume in Love, and in l974, Harry and Tonto.

Bob Fosse (born in 1927) made his directorial debut in 1969 with Sweet Charity, but he developed his distinctive style, marked by loose narrative structures and strong emphasis on visual pyrotechnics, in Cabaret, for which he won the 1972 Best Director Oscar, and his striking biographical portrait, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, in 1974.

Following his seminal Western, The Wild Bunch (1969), Sam Peckinpah continued his exploration of outlaw mythology in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), which some critics consider superior to his earlier films. Sidney Lumet, who has been making films since 1957, also reached the peak of his creative powers in those years with Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

High-Quality and Influential Movies

In his seminal volume, “The American Cinema,” Andrew Sarris, the most influential critic in American history, claimed that year by year, director by director, the American cinema has been superior to other national cinemas. But how does one measure cinematic creativity in a systematic and historical manner

One strategy is to conduct a quantitative analysis of the number of good films released in a given year or era, though there is no consensus over the definition of a good film. Another strategy is to locate influential movies, works that have had effects in introducing new thematic, narrative, and stylistic conventions. Indeed, it is possible to establish a-posteriori which art works have had the greatest impact.

Seminal Movies:

Several seminal movies were made between 1973 and 1975: Lucas’ American Graffiti, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and Spielberg’s Jaws.

Lucas achieved a startling commercial success and influence with his very second film, American Graffiti. While his work lacks thematic weight, Lucas has influenced not just film but popular culture more than other directors. American Graffiti singlehandedly established the 1960s as proper subject matter for cinematic nostalgia.

Produced on a modest budget of $750,000, the film appealed to broad audiences, becoming one of the decade’s most commercially profitable. Its “rock-and-roll” oldies soundtrack re-established the commercial viability of classic rock in American films.

As Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy later showed, combining fantasy and nostalgia proved popular with both young and adult audiences. Working in an impersonal style, Lucas continued to distill the elements of l930s and l940s popular movies, communicating to a new generations of children the naivete and thrills of the serial adventures he had watched during his childhood.

First shown in the 1973 New York Film Festival, Mean Streets established Scorsese’s centrality as a major talent. The film had a new kind of protagonists: two young hoods living and dying on the streets of New York’s Little Italy. Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the central character, juggles his concern for his crazy friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a secret romance with Johnny’s cousin, and his ambition to run an uptown restaurant. But more importantly, Scorsese applied his cineaste’s passion for film noir and B movies to a gallery of rich characters, showing an acute sense of time and place. Mean Streets was also significant for marking the beginning of one of the most creative pairings of director-actor in American films: Robert De Niro went on to star in five more Scorsese features.

Mean Streets synthesized American B movies and European art film. Many subsequent movies were influenced by Mean Streets. Last year alone, three independent pictures paid tribute to Scorsese in one way or another: John Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Nick Gomez’ Laws of Gravity, and Rob Weis’ Amongst Friends.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Scorsese’ only film with a female protagonist and lacking a male point of view, also turned out to be influential. The tale of a young widow, who takes off with her young son in search of a new life and a new identity, the film won an acting Oscar for Ellen Burstyn and became a favorite of the nascent women’s movement. It also encouraged the making of other films about women and spawned a successful TV sitcom, Alice.

With Taxi Driver, in l976, Scorsese returned to the macho world and New York territory of Mean Streets. An ichnographic street opera which gave De Niro an opportunity for a tour-de-force performance as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet turned psychotic vigilante. The film generated considerable controversy due to its bloody conclusion–a sustained, hallucinatory, technically dazzling violent sequence.

June 1975: Altman’s Nashville Vs. Spielberg’s Jaws

The month of June 1975 became historical, when two key movies, Nashville and Jaws, both modifications of the disaster cycle that had its real-life equivalents in Vietnam and Watergate, were released. Altman, who revised every genre, from war films through musicals, noir, Western and gangster film, made his masterpiece, Nashville, which was named Best Picture by the NY Film Critics Circle.

Spielberg’s Jaws gave the disaster cycle a second lease on life. As Jim Hoberman noted, where Nashville exploded the genre, Jaws imploded it. If Nashville offered a pessimistic view of American life, predicting the rise of a politics as meretricious and authoritarian as the mass culture industry, Jaws was more optimistic in its resolution and portrayal of heroics.

Opening simultaneously at hundreds of theaters, following a saturation TV advertising, Jaws went on to become the all-time top grossing movie–until the release of Star Wars, in 1977.  Jaws’ presold property and media-blitz release patterns heralded the rise of “high concept” movie (and summer popcorn) and shrewdly calculating marketing campaigns.