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The '70s: Get over it

A thriving cult deifies the decade's filmmaking, but the 'halcyon age' was less revolution than business as usual, with rebel hype.

August 17, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

"We blew it."

The year was 1969 and the movie was "Easy Rider." Spoken by Peter Fonda to Dennis Hopper with such inscrutable cool that audiences debated their meaning long after they'd left the theater, these three words sum up the broken dreams of a couple of bikers after a proverbially long and strange trip. Like their characters, Fonda and Hopper were after a big score. They got it. A smash hit, "Easy Rider" connected with the youth culture and helped pave the way for an extraordinary decade-long run of films -- "Mean Streets," "The Exorcist," "The Last Detail," "Badlands" and "American Graffiti" were all released in 1973 -- the likes of which haven't been seen since.

Or so the legend goes.

In the last 10 years, 1970s cinema has become an unqualified cult. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze make films under its influence; fan-boy Web sites extol its glories. Not long before she died, Pauline Kael wrote that the 1970s were "when the movies seemed to be about things that mattered." Peter Biskind says the same in his 1998 bestseller about New Hollywood, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." In brief, Biskind argues that a group of young cinematic upstarts -- turned on by the era's social turmoil -- sparked a revolution in Hollywood that rejuvenated the moribund industry. As the subtitle of his book puts it: "How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

Last January, a documentary based on "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. The next day, the rival Sundance Film Festival hosted the premiere of another, similarly reasoned documentary about this halcyon age called "A Decade Under the Influence" directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme. (A longer version of "Decade" airs on IFC beginning Wednesday.) In June, the cult continued with the publication of "It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies," an appreciation written by a British critic who was all of 2 when "Mean Streets" opened.

There's something troubling about the way that 1970s cinema has evolved from mere fandom to become its own genre, especially among younger cinephiles. It's one thing when a director like Wes Anderson, yet another 1970s fan, cops to his love for the era because his films are more than allusions and recycled style. His work transcends his influences, but this isn't the case with the dozens of others waving the personal-vision banner and pining for New Hollywood. Filmmakers like Joe Carnahan, who channeled Sidney Lumet in "Narc," and David Gordon Green, whose jones for Terrence Malick nearly upended "All the Real Girls," demonstrate talent. But strip away their influences and it's hard to see any "there" there.

Undeniably, something was new and different in the Hollywood in the 1970s; it's questionable, however, if new meant better. Filmmakers working in Hollywood then fired off terrific movies. But so did Hollywood filmmakers working in the teens, the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and the much-maligned early 1960s. One crucial distinction between Old and New Hollywood wasn't the level of talent but the self-consciousness of the Young Turks' movie love. Like their counterparts abroad, New Hollywood filmmakers took movies -- old studio slicks and foreign-language films -- seriously as art. Movies didn't have to be sausages, churned out for mass consumption, but could be personal expressions and political statements.

The old studio system wasn't as soul-killing and brain-deadening for everyone as is often tediously claimed. However, by the early 1960s the old studio factory was no more and the studio chiefs hadn't yet mastered the new fiscal realities of their decentralized industry. By the late 1960s, a combination of aesthetic malaise and a financial crisis left the industry open to change -- and so it changed, just like it always had. Hollywood has a long history of brilliant adaptation to crises. Good and great movies were made, but most didn't look all that different from Old Hollywood. The language and the sex were racier, and violence certainly more bloody, but for the most part these were not radical films.

The sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll generation didn't save Hollywood. Hollywood swallowed them whole, absorbed its talent, spat out its dross and a few of its geniuses, and saved itself.

That era's youth market

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