“Nobody knows anything.” That’s William Goldman’s famous line from his 1983 memoir, about working in movies in the 1970s.
And watching the movies from that period, that crazy worldwide flowering of ballsy cinema, you can see that it was true. Nobody really did know anything. The producers and money-men didn’t have a clue; the marketing departments were lost; the film critics weren’t sure what was going on; and often the “heroes” onscreen knew less than anybody. And it was glorious, because they were willing to try just about anything.
Maybe we’ll never recapture that moment. Maybe we all just “know” too much now. But back then—with the fences knocked down, the maps torn up, the gates left ajar, the governors on the engines disabled—cinema exploded. It was a time of furious announcements, furious experiments, furious rebellions, furious mistakes.
And it was all the various engineers of filmmaking that were in revolt against “the way things are done.” Actors were swallowing their lines, stuttering, mumbling, ignoring the camera; allowing themselves to be underlit and unglamorous. Editors were cutting scenes abruptly, intercutting unexpectedly, using their Steenbecks like a muscle car to push audiences around. Sound was being recorded now by body mikes, allowing actors to move around freely, talking loud or soft, interrupting each other: not waiting for a boom to swivel towards them. Telephoto lenses and maneuverable cameras turned cameramen into eavesdroppers, or spies, or scientists with a microscope, exposing the biological truths of faces and landscapes.
What’s remarkable is not just that they did these things, but that the money allowed them to. The common idea about movies is that they can never be a “pure” art form like painting or novels, because they’re so expensive: so the people with the money will always be looking over the shoulders of the creatives, hamstringing them. But when the people with the money don’t know anything, the balance of power shifts. The money-people look back at the directors and say with a shrug, “well, it beats me. Maybe the kids will like it. Go ahead!”
The money-people might have been scared, but the directors and the writers and the actors seemed fearless. You could make films about losers, neurotics, assholes, or outcasts. You could make movies where all the characters are played by dwarfs. You could make detective films where the detective detects nothing. You could make Westerns about the lone, self-reliant man, where the lone self-reliant man gets crushed by the railroads, or disappears into the landscape like dust. You could shoot and edit your film to feel like a drug trip, while you and your crew took a drug trip behind the camera.
Maybe the whole thing only happened because of the kids. Kids are difficult to understand, in general. But in 1969, when society seemed to be ripping itself to shreds, and the generation gap was a yawning crevasse, they must have seemed an economic enigma. The studio people had no idea what to do—but they knew they had to do something. Because the kids did have money to go to the movies. A lot. But were they going to 2001 because they liked the chilly evisceration of man’s dependence on technology? Or because they liked to lie down on the floor during the last half hour and smoke joints? Were they going to Bonnie & Clyde to see rebellion against the social order, or to see cool outlaws being shot in slow motion by way too many bullets? Were they going to “Easy Rider” because they liked an existential story of lost men in a broken nation, or because they dug the Steppenwolf song and watching movie stars smoke pot onscreen?
Easy Rider’s marketing posters declared, “This Year, It’s Easy Rider.” What phony bravado! In reality, it seems like the posters for every film released during those years could have used the same tag line, but phrased as a question: “This year, is it Carnal Knowledge?” “This year, is it Two-Lane Blacktop? Is it perhaps Clockwork Orange? Harold and Maude? Does anybody know what it is? Can anybody help us?”
It was largely Europeans who had planted the seed. Those euro-heroes of the 1960s—in France, in Italy, in Sweden—had reinvented cinema with their fearless and passionate experiments. And now, worldwide, the film directors of the 1970s were the teenagers of the 60s who had watched those films, and been inspired, instigated, infused. With their newfound freedom, they would repay the debt tenfold.
Like many revolutionary movements, the Celluloid Spring didn’t last. By the 1980s, the money-men had crushed the revolt, repaired the fences, restored order. The business of movies was business once again. Predictable, scientific. We may never recapture those furious days. But the films are still with us, and so the dream of the revolution can live on: a torch passed from audience to audience, from director to director. Furious cinema lives! – Athina Rachel Tsangari, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies Visiting ProfessorAll film descriptions by Athina Rachel Tsangari
Directed by Elaine May. With John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Carol Grace
US 1976, 35mm, color, 119 min
“What way am I going to see you, I haven’t seen you before? Open the door!”
Already known as a brilliant comedian for her improvisational sketch comedy with longtime partner Mike Nichols, Elaine May in the 1970s proved she was also a gifted filmmaker. After the farcical A New Leaf and the bittersweet The Heartbreak Kid, she explored new territory in this, her third and bravest film; sadly her fourth was the unfairly infamous Ishtar, and she never directed another one.
