by Cliff Froehlich on Aug 27, 2019

Beginning on Aug. 10, Cinema St. Louis' Golden Anniversaries again spotlights essential films on their 50th anniversaries, and this third edition features 14 works from 1970. Because in-person screenings remain problematic, CSL will hold online conversations on the films in a format similar to CSL’s Movie Club, with people watching the films on their own but gathering virtually to discuss them. The discussions, which will be led by film critics, film academics, and filmmakers, will occur at 7:30 PM every Monday from Aug. 10-Oct. 28.

The period that Golden Anniversaries will cover over the next decade is among the most fertile in cinema history. From the late 1960s through 1980, Hollywood experienced a radical transformation, with studios giving filmmakers unprecedented freedom to produce challenging works that subverted or expanded traditional genre expectations, featured innovative narrative structures and open endings, and engaged provocatively with the often tumultuous era in which they were made.

Selections from what became known as the Hollywood Renaissance will form the core of Golden Anniversaries, but equally exciting, influential movies were being made outside the U.S., and the program will also include a sampling of international films. In addition, this year's selections include representative works of American-independent cinema and documentary film.

The Lens will offer critical and personal essays on several of the featured films. Cliff Froehlich, Cinema St. Louis’ executive director, introduces the series with a contextualizing article on the Hollywood films of 1967-80 (adapted and updated from his 1998 review of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which was first published in The Riverfront Times). 

Persistence of Vision

The Hollywood cinema of 50 years ago continues to provide remarkable viewing

By Cliff Froehlich

Peter Biskind begins Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), his compulsively readable but deeply flawed book on Hollywood in the ’70s, with an earthquake. The February 1971 quake was a real event, of course, but Biskind uses it as a facile metaphor to demarcate the split between Old and New Hollywood, a physical approximation of the seismic sociocultural forces that were then altering the movie industry’s landscape. The changes that occurred in American films in the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, resulted not from a single, dramatic event but, in appropriately Californian fashion, from a series of figurative disasters akin to the state’s endlessly multiplying quakes and aftershocks, drought-fed wildfires, torrential rains, and engulfing mud slides.

The Los Angeles Dream Factory that was assembled in the ’20s and ’30s, and that arguably reached its peak productivity — along with the rest of American industry — during and immediately following World War II, was already rusting and breaking down in the ’50s. A Supreme Court antitrust ruling, made in 1948, compelled the studios to divest themselves of their theater holdings, thus dismantling the vertical monopoly they tenaciously held over film production, distribution, and exhibition for three decades. Just as devastating — at least in the short term, until the eventual rise of mall cinemas and multiscreen houses — the postwar suburban migration dispersed the filmgoing population to formerly undeveloped areas, making trips to movie theaters, still largely located in urban centers, a significant time investment. And why drive downtown for entertainment when it’s delivered direct to the living room via a newfangled device called the TV?

Compounding Hollywood’s problems in the ’50s and early ’60s, as the studio moguls, executives, producers and directors aged, their tastes became ossified and seemed increasingly out of step with an audience that was growing ever younger as Mom and Dad plopped on the couch and lent the kids the car for a night at the movies. Especially as the Eisenhower era’s straight laces were cut by sex, drugs, and rock & roll during the Kennedy and Johnson years, the youth audience embraced less the bloated productions of big-studio Hollywood (The Sound of Music, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) than the looser, low-budget, marginally hipper exploitation fare offered at the drive-ins (Roger Corman’s biker and women-in-prison movies, Hammer horror films, gorefests such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Hershell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs).

Battered by these and other blows, the studios’ walls finally tumbled in 1967, with the one-two punch of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Freed of the industry’s self-censoring Production Code, which collapsed with the studio system itself, these films — with their sexual frankness, all-stops-pulled violence, European formal influences, and ambiguous or flat-out-unhappy endings — were among the first to reflect accurately the tumult and escalating unease of the times. Bonnie and Clyde’s nihilistic tagline “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people” aptly captured the smart, black-comic cynicism and hard, uncompromising edge of not only Penn’s movie but also those that followed during the next heady decade.

The movies increasingly mirrored both the new freedoms of the day and the cynicism, disaffection and paranoia created by the morass of the Vietnam War; the MLK and RFK assassinations; race riots, black militancy, and white flight; and, finally, Watergate. Films approached those subjects both obliquely (the Vietnam allegories of The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man) and directly (All the President’s Men), and occasionally even explored the youth culture of drugs, free love, and protest, with varying degrees of success (such imperfect but important films as Easy Rider and The Panic in Needle Park on the positive side, and such painfully dated curios as The Strawberry Statement and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart on the negative). Shaking loose of genre restraints along with inhibitions concerning sex and violence, movies such as Five Easy Pieces — one of the period’s high watermarks — told uncategorizable stories that shifted abruptly between comedy and intense drama, resolutely avoiding traditional heroes, melodramatic catharsis, or tidy resolutions. And when genres were used, they were generally bent and subverted (Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or grandly elevated (Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather epics), thus reinvigorating tired formulas.

