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June 30-July 28, 2004

Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

It’s often said that in today’s Hollywood, the studio brass doesn’t care about movies; it cares about money. This is one of the reasons the Hollywood studios have been floundering without identities for forty years…not for lack of trying. In these major studio films, selected from the syllabus of Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, we see the studios trying to outfox their enemies, and we see their enemies looking to take them over from within. It helps that each of these movies was remarkably successful. If Hollywood is a place where success breeds imitators, we might wonder what happens when the studios attempt to imitate one another’s search for identity.

Program notes by J.D. Connor, Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University


June 30 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Easy Rider

Directed by Dennis Hopper
US, 1969, color, 94 min.
With Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson

This now-classic road movie turned the B-movie youthquake into an international art cinema. Easy Rider tells the story of Captain America and Billy the Kid as they go looking for America and, as Columbia’s original poster put it, “can’t find it anywhere.” From its legendary compilation score to its echt-60’s lens flares and culminating LSD trip, Easy Rider feels disconcertingly familiar, a model of what Tom Frank calls “the conquest of cool.” As they motor along to their inevitably tragic end, our heroes do drugs, have their rights violated, meet some interestingly allegorical groups of folks, and find themselves enframed by László Kovács’s gorgeous cinematography.

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June 30 (Wednesday) 9 pm

Shaft

Directed by Gordon Parks
US, 1971, color, 100 min.
With Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi

No one could ignore the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, certainly not MGM, which was eager to capitalize on alt-art cinema when it could—leading to such unusual collaborations as a three-picture deal with Michelangelo Antonioni. It was easy enough to turn Ernest Tidyman’s John Shaft into “the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” And while Shaft may have turned revolutionary baadasssss cinema into blaxploitation, it also looked ahead to some of the great innovations and reestimations of genre cinema in the seventies: Tidyman wrote screenplays for The French Connection and High Plains Drifter and Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for his score. Along the way director Gordon Parks not only makes a cameo, but strategically places copies of Essence magazine in the film (Parks had co-founded it).

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July 7 (Wednesday) 7 pm

The Godfather

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
US, 1972, color, 175 min.
With Marlon Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino

Nearly every scene in this first installment of the history of the Corleone family organization in America has become iconic. With The Godfather, Mario Puzo proved he could write a hit (even if he had to disguise his mother as Don Vito to do it). Coppola proved he could renovate a hoary genre and make it serve his grand, epic ambitions—ambitions that frequently took the form of fantasies of corporate overthrow. And Paramount proved that auteurism (and strong-armed distribution tactics) might be the studio’s savior.

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July 14 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Tootsie

Directed by Sydney Pollack
US, 1982, color, 119 min.
With Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray

Dustin Hoffman is Michael Dorsey, the actor’s actor who can’t get a job until a drag transformation lands him a leading role on a daytime soap opera. “No one will hire you” his on-screen CAA agent (and off-screen director) Sydney Pollack tells him. Behind the scenes, though, it was the co-chair of CAA Mike Ovitz, who just happened to be Hoffman, Pollack and Bill Murray’s agent, who was trying to convince Pollack to hire himself to play the agent on screen. Hoffman’s legendary transvestism isn’t the only instance in the film, naturally enough. When it came time to shoot the sequences in the (nonexistent) CAA New York offices, the crew simply redressed Columbia’s own suite. CAA had practically taken the place over already.

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July 21 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm

Batman

Directed by Tim Burton
US, 1989, color, 126 min.
With Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger

These days, it seems like every studio has entrusted its mega-franchises to directors with an “indie” edge. But before there were Bryan Singer, Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, there was Tim Burton. Fresh off Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton blended his own torqued sensibility with Anton Furst’s remarkable production design. The results were wildly popular, and strangely powerful. The Saturday after Batman opened, Warner CEO Steve Ross told producer Mark Canton “You may be responsible for making the merger happen.” “The merger” of course, was with Time, Inc., which makes its own cameo appearance in the film as Vicky Vale’s employer. As the Joker says when looks at her pictures of the Corto Maltese massacre, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”

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July 28 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Boyz N the Hood

Directed by John Singleton
US, 1991, color, 107 min.
With Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr.

Singleton’s debut film, with its remarkable cast, brought New Jack Cinema into line with grander traditions of urban class melodrama—an Angels with Dirty Faces for South Central (and Compton). Worried about “glorifying” gang violence, or inciting it in the theaters, as Dennis Hopper’s Colors had in 1988, Columbia muted the gang references. No Crips, no Bloods, just blue and red. Still, when the film premiered, there was sporadic violence and Singleton was forced to “defend” his didactic film. That wasn’t the end of the censorship, though. Worried that Fishburne’s grand set-piece speech that linked black-on-black violence to gentrification would contribute to growing anti-Japanese sentiment, the studio (recently purchased by Sony) made Singleton change the name of the real estate company. His new version? Seoul to Seoul.

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