Book Reviews: MAY 2012
"The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s "
“I had a dream about 1970s movies. There was that image from the end of DELIVERANCE (1972), of the hand coming up out of the water—the corpse that refuses to go away. One hand. Where’s the other hand? I wondered. Zinger! It erupted from beneath the cinders on the grave of CARRIE (1976), a hand to drag us down into the darkness.” So begins David Thomson’s engaging article, “The Decade When Movies Mattered,” in this superb anthology on New Hollywood, which lasted approximately ten years, from 1966/1967-1976.
Elsaesser (University of Amsterdam), Horwarth (Austrian Film Museum), and King (Macquarie University), in addition to contributing essays, divide their volume into four sections: Introductions, Histories, People and Places, and Critical Debates. The Last Great American Picture Show contains seventeen selections written by such cinema scholars as J. Hoberman, Howard Hampton, Kent Jones, Dana Polan, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Thomson. Like any anthology, some of the essays are stronger than others, though all merit reading; several of the pieces in this collection demand real effort and concentration. Casual movie fans, beware.
Thomson’s entertaining, incisive, and clearly written article is, perhaps, the best. Declaring his adoration of Seventies cinema, he asserts, “We had movies then that you had to watch. The age gave us plots as intricate and unrelenting as THE STING (1973) and CHINATOWN (1974). Sitting in the dark watching the show kept you as wired as an air-traffic controller.” Thomson contends that THE CHASE, although released in 1966, was “the first American film of the 1970s.” Directed by Arthur Penn, the film was “a prestige venture,” starring Marlon Brando, E. G. Marshall, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, James Fox, Robert Duvall, and Angie Dickinson. Still, Thomson points out, the picture’s “self-appointed task was to uncover an America racked by greed, lust, paranoia, mob recklessness and a passion for violence.” Other movies he singles out for comment include BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), “Nothing matched its influence or its perilous balance of comedy and slaughter”; THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), which “ends with the best people gone: disappeared, killed, frightened back into the shadows of anonymity”; DIRTY HARRY (1971), “in which a freelance and laconic Clint Eastwood throws away his cop badge in disgust”; LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), “in which the pursuit of the orgasm goes a few screams too far”; FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), “starring Jack Nicholson as a refined pianist who has dropped out and become a wanderer”; THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), “which let us know that modern cops might be as devious and as violent as those they hunted”; A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), “one of the first movies to treat the virtual imprisonment of ordinary wives”; and THE HOSPITAL (1971) and NETWORK (1976), “two scathing films written by Paddy Chayefsky, full of gallows humor about American institutions.” Evaluating the decade’s films, Thomson observes that “many of them had unfamiliar shapes, new narrative structures or strategies. They began late. They switched course. They didn’t say this guy is reliably good and that one write-off bad. They didn’t stick to the rules. And they did not end well, or happily, or comfortably. Sometimes they broke off in your hands or your mind. People you had come to like took it in the head, or turned traitor. The world of the films was as complex and as frightening as anything you’d come into the theatre to escape from. And you were left there when the lights came up, having to work it all out.”
Another fine essay in this anthology is Kent Jones’ “‘The Cylinders Were Whispering My Name’: The Films of Monte Hellman,” an impassioned panegyric of the cult director, best known for 1971’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (starring James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson!) and COCKFIGHTER (1974). Hellman, Jones avers, “gets my vote as the cinema’s most under-appreciated great director.” He also lauds Warren Oates (1928-1982), a brilliant actor Hellman loved to cast. Jones declares: “Monte Hellman and Warren Oates the great unrecognized actor/director partnership—they are as important as Ford/Wayne, Sternberg/Dietrich, Mann/Stewart and Scorsese/DeNiro. And in modern American cinema, where every actor looks like he or she has just come from the gym, where self-promotion and self-expression have become confused and entangled, Warren Oates, the actor who was unafraid of playing small, insignificant men and who cultivated not an ounce of glamour, is missed beyond measure.”
The Last Great American Picture Show is part of the University of Amsterdam Press’ “Film Culture in Transition Series,” which also includes such studies as Between Stage and Screen: Ingmar Bergman Directs (ed. Egil Tornqvist), Film and the First World War (eds. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkamp), and City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigré Filmmakers in Paris 1929-1939 (ed. Alastair Phillips). Heads up, cinephiles