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Mix of turbulence, change produces a diamond decade

May 30, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Throughout Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme's stirring survey of American movies of the '70s, "A Decade Under the Influence," filmmakers and stars remark how their movies couldn't have been made in an earlier era. Some add wistfully that they probably couldn't be made today either.

It is often remarked that the years between "Easy Rider" (1969) and "Star Wars" (1977) marked a second golden age in American filmmaking, and this documentary, as comprehensive as it is incisive, is a reminder of just how many terrific pictures came out during those years -- films like "The Godfather," "Taxi Driver," "MASH," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Last Picture Show," "Network," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Chinatown," "Shampoo," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Klute," "Five Easy Pieces," "The French Connection," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Exorcist," "Midnight Cowboy," "Annie Hall," "All the President's Men," "Faces" and "Harold and Maude." And the list could be considerably longer.

From trying times

A number of factors made this flowering possible, but two stand out: the dislocating impact of the Vietnam War on the American public and the fact that by the end of the '60s the major studios were increasingly losing touch with their audiences. It's not for nothing that the film opens with the 1969 Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere of "Hello, Dolly!," an expensive box office dud.

LaGravenese and Demme and their 25 interviewees call attention to all the other elements that contributed to this renewal of the American cinema, which started to happen when independent features began racking up enough grosses to attractthe attention of the ailing majors. As producer-director Roger Corman, mentor to the new generation, remarks, "The studios decided that if you couldn't lick 'em, buy 'em." All of a sudden directors were given the kind of power they hadn't had since the movies' earliest days. These filmmakers were furthermore familiar with -- and envious of -- the brilliance and the freedom of the French new wave filmmakers, of Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni, of Kurosawa and the gritty anti-establishment Brits.

By the same token, filmmakers like Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Paul Mazursky, Peter Bogdanovich and others attest that audiences were craving to experience a sense of recognition in movies in response to increasing social and political turmoil and outright distrust of government. This also opened doors for a new kind of actor, exemplified by Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. "We weren't handsome," says Bruce Dern, "but we were interesting because we were honest."

The '70s weren't always such a great time for actresses, says Ellen Burstyn, yet she was able to hold out for a breakthrough movie like "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" -- and Julie Christie, one of this film's most penetrating commentators, Faye Dunaway and Jill Clayburgh all shone brightly, with Jane Fonda, fearless on screen and off, emerging as a still controversial symbol of the antiwar era.

LaGravenese and Demme and their subjects agree that "Jaws" (1975) marked the beginning of the end of an era with its immense returns for its saturation release -- and a signal that with the Vietnam War over audiences were again eager for escapist fare. And two years later "Star Wars" marked the beginning of the special-effects spectacles and big-event movies that have been the hallmark of the American motion picture industry for the lastquarter century, with more-personal films becoming increasingly rare.

"A Decade Under the Influence" leaves us to wonder whether ever again will so many creative free spirits move into the mainstream in such numbers and with such success. It's a sad and a scary thought.


'A Decade Under the Influence'

MPAA rating: Rated R for language, images of sexuality, violence, drug use

Times guidelines: Strong language, some violence and sexuality

An Independent Film Channel presentation. Producer-directors Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme. Producers Gini Reticker and Jerry Kupfer. Executive producers Alison Bourke, Caroline Kaplan and Jonathan Sebring. Cinematographers Clyde Smith and Anthony Janelli. Editor Meg Reticker.

Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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