As Cinema Goes Corporate and Hollywood Flails, Rebellion and Rebirth are in the air

Looking back on the films of the 1970s from a five-decades-hence perspective, it’s easy and justifiable to regard that ten-year stretch in several ways, some of them even seemingly contradictory:

As a culmination or fruition of all the taboos broken and boundaries expanded in the cultural tumult of the preceding decade and a return to candid forthright handling of mature adult themes that were prohibited in the era of the Hays Code…

As a wistful and short-lived period of transition from Old Hollywood production values and studio-imposed limitations that allowed iconoclastic and auteurist visions of what cinema could achieve to have a greater creative freedom than any decade before or since…

As the beginning of a new era of corporate mergers and increased reliance on mass marketing that inexorably led to the corporation-mandated avalanche of escapist, big budget and blandly homogenized entertainment franchises that studios now rely on to buff up their bottom lines…

Book-length arguments can (and have) been made to defend each perspective, and I don’t have any intentions of settling that debate once and for all, in any case. But I will say that the seventies are my personal favorite decade in cinema history. That’s partly because I lived through those years and have many fond recollections of the pop culture of that time. Even today, as I’ve been deliberately and methodically working my way through notable films of that decade on my Criterion Reflections podcast, I am continually delighted to discover new insights, connections, and amusements in the movies of that era, whether or not I’ve seen them before.

In this latest installment of ZekeFilm’s “Film Admissions” series, several site contributors have selected “new to us” titles from the 1970s to watch, review and recommend for your enjoyment. We present our views without apology, because, you know, love means never having to say you’re sorry. We’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse, since it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. So excuse us while we whip this out, and don’t blame me if you’re gonna need a bigger boat. I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore! The horror… the horror… But enough of that: It’s SHOWTIME!

 – David Blakeslee

All the President’s Men

Directed by Alan J. Pakula/1976

by Erik Yates

The 1970’s had a lot of strong films about crime, but no crime seemed to reach as high as the one uncovered by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that eventually took down a President of the United States.  Based on the book by the famed Washington Post reporters, and directed by Alan J. Pakula, All the President’s Men is an engaging and tense film about what it truly takes to uncover the truth.  

Starring Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein), the supporting cast also features an equally impressive bench of heavy hitters consisting of the likes of Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, and Stephen Collins.  There’s even an appearance by F. Murray Abraham.  Like its more modern contemporaries Spotlight, and The PostAll the President’s Men is best as it showcases its reporters as the last defenders of truth and accountability, standing against the power that be.  While journalism in general has taken quite a beating the last quarter of a century, never has it been more vilified as it is right now.  

Yet, in films such as All the President’s Men, there is still a purity that resonates in the soul of the viewer when watching the real journalists put aside their own prejudices and biases to pursue the truth at all cost.  Redford’s Woodward is a newbie at the Washington Post, and green around the edges, but he’s relentless in his pursuit of his story.  He keeps diligent notes and is methodical as he questions those who might know something.  Hoffman’s Bernstein, is a bit more messy.  With his long hair, chain smoking, winsome smile, and habit of taking notes on little scraps of paper, coupled with his ability to punch up the narrative in his stories, he is the polar opposite of Bernstein.  For this reason, they make for quite a formidable two-prong attack for anyone trying to bottle up the truth.  Bernstein knows everyone in D.C. and Woodward has his deep-cover source, code named Deep Throat (Holbrook), guiding them through the landmines Richard Nixon’s party is putting in their path.  

William Goldman’s screenplay sticks closely to the facts of the case, as presented in Woodward and Bernstein’s book of the same name, and never seeks to vilify Nixon or the G.O.P. based on any personal partisan bias. He simply lets the narrative chase the leads, uncovering the cover-up that took place which eventually led to the conviction of high-ranking members of President Nixon’s inner circle, such as G. Gordon Liddy and Chuck Colson.  Eventually, it resulted in the resignation of the President himself. Though the crimes of Watergate are 50 years old, the story is surprisingly contemporary.  As a time capsule, All the President’s Men also reflects that the lies that were told by the politicians and party loyalists in media interviews and the like to cover up the crimes back in 1972 are still daily on display by our modern politicians in the face of investigations and possible scandals.  All the President’s Men was a scathing blight on my 1970s films list of films that I should have seen but still hadn’t.  Gladly, I’m happy to report that I’ve corrected this oversight, and this is now a film that has been seen, loved, and now endorsed by me for all those who have yet to see it. 