Here she looks at male friendship in an intense and touching story about a small-time crook who learns a local mobster has put a price on his head. Hiding out in a crummy hotel room, desperate, he telephones his best friend. What follows is one very long night for the two men, that takes them to every corner of their difficult relationship. And May not only plays with a John Cassavetes-like style, she uses the man himself—and his real-life friend Peter Falk—as her protagonists, adding another layer of intimacy.
Directed by Robert Altman. With Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois
US 1971, 35mm, color, 120 min
“I got poetry in me.”
Robert Altman’s sweetest and saddest movie. And one of the few that can be truly called a love story. A gambler arrives in a small western mining town, with only one ambition—to open a really great whorehouse. He is a simple man, and a fool, but he is wise enough to enlist the help of a really great whore. Her cynicism is slowly overcome, as she realizes this man is for real: that after a lifetime of being nobodies, they can actually achieve something great together. But the world isn’t kind to visionaries—and especially not to gamblers.
Young Keith Carradine stumbles into the crossfire; various frontier weirdos stumble around at the edges of the frame, lost in their own obsessions. The mud is everywhere. The final shootout in the snow might be the least heroic shootout in Western movie history. Vilmos Zsigmond’s gorgeous, milky photography and the music of Leonard Cohen makes it all seem wistful, like a half-remembered tragic dream.
Directed by Werner Herzog. With Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer, Gisela Hertwig
Germany 1970, DCP, b/w, 96 min. German with English subtitles
“When we behave, nobody cares. But when we are bad, nobody forgets!”
Even by the standards of crazy Werner Herzog, this film is crazy. But like all of his films, the craziness is not the point; rather, it’s a tool, used in a very specific way, by a master craftsman. In this, his second narrative feature, Herzog tells a story of revolution. On a remote island, inside a repressive institution, the unhappy inmates rebel and rise up against their guards. What results is furious anarchy—but as with most displays of anarchy, there are actually some unspoken rules being followed, and this is what really interests Herzog.
And, keep in mind, the film’s title is quite literal. Both the inmates and the guards are played entirely by dwarfs. In fact there are no regular-sized people in the film, yet the chairs and the beds and the doorknobs are sized only for nonexistent big people. No wonder the dwarfs are angry. Herzog’s sympathy, as always, is with the so-called freaks and their rampage against the rigged system. Franz Kafka would have cried with happiness, and then cried with unhappiness.
Directed by Milos Forman. With Lynn Carlin, Buck Henry, Kathy Bates
US 1971, 35mm, color, 89 min
“I think we oughta change the balance of power a little bit. I’m saving up to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile.”
Milos Forman’s first American movie is a hilarious parody of the generation gap at its most gaping. A teenage girl sneaks out of the house to audition for a singing contest. Her parents, imagining that she has either run away, become a druggie, a hooker, or joined the Manson Family, begin combing the city for her. They find other parents, also searching for their children. They end up with hundreds of others at a seminar of the Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children, where their boundaries are challenged and expanded. Meanwhile, the kids are desperately trying to express their unfulfilled yearnings through music. The kids are lost. The parents are lost. An affectionate and funny film with equal empathy for both sides. Climaxes with a brilliant scene in which two middle-class NY couples play strip poker. Buck Henry (writer of The Graduate) is perfect as the confused father; Paul Benedict, Lynn Carlin and Vincent Schiavelli all enjoy memorable moments.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird
US 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min
“If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.”
Monte Hellman’s masterpiece is a tribute both to the American obsession with driving and to his own obsession with minimalist storytelling. In the late sixties Hellman made several “quickie” westerns for Roger Corman (The Shooting, Ride In the Whirlwind) whose narratives were as beautifully spare and weight-efficient as a dragster’s engine block. But in Two-Lane Blacktop he pushes this idea even further: he redlines it. It’s like The Cannonball Run scripted by Beckett.
Three nameless characters, who hardly talk, meet a fourth nameless character who never shuts up. They decide to race their cars across the country for pink slips. Non-actor musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play the autistic gearheads; the incomparable Warren Oates is the fast-talking huckster who challenges them. It’s their hot-rodded ’55 Chevy 150 against his factory-fresh ’70 Pontiac GTO. The girl moves her allegiance from car to car and from driver to driver. They are all chasing after something they cannot define. But maybe, if they can drive fast enough, they can catch it. Or they’ll go so fast that they’ll abandon the race, transcend the sound barrier, the light barrier, and even the film projector itself.