The cinema of the ’70s also elevated the director to the status of auteur: No longer regarded as just a highly skilled hired hand executing orders, the director was now seen as the primary creative force in making movies. With the factory system closed, studio style, in-house editing, and staff-producer control were replaced by a much less rigidly hierarchical approach that acknowledged, however reluctantly and all too briefly, the director’s central role in the filmmaking process. (Not that directors were allowed absolute power, as a look at the compromised oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah sadly demonstrates.) Important actors (Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty) helped define the time, and key writers (Robert Towne, Paul Schrader) also shaped the decade, but the director was clearly the ascendant star. Further proving the point, Towne, Schrader, Nicholson, and Beatty — the latter a savvy creative producer as well — recognizing the director’s ultimate authority, moved behind the camera themselves.

The chaotic state of the studios not only opened up room for the film-school generation — unabashed movie enthusiasts such as Martin Scorsese who were equally in love with and influenced by the cinemas of classic Hollywood and Europe — but also expanded the freedoms of the remaining older directors (Robert Aldrich, John Huston, Don Siegel, Billy Wilder) and an underappreciated middle group of filmmakers who began in theater (Bob Fosse), comedy (Woody Allen, Elaine May, Mike Nichols), television (Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Peckinpah, Arthur Penn), magazines (Robert Benton), and even criticism (Peter Bogdanovich).

Eventually, of course, this creative window closed — shut by the directors’ own excesses (the unfairly maligned Heaven’s Gate, to cite the usual example) and the popular successes of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, who in The Godfather, Star Wars and Jaws provided executives with a trio of big-box-office models that enabled the eventual reassertion of the studios’ power.

But during the period from 1967-80, when the fresh breezes were blowing into Hollywood, a remarkable body of work was created. Diane Jacobs, in a 1977 book on major contemporary directors and their works, boldly proclaimed a “Hollywood Renaissance.” Looking back from a distance of 50 years, having suffered through the increasingly banal and spiritless Hollywood films of the subsequent decades, her celebration of the ’70s seems all the more sound.

For those looking for more information on the period, Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls proves an easily digestible if nutrition-deficient introduction. (The book was also adapted into an entertaining but similarly superficial documentary in 2003.) Given the astonishing richness of Hollywood from 1967-80, a survey of the time almost necessitates a means of narrowing its focus, and Biskind understandably limits the scope of his work by focusing on a relatively small group of a dozen-or-so key filmmakers. But the book unfortunately concerns itself more with commercial than aesthetic considerations, and the apparent governing impulse behind which filmmakers receive extended attention was their ability to generate gossip or money. We learn much about the sex lives, drug use, and other hedonistic indulgences of the filmmakers, and their selfish bad behavior both on and off set provides countless amusing and/or appalling anecdotes. Biskind does provide legitimate insight into the ways such hugely profitable films as The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars altered the industry and created the blockbuster mentality that so dominates contemporary Hollywood — a sort of reverse alchemy by which the filmic gold of the ’70s was transformed into the leaden super-productions that followed, arguably reaching its apotheosis in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What we don’t get is a clear sense of why — other than the size of their grosses — these filmmakers are important: Their movies, the only reason we should care about their lives, are treated as almost incidental. Business dominates the book; art, when it’s discussed at all, is the submissive and unequal partner.

For more insightful approaches to ’70s film, I’d suggest such studies as Jacobs’ Hollywood Renaissance, James Monaco’s American Film Now (1979), and Michael Pye and Lynda Myles’ The Movie Brats (1979) — all produced during or at the end of the period — and especially Robert Phillip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (first published in 1980 and available in four considerably different editions) and Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986, with its 2003 revised edition including new material and adding “… and Beyond” to its title), both of which provide more critically ambitious views. Another essential text on the period is Mark Harris’ exemplary Pictures at a Revolution (2008), which uses the five 1967 films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — Bonnie and Clyde, Dr. Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night — as compelling case studies in the difference between the Old and New Hollywoods. Harris continued the project with a terrific series of essays, “Cinema ’67 Revisited,” on the Film Comment website. Charles Taylor’s immensely entertaining and insightful Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You There (2017) explores what the subtitle terms “The Shadow Cinema of the American 1970s” — less celebrated but compelling films such as Floyd Mutrux’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose and Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs. There are also plentiful biographies and critical studies of the essential directors, and even some celebratory documentaries (e.g., Milius in 2013 and De Palma in 2015).