The Last Picture Show

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich 1971

by Robert Hornak

Bogdanovich drops us into the windy dust-up of a dinky Texas town, all sonic veracity as dry, whistling gusts and static from an old truck radio nearly drown out the snipping of local windburned men toward the high school boys’ loss of the big game last week. Clearly the same ingredients as Friday Night Lights decades later, but these are that product’s raw materials, truer and harsher and more – it’s too syrupy a word for this film – yearning. The kids are all yearning to be with each other, and to be older, while the adults are yearning to be the kids. The vicious longing of lived-in regret downward toward the promise of kids headed for the oblivion of marriage. 

Front and center among the kids is the slow-pokey development of jealous conflict between high school seniors Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), who are both in love with Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) – but her mom (Ellen Burstyn), trapped and cantankerous in a loveless marriage, warns her against Duane’s temporary flash, even as the girl is haphazardly exploring other options with skinny-dipping Randy Quaid and lecherous closer-than-just-a-friend-of-the-family Clu Gulager, here more than willing to answer some aching carnal questions. Then there’s Sonny’s accidental affair with his coach’s lonely wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman), a May-December romance that hasn’t a trace of that phrase’s charm, yet ultimately proves the healthiest-seeming union in a movie dripping with soap-operatic hookups. Leachman won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance alongside Best-Supporting Actor winner Ben Johnson, Bogdanovich’s alternately flip and perfect casting for Sam “the Lion”, owner of the town’s titular picture show and by any account the soul of the movie. When Bogdanovich cuts from an hour’s worth of small-town grunge to the shore of a pristine lake, where Johnson is allowed ample berth for the movie’s centerpiece speech – about a love lost and a youth well-spent on being crazy – Johnson becomes like the film’s own dad speaking to the audience about what counts in life. 

Bogdanovich – a movie nerd from his ascot to his loafers – seems to be enjoying breaking down, and then reconstituting in equal measure, the purest components of the American melodrama, the Hawksian Western, and the French New Wave. There’s an unfinished, film school rough-cut quality to the editing that doesn’t feel like an oversight or a mistake but a premeditated act upon the tone, which feels from start to finish like scraps of story picked up by a rolling tumbleweed. The black-and-white, so starkly right, could’ve felt pretentious for a movie made in 1971, but Bogdanovich knows our cultural memory of the west is not color, especially filtered through our collective memory of most screen media from the early 50s, when the movie is set. All of his doomed-romance-meets-coming-of-age tropes are wrapped in the visual expectations of the era they’re set in, but were made in that chunk of American film history just after most of the taboos (nudity, profanity, bloody violence) had been reduced to the near-commonplace, so that the constant theme of the old and new butting up against each other is worked out in that contrast. Meanwhile, his use of the small town’s doomed “picture show” as a touchstone for the characters’ gradual separation – another symbol that should only feel overly precious, if not on-the-nose from such a self-conscious filmmaker – comes off instead as the most correctly poignant image (it’s the final shot) to reflect all the wall-to-wall melancholy loss. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Directed by Milos Forman/1976

by Taylor Blake

If you want to have fun at the movies, skip the 1970s!

Yes, I’m well aware my take is in the minority for film fans. While I’ll never deny the artistry and impact of movies like The GodfatherThe Last Picture ShowM*A*S*HSaturday Night Fever, and Taxi Driver, I also can’t deny many of the decade’s essentials leave me feeling miserable with dark themes, serious subject matter, and long runtimes. Thanks to this month’s “Film Admissions”, I get to add One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to that list!

This bleak film won’t let you forget about it even if you want to. Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar for playing Randall P. McMurphy, whose latest run-in with the law has sent him to a mental hospital. At first, he breathes life into a sterile world built on schedules, routine, and negative reinforcement. For the first time in who knows how long, his fellow patients are living a little, but any hope the colorful Randall brings to this white and khaki world is challenged by the orderly (literally and figuratively) Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). She sucks up the breeze Randall blew into the first half of the film and turns Cuckoo’s Nest into a tragedy born of her rigidity.

We’ve made progress in how we talk about and treat people with mental health issues since Ken Kesey’s novel was published in 1962, but Cuckoo’s Nest is haunting because it speaks to more than its literal setting. Though most of us will never live through situations so extreme, we’ve all had to shed bits or our identities to conform for our own protection in one way or another. I put on 2002’s Best Picture nominee The Pianist while I wrote some of this, and I found the Holocaust drama put me in a mood similar to when I was watching the 1975 Oscar winner. Both stories are built on authoritarian power structures surgically extracting undesirable people from a larger society. Ratched stamps out individuality and punishes dissent with physical torture; the only hope for escape it is to fall in line and stop thinking for yourself.

