Kenneth Bowser directs Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich and Margot Kidder in this documentary companion piece to Peter Biskind’s seminal book on the “Movie Brats” and the New American Cinema of the Seventies.
Talking heads, stock footage and on set photos. Though considering the backstories of many of the movies covered warrant their own feature length documentary this can only ever be a busy busy overview. The gossipy nature of Biskind’s book is a blessing and a curse. The tell all – straight from the ex girlfriends and first wives’ mouths – nature of the reportage meant the biggest names involved avoided this follow-up project like the plague. Spielberg, Lucas and Friedkin are notable by their absence, Marty surprisingly subdued, Peckinpah and Ashby long dead. Yet many of the female sources were not just romantic partners but active creatives and technicians in the movement. Marcia Lucas worked not just with George as his Editor but was Scorsese’s go-to cutter in the second half of the decade. Nearly all of Polly Platt’s illustrious projects after her and Bogdanovich split up are now considered classics… right up until her last producer credit on Wes Anderson’s debut: Bottle Rocket. The principal subjects might not savour their early affairs, drug taking and unprofessional gaucheness writ large now they are considered the elder statesman of Tinseltown but the sources are pretty credible.
Of course, Biskind’s fascination with hubris and maverick celebrity means Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and Bob Evans get a little too much credit. Surely Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Jack warrant as much absent spotlight as Shirley MacLaine’s hound dog kid brother. The choices of who made the cut and who doesn’t fascinates me. Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen receive minimal attention. Maybe as their careers started in either TV, the Fifties or both? But then why do Altman and Peckinpah become so elevated? Their early backgrounds are much the same but maybe their studio battles and bad behaviour were just plain more fascinating? And he’s never quite sure whether émigrés like Roman Polanski, John Boorman, Milos Foreman or John Schlesinger belong in his inner circle.
Biskind’s ultimate thesis that the later juvenile rollercoasters of Star Wars and Jaws meant that studio head were given a blueprint as to what kind of blockbuster was a safe bet also feels like a reduction. So where does that leave Friedkin and De Palma who were first and foremost also iconoclastic formalists… more inclined to leave the crowds entertained and stunned than mess with political and social state of things? I’d say it is fair that Biskind wants the rock ‘n’ roll burnouts to define his favourite era rather than the thriving survivors. Watching this unspectacular documentary is a neat précis to his fine writing and investigation. It made me want to revisit the weighty tome again with fresher and more mature eyes than I had in my early twenties. My first paid written work on film was an essay about the alternatives to the subjects of book for Kamera’s print magazine. And even if it proves a mere taster for all that is celebrated in his key work, it made me want to indulge in the movies he is so passionate about. As I am too. So…
American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas directs Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith in this teen movie where the youths of Modesto, California reach various crossroads in their lives while driving around enjoying the last night of the Summer of ‘62.
A joy to revisit. The Rosetta Stone for nearly all teen movies that followed and one of the first notable exercises in mass market nostalgia. In that respect, there’s this acting as the spiritual bridge slap bang between Meet Me In St Louis and Dazed & Confused. Though both of those films have a distance of decades betwixt the more innocent era they are resurrecting… American Graffiti is only 11 years older than the lost world it looks fondly back upon. So much had changed from the Kennedy Assassination to Altamont that it is no wonder Grease, Happy Days and this emerged so suddenly to take stock at what had been abandoned by the American youth psyche so quickly. Opening night in 1973, must have been a rude awakening for the popcorn munching kids. This isn’t what your parents were doing, it is what your older sibling was doing when they were your age. You couldn’t imagine a teen movie released now but set in 2013 being such a culture shock. Even if it notes the absence of hand gels and face masks.
The ever present Do Wop and Summer Bop soundtrack, the awkward sexual mores that seem so immature after the Summer of Love, and those bright gliding hot rods. The gleaming chrome automobiles feel like characters in themselves… the strongest link between this and Star Wars is Lucas presents us with a culture where everyone cruises and hitches a ride and battles it out in fantasy vehicles. A lot of drama and humour can happen in the cockpit. It tends to be pretty relaxed, low stakes and low energy stuff. A hang-out movie where everyone is separated. The night broods and obscures, without headlights and neon… you get lost in the dusk and moonlight. Camouflage for our four knights to try on different armour before the dawn of real life fixes them into their fates. Props to Haskell Wexler for serving as visual consultant when Lucas (rather over enthusiastically) decided not to have a dedicated cinematographer. No other night movie looks like this and it is all thanks to Haskell in my opinion.
Much to love here. The female roles are meaty and better acted. Candy Clark was Oscar nominated for her troublemaking ditzy blonde but for me Cindy Williams and Mackenzie Philips give the most noteworthy performance. The modern joy of seeing a pre-fame Harrison Ford as the ostensible villain, a cocksure cowboy looking for a challenge. The magic surrounding Wolfman Jack’s small but pivotal role as himself, the sage-like DJ. Life’s short, the popsicle is melting, enjoy the flavour while you can. If you ever want proof that the bought-out studios had zero idea what they were doing in the Seventies then the fact that Universal underestimated this masterpiece and considered writing it off as a TV movie is the smoking gun to that idea.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Martin Scorsese directs Ellen Burstyn, Alfred Lutter and Kris Kristofferson in this road movie where a young widow and her son travel across America hoping to build up enough cash to get to Monterey.