Directed by Melvin Van Peebles. With Simon Chukster, Melvin Van Peebles, Hubert Scales
US 1971, 35mm, color, 97 min
“You offer pretty good news to me, slappin’ up on some white cops. I’m gonna say a Black ‘Ave Maria’ for you.”
In this legendary work of grindhouse political cinema (not to mention personal willpower), Melvin van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, and performed the music, the stunts, and the sex scenes. His title character is a male prostitute who intervenes when he sees a young Black Panther being beaten up by two white cops. As a result he becomes a fugitive. But the black community rises up to help him elude the corrupt and racist state.
Van Peebles makes his technical limitations into virtues, drawing on Godardian inspiration for his hallucinogenic editing style that embraces the non-professionalism of his amateur cast and crew and the breakneck chaos of the shoot. And yet while the film is funny and decidedly insane (according to one legend, van Peebles contracted gonorrhea during a sex scene, filed a claim with the Director’s Guild health insurance for an “on-the-job injury,” and used the money to buy more film) it also has to be taken seriously, as an attempt to express a voice that in 1971 had almost no voice at all in the movies.
Directed by John Cassavetes. With Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery
US 1971, 35mm, color, 114 min
“I think about you so much, I forget to go to the bathroom.”
John Cassavetes attempts something heroic: a romantic comedy that actually shows us the essence of real romance, rather than selling us an aspirational fantasy. The story couldn’t be simpler. It’s about two mismatched, flawed, complicated, neurotic weirdos who discover each other. But there’s a glory in how Cassavetes plunges deep inside these two characters, and inside two extraordinary actors at the height of their powers—Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel.
With every hesitation and every mistake, every unexpected diversion or uncontrollable outburst, the film exposes the phony cleanliness of Hollywood’s version of love. Minnie herself says it, bitterly: “The movies lie to you, they set you up. They make you believe in romance and love.” Cassavetes has come not to bury the cinematic love story, but to save it.
Directed by Maurice Pialat. With Marlène Jobert, Jean Yanne,
France/Italy 1972, 35mm, color, 106 min. French with English subtitles
“Movies are the only place you don’t see men cry.”
Although a peer of the 60s French New Wave directors, Maurice Pialat didn’t start making films until the Seventies—films that both build on, and answer to, that earlier canon. Like Cassavetes, Mike Nichols, Bergman and others, he was interested in the evisceration of human psychology, with both its weakness and its brutality intact. Critic Glenn Norton called him “the master of intangible day-to-day emotion.”
We Won’t Grow Old Together was his powerful second feature, and he put a lot of autobiography (and auto-critique) into it. A married filmmaker (Jean Yanne, best actor winner at Cannes) is in his sixth year of an affair with a younger woman (the electrifying Marlène Jobert, a.k.a. the mother of Eva Green). Even as their relationship sours, and his behavior becomes more domineering, neither seems able to break it off, or to decide if they want to. The result is what, today, we would call “asymmetrical warfare.” Not unlike Carnal Knowledge, it’s a film about insecurities masked as cruelty, and possessiveness masked as love.
Directed by Ken Russell. With Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed,
UK 1971, 35mm, color, 109 min
“Most religions believe that by crying, ‘Lord, Lord!’ often enough, they can contrive to enter the kingdom of heaven. A flock of trained parrots could just as readily cry the same thing with just as little chance of success.”
Legendary madman Ken Russell, adapting a non-fiction novel by Aldous Huxley about corrupt priests, sexual repression and hysteria in a 17th century French village, tries to push every possible button and succeeds. Banned in many countries, including Italy where it nevertheless won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, critic Judith Crist derided it as a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts.”
But there’s far more in this fiesta than the infamous scenes of torture, naked nuns submitting to orgiastic exorcism, and Michael Gothard’s memorably crazy inquisitor. Russell is after something much more sophisticated, which perhaps got drowned out in all the hullaballoo. Like many of the great 70s films, this is a story about power, and what happens when a single man tries to step out of line and go up against the System. Oliver Reed is fantastic as the priest whose charisma and ambition creates a problem for the Church that’s more political than spiritual.
Directed by Barbara Loden. With Michael Higgins, Barbara Loden,
US 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min
“If you don't want anything you won't have anything, and if you don't have anything, you're as good as dead.”