This member of the exclusive Big Five Winners club claims Best Picture over the considerably more fun—and arguably more important to the history of modern movies—Jaws. (The other contenders were Barry LyndonDog Day Afternoon, and Nashville. What a year for you ‘70s cinema enthusiasts!) But even if Cuckoo’s Nest kept me up past my bedtime because it wouldn’t stop rattling around in my mind (if you’ll pardon the crude expression), I won’t attempt to discredit its Oscars legacy. The directing and screenplay are taut as the hospital cornered bed sheets, Nicholson is at the top of his game, and Fletcher’s icy performance is subtler and more believable than I expected. Bonus: The supporting performances from Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd have only aged well as they’ve become more beloved performers since this release. Cuckoo’s Nest may not be a lot of fun, but there’s no denying it’s a powerful essential of the decade.

The Conformist

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci/Italian/1970

by David Blakeslee

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist has been on my “watch list” for about as long as I’ve been familiar with that concept. Back in the mid-2000s, as I was just entering into a new midlife hobby of serious exploration and study in classic and world cinema, I discovered the existence of an informal yet compellingly authoritative canon of art house masterpieces, established by a critical consensus roughly synonymous with the once-per-decade poll sponsored by Sight and Sound magazine. As the publisher of so many titles in that canonical list, the Criterion Collection quickly established itself as my trustworthy “go to” guide, introducing me to films of higher-than-average artistic caliber in packages that provided a well-rounded curriculum for extracting so many riches contained in a particular film and its surrounding context. 

My memories of that time, when I often indulged in the pastime of browsing the DVD racks at my local indie bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Borders, included several sightings of an old edition of The Conformist being mixed in with the Criterion titles, even though the film was never released by that label. I assume that it was placed there simply because that’s where it belonged, at least in the imagination of the store clerks who were assigned to stock the shelves and keep them orderly. The Conformist is arguably the most “Criterion-ish” film that has never been released by the Criterion Collection. But its inclusion always caught my attention, and over the years, as I’ve learned more about Bertolucci and seen several of his films made before (La Commare Secca) and after (1900The Last EmperorThe Dreamers), I’ve come to respect The Conformist’s reputation and impact as one of the first enduring cinema classics released in the 1970s. But up until just recently, I had never gotten around to actually watching it. Now, at last, and primarily for the sake of this Film Admissions project, I’ve finally succumbed to the pressure and fulfilled my cinephile obligations. Yes, I have to admit it: I conformed! 

And as it turns out, I think the timing of this first encounter between me and the movie is exquisitely topical given the prevailing themes and debates of the political season we’re entering into across the USA. The Conformist is a story set primarily in the late 1930s, when Italian Fascism was an ascending and presumably enduring political force in that nation. The film’s story, and the title’s reference, is about a man who expresses early on a palpable sense of abnormality about himself, a disturbing disconnect that he feels towards other people. This unsettling condition is a problem that he seeks to resolve by achieving whatever conventional tokens of success and impressive outward appearances he can, in the belief that by doing so, he will somehow be rendered “normal” again. 

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the titular character, and he does so with skillful nuance, offering blank slate facial expressions under which a piercingly observant calculation can be detected as he maneuvers his way through an increasingly risky society, one inclined to using violence, paranoia, and extortion to keep citizens in line or eliminate those who fail to adhere to the dictates of the authorities. The recently-deceased actor, star of numerous features beloved by generations of cinephiles, considered this one of his favorite roles and I have to agree. His portrayal of Marcello Clerici is crucial to the success of the film but fortunately for everyone involved, he is surrounded by great talent in the casting and also the crew. 

Clerici’s chosen path to normality leads him to take GiuIia as his wife (played by Stefania Sandrelli) who is young, beautiful, frivolous, and sexually playful – a winning combination for a man seeking to ingratiate himself to the arbiters of public approval, even though he often seems disinterested in or perhaps even repulsed by her, at least in their private encounters. As circumstances lead up to their wedding and honeymoon, he’s also taken into the confidence of a secretive police force dedicated to punishing opponents of Mussolini’s regime. He draws the assignment of assassinating one of his former professors, an anti-Fascist intellectual who now lives in exile in Paris, having fled Rome when the political tide turned against him. Clerici’s good standing with the professor is seen as an easy entrée into his inner circle that will give the ex-student an opportunity to assassinate his instructor and move him into a position of favor with the Fascist authorities – and presumably, that much closer to a normal and prosperous sense of himself. 