A gem. Marty’s first “one for them” is full of character and heart. He was handpicked by Burstyn, enjoying some post-The Exorcist bargaining power at Warners, and they chime grandly together. Scorsese navigates the shifts from road movie to musical to sitcom to romance masterfully. He never loses us in the key changes nor the convincing grit of his location work. Burstyn has a spiky energy with her kid co-star but is generous enough to let smaller roles from Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and Diane Ladd be high impact. Not being set in New York and being very much a “Woman’s Picture” tyro Scorse seems like a strange choice to helm such a piece. When asked by Burstyn whether he knew anything about women, he sweetly replied “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” Their Alice has the same scrabbling from the mire lesser dreams of the blundering hustlers of Mean Streets, a more human mania and alienation at the brutish world she must navigate alone than the desperate Travis Bickle. Alice is a more romantic, funny and ultimately heroic character, allowed to grow rather than self destruct and she typifies Scorsese’s protagonists away from his more infamous crime pictures. Gangsters and killers only make up a third of his impressively genre hopping filmography after all.
The Wild Bunch (1968)
Sam Peckinpah directs William Holden, Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien in this X rated western of an ageing bunch of gunslingers trying to outrun the 20th century.
The end of the West. Violent men with a iron cast code. A dirty and dangerous way of life that once lived leaves no other options. Both elegiac and revolutionary (no Hollywood movie was this gory and chaotic before, it essentially ends in balletic genocide), this completely rewrote the rule book of what could be shown on screen and is a key landmark in the birth of the action movie. Subliminal cuts, an orchestra of realistic gunfire, agonising squib frenzies. Featuring a cast of men’s men supporting actors, leathery and past their prime, Ernest Borgnine is the stand out. Loyal, steadfast and secretly enamoured with their leader… it is never explicitly stated but he clearly is gay and madly in love with Holden’s oblivious boss. “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”
Bound For Glory (1976)
Hal Ashby directs David Carradine, Ronny Cox and Melinda Dillon in this period biopic of truly left wing folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Not to become an amateur conspiracy theorist but it is mighty strange that some of the greatest films ever made that happen to be pro-union and have positive representations of socialism seem to drop out of circulation all too easily. This and Bill Forsythe’s excellent Comrades are beautiful and masterful works of cinema that you’d struggle to access for decades unless you really hunted them out. Even Warren Beatty’s Reds doesn’t get quite as much airplay and accessibility as other modern classics of its stature. It is almost as if the corporations and conglomerates that hold the rights to such genuinely left leaning cinema know that such powerful messages work against their own venal values.
This is like no other music biopic you have seen. Doesn’t bother with a tragic childhood or last act redemptions. Just focuses on Woody Guthrie making his ambling, half thoughtful way through the Great Depression. He witnesses a town fold in on itself as work dries up. He rides the railroads and experiences the brutality of the bulls and the cops against economics migrants in his own country. He sees first hand the oppressive practices of the fruit picking bosses, flooding the market with cheap labour so they keep every family desperate for work and with no leverage to negotiate a fair wage or contract. He rarely plucks a guitar for that first hour. Ashby and Carradine agree that Guthrie is a unique soul. Too artistic to deliver a simple sign painting job to spec, too wayward to support his family, too much political integrity to keep a well paying radio spot unless he has the right to pick us own polemical songs. He’s not really a fighter or a grafter and he’s a shit of a lover. Weak willed or far away with his undefined ideals to truly care about personal relationships. He wants to be of no fixed abode, close to the workers, changing hearts and minds even if he only has a primary colour idea of what an unionised world would look like.
The realisation of the 1930s of ghost towns, soup kitchens and workers camps is stunningly achieved. Sally Dennison who cast thousands of plausible extras deserves praise. Haskell Wexler performed the first ever steadicam tracking shot to take us through the camps. Thieves Like Us. Boxcar Bertha. Hard Times. Why did the depression era appeal to the mavericks of New Hollywood so much? Was it just that decade’s turn in the queue to be romanticised and immortalised? Was Bonnie & Clyde’s kick starting success to the cinematic revolution thus a marketable mode that guaranteed the green light? In light of ‘the draft’ coming in for a Vietnam war nobody their age wanted to fight, could these film brats hippies only really lionise a time when society fell apart and the government required very little of its transient citizens? Hal Ashby (Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Being There) seems like the most politically and socially astute of his class of filmmakers. While others flirted with current issues as another slide in their counter culture playground, he seemed to gently engage with the class, wealth and power inequalities of his day. This sole reflective journey into the past seems to suggest that the biggest threat to the everyman still exists, unchecked exploitative capitalism. The song remains the same, Guthrie’s just so happens to have composed the beautiful ones that stood the test of time.
Paper Moon (1973)
Peter Bogdanovich directs Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal and Madeline Kahn in this comedy road movie where a film-flam man needs to take an orphan, who just might be his daughter, across state lines to her aunt.
Still in the 1930s but far less politically minded. Seems nice to close off this mini season on an outright charming entertainer. A knickerbocker glory after all those ‘Coney Islands’! The O’Neals have wonderfully combative chemistry, although allegedly the amount of takes it took to achieve this in some scenes was far from natural nor gentile. Pretty much every bit of business avoids cuteness and lands a well earned punchline or ‘rassle’hold on your heartstrings. Bogdanovich is probably the most precious of his peers. While the other where the generation who grew up in the movie houses and wanted to pay homage to the cinema they marinated in, he seems to really want to have been born fifty years earlier and be making flickers in the past. His endeavours aren’t love letters or updates to screwball romances or road movies, they are heartfelt forgeries. It was unlikely his keen imitations would continue to hit with wide audiences but this one certainly does. Cinema is by its very nature a con job, so why not enjoy one of the sweetest little hustles from every generation who happened to be alive in 1973?
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