Barbara Loden started her Hollywood career as a girl in a bathing suit, getting pies thrown in her face on the Ernie Kovacs Show. But ten years later she fought against all odds and all prejudices to write, direct and star in this extraordinary and nearly forgotten film. The title character is a poor woman in rural Pennsylvania whose ambitions have decreased to zero, having rejected the one thing she is supposed to want: her husband and children. She drifts alone through her life, aimless, numb. At her nadir she meets a man in a bar, who she thinks at first is the bartender, but he’s actually robbing the place. What follows is a grimy, abusive, glamour-free version of Bonnie and Clyde, with a Clyde who’s anything but Warren Beatty.
Loden’s onscreen creation was something unique, but vitally needed: an instinctual female protagonist who defied all simple explanation, whose desires could barely be expressed much less categorized. It’s the kind of character many male actors were getting to play in that period, but very few actresses. Loden had to create the part for herself. Although the film took a prize at the Venice Film Festival, Loden never made another movie. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and GUCCI.
Directed by John Flynn. With William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones,
US 1977, 35mm, color, 99 min
“Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?”
“That’s the only kind that’s left.”
Rolling Thunder is the Platonic ideal of gritty B-movie revenge thrillers—mimicked since by half-a-thousand Cinemax potboilers, but never matched. A soldier returns home to Texas, after years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, to find himself an alien on an alien planet. His wife has cheated on him, and his son has forgotten him. The grammar of everyday life eludes him. The moral codes he supposedly fought for seem to have evaporated. He prefers to sleep in the woodshed instead of the house, because it’s small and he can be alone. He’s betrayed, then robbed. In the end he returns to the only language that he feels comfortable with: violence.
William Devane is fantastic, almost feral, in the (barely speaking) lead role, with Linda Haynes and a young Tommy Lee Jones lending strong support. Co-writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is critical of the film for its divergence from the intent of his original draft. The director, John Flynn, was a talented craftsman who never rose to that level again, and according to William Goldman the preview test screening was so legendarily negative that the audience “got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present.” Yet the film’s respect has only grown with each passing decade.
Directed by John Carpenter. With Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle,
US 1975, 35mm, color, 83 min
“Hello, bomb? Snap out of it, bomb.”
Begun as a USC student project by director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) and writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall), Dark Star was then expanded to feature length, along with a corresponding increase of the budget, from $14 to $39. But look past the cheap (but quite clever) SFX and you’ll find one of the greatest existential science-fiction satires ever made.
Four miserable men fly around the universe fulfilling an inexplicable bureaucratic assignment, to blow up certain uninhabited planets. Sadly, after nineteen successful bomb runs, the crew turns on one another, the “alien” breaks loose, the toilet paper runs out, and bomb number 20 develops an attitude and refuses to follow orders.
Directed by Nagisa Oshima. With Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji,
Japan 1976, 35mm, color, 102 min. Japanese with English subtitles
“Your tears are so salty. I love to taste them.”
Nagisa Oshima’s intense film about sex and obsession was so far outside the boundaries of what was allowable in “proper” cinema that it faced bans in many countries, and even today can’t be shown uncensored in its own country. “By cutting and obscuring,” he told the authorities, “you have made my pure film dirty.”
Based on a notorious true crime incident (which perhaps helped fuel the myth of the “man-eater,” the male fear of a sexually voracious woman) the film tells a simple story of two lovers in 1936 who become destructively obsessed with one another, disconnecting gradually from the outside world—sex as a drug spiral—until meeting a lurid end. And over everything hangs the shadow of Imperial Japan marching towards its doom. Among other things this was one of the first, and sadly perhaps one of the last, attempts to use the explicit, “pornographic” depiction of real human sex as an artistic tool for non-pornographic storytelling.
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. With Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin
Germany 1976, 16mm, color, 93 min. German with English subtitles
“Happiness isn’t always fun.”
Rainer Fassbinder was famous for working fast (he directed over forty films in fifteen years) but even by that standard, Ali was a quickie: he conceived it as a two-week filmmaking “exercise” to fill in a break between two other films, and as an homage to Douglas Sirk, whose 1955 All That Heaven Allows he had just seen. And yet the result is one of Fassbinder’s most powerful films, and most affecting love stories.
Whereas in the Sirk film, the only obstacle to love was Rock Hudson’s status as a gardener, and his eight-year age difference with Jane Wyman, Fassbinder pushes the idea much further. Ali depicts an abrupt and improbable love affair that develops between a German widow in her sixties and a Moroccan immigrant worker in his thirties. Their friends and family are horrified at this violation of racial and sexual taboo. But it is not only external prejudices that the couple must overcome, as Fassbinder’s unerring eye for emotional truth slowly reveals the much deeper barriers that lie within them.