The best means of learning about the major films of the period, of course, is to watch them. To make sampling those films a bit easier, I’ve provided a guide to select works by key filmmakers. Although I cheated a bit by including a few independents and a handful of films by English or European directors with American stars, the list — which is emphatically not exhaustive — offers irrefutable evidence of Hollywood’s range and vitality during that remarkable time. Add to those titles the great documentary work of Barbara Kopple, Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Emile De Antonio, Haskell Wexler, and Peter Davis, and is it any wonder that those of us who cut our filmgoing teeth in the ’70s find most contemporary American work — Hollywood or independent — scarcely worth chewing?

Direction Finder: Works by Key Filmmakers of the 1970s

  • Robert Aldrich: Hustle, Ulzana’s Raid
  • Woody Allen: Annie Hall, Bananas, Interiors, Love and Death, Manhattan, Sleeper, Stardust Memories
  • Robert Altman: Brewster McCloud, California Split, Images, The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Thieves Like Us, Three Women, A Wedding
  • Michelangelo Antonioni: The Passenger, Zabriskie Point
  • Alan Arkin: Little Murders
  • Hal Ashby: Being There, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo
  • Ralph Bakshi: Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic
  • John Badham: Saturday Night Fever
  • Robert Benton: Bad Company, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Late Show
  • Bernardo Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris, 1900
  • Peter Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?
  • John Boorman: Deliverance, Point Blank
  • James Bridges: The Paper Chase; September 30, 1955
  • Mel Brooks: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Young Frankenstein
  • John Cassavetes: Faces, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence
  • Michael Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
  • Francis Ford Coppola: Apocalypse Now; The Conversation; The Godfather; The Godfather, Part II; The Rain People
  • Jonathan Demme: Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard
  • Brian De Palma: Carrie; The Fury; Greetings; Hi, Mom!; Obsession; The Phantom of the Paradise; Sisters
  • Clint Eastwood: High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Play Misty for Me
  • Milos Forman: Hair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taking Off
  • Bob Fosse: All That Jazz, Cabaret, Lenny
  • William Friedkin: The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer
  • Ulu Grosbard: Straight Time
  • John Hancock: Bang the Drum Slowly
  • Monte Hellman: Cockfighter, Ride the Whirlwind, The Shooting, Two Lane Blacktop
  • Walter Hill: The Driver, Hard Times, The Long Riders, The Warriors
  • Alfred Hitchcock: Family Plot, Frenzy
  • Dennis Hopper: Easy Rider, The Last Movie
  • John Huston: Fat City, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Man Who Would Be King
  • Lamont Johnson: The Last American Hero
  • Philip Kaufman: The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid; Invasion of the Body Snatchers; The Wanderers; The White Dawn
  • Stanley Kubrick: Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Richard Lester: The Four Musketeers, Petulia, Robin and Marian, The Three Musketeers
  • Barbara Loden: Wanda
  • George Lucas: American Graffiti, Star Wars, THX 1138
  • Sidney Lumet: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico
  • Terrence Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • Elaine May: The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky, A New Leaf
  • Paul Mazursky: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice; Blume in Love; Harry and Tonto; Next Stop, Greenwich Village; An Unmarried Woman
  • John Milius: Big Wednesday, The Wind and the Lion
  • Mike Nichols: Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate
  • Alan Pakula: All the President’s Men, Klute, The Parallax View
  • Gordon Parks: The Learning Tree, Shaft
  • Sam Peckinpah: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Getaway, Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch
  • Arthur Penn: Alice’s Restaurant, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, The Missouri Breaks, Night Moves
  • Frank Perry: Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe
  • Roman Polanski: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby
  • Sydney Pollack: Jeremiah Johnson; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Three Days of the Condor
  • Bob Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry
  • Karel Reisz: The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?
  • William Richert: The American Success Company, Winter Kills
  • Michael Ritchie: The Bad News Bears, The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Semi-Tough, Smile
  • Martin Ritt: Conrack, Sounder
  • Nicolas Roeg: Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Performance, Walkabout
  • Alan Rudolph: Remember My Name, Welcome to LA
  • Richard Rush: The Stunt Man
  • Jerry Schatzberg: The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow
  • John Schlesinger: The Day of the Locust; Midnight Cowboy; Sunday, Bloody Sunday
  • Paul Schrader: American Gigolo, Blue Collar, Hardcore
  • Martin Scorsese: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; “American Boy”; “Italianamerican”; The Last Waltz; Mean Streets; New York, New York; Raging Bull; Taxi Driver; Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
  • Don Siegel: The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, The Shootist
  • Joan Micklin Silver: Between the Lines, Hester Street
  • Steven Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Duel, Jaws, 1941, The Sugarland Express
  • James Toback: Fingers
  • Melvin Van Peebles: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Claudia Weill: Girlfriends
  • Haskell Wexler: Medium Cool
  • Billy Wilder: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
  • Robert Zemeckis: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars
  • Howard Zieff: Hearts of the West