But even as the scheme proves successful in gaining access to the professor, when Clerici and his wife take their honeymoon in Paris, complications quickly ensue when Clerici becomes emotionally and erotically entangled with the professor’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda). She’s a stunning counterpart to Giulia, ambivalent and intense where Clerici’s wife is exuberant and whimsical. Anna is also able to draw Giulia into close contact, under the pretext of young wives on shopping expeditions and keeping each other preoccupied while the men talk business. 

So much for the plot set-up and recap of the film’s central events. There’s a lot more that happens that I won’t go into here, but I will say that the climactic scenes deliver powerful punches that have strongly resonated with me over the past several days after my first viewing. The top-tier craftsmanship of the film is also evident from beginning to end, with so many striking images and memorably sequences that clearly influenced many subsequent directors over the course of the following decade and beyond. Cinematographer Vittorio Stroraro basically won his job on Apocalypse Now due to Francis Ford Coppola’s admiration for his work here. Paul Schrader was another strong enthusiast for The Conformist and readily admits to borrowing some elements at various points along the way in his career. And there are many other lofty citations by numerous critics and creators that one can find online, spelling out their reasons as to why The Conformist belongs in the top ranks of international film classics.

But to make this viewing of the film more personal and contemporary, I’d rather focus on its underlying message and applicability to the moment we’re in, a time in which cultural and political pressures are leading many to embrace values that closely align with brutal authoritarian ideologies, even if the Fascist tag itself is rejected due to negative historical associations. (And yes, there is that small minority that does openly, even proudly, admits to being fascist and seeks to rehabilitate the name.) The Conformist offers an opportunity to consider the consequences of going along with such forces when they gain power and establish the norms for how members of society interact with each other. 

Clerici’s character puts up resistance to external analysis and remains an impenetrable mystery even to his own self-inquiry as to why he stands so aloof and indifferent to the miseries experienced by others – miseries that he himself sometimes has an active role in inflicting. The film provides some evidence as to what might have messed him up early on in life – he’s a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who committed a violent act on his assailant – but I think it would overstate the case to draw too linear a connection between that traumatic incident and Clerici’s passive indifference and cruelty as an adult. Still, it’s not too difficult to envision uncountable legions of Clericis drifting through life at this very moment, sensing that insurmountable gap between themselves and their fellow humans, and capable of just about anything demanded of them by the powers that be if those demands are accompanied by an illusory promise that they would at last “fit in” and take their place in “normal” society. Though the film itself never lapses into anything that I would regard as a didactic sermonette, The Conformist does challenge viewers to dig into our own being and personhood to strengthen that core of awareness and substance that enables us to recognize the temptations, understand the costs, and resist the allures of violent totalitarian solutions to the problems we all face.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

Directed by Jun Fukuda/Japanese/1974

by Jim Tudor

I’ll get to the title bout in just a minute.  But first, a confession…  My film for this 1970s installment of “Film Admissions” was supposed to be David Lynch’s Eraserhead.   Eraserhead has been a big embarrassing blind spot for at least half my lifetime.  The other day, I got as far as the Blu-ray booting up before fate conspired to reroute my next few hours.  Cut to now, it obviously didn’t work out this time between myself and Eraserhead.  Carving out an unbroken, undisturbed block of time to properly be immersed in that notoriously singular movie wasn’t going to happen before our deadline.  But a Godzilla movie… no such demands hang over any of ‘em!

In my desperate search for an ideal replacement film (one that kids could wander in on, and isn’t too long), I realized I’d never actually seen 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.  Since far longer than I’ve been meaning to see Eraserhead, I’d harbored a fascination for the notion that the almighty king of the monsters squares off with a robot version of himself.  As a kid, I’d read up on the many gadgets and doodads built into the towering titular tricked-out mechanical menace.  Finger missiles!  Knee rockets!  A jet engine tail!  This promised to be awesome.

Maybe I waited too long to get around to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.  While longtime Godzilla director Jun Fukuda delivers the goods in terms of rubber-suited monsters n’ miniatures destruction, the movie itself suffers from… incoherence?  I realize that that may be a strange criticism coming from someone who’d been meaning to watch Eraserhead instead.  Granted, it’s no Godzilla vs. Hedora (which has been described as “if David Lynch directed a Godzilla movie”).  By the end, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla does make enough sense to stick the landing.  (With a loud, semi-satifying “Thud!”)  But man, that first half… 

Via a doomsday premonition, we are introduced to an ancient Okinawan prophecy that a giant monster would arise and destroy the world.  But then, two other monsters would come along and destroy that monster.  When the typically good Godzilla turns up in a foul mood, the assumption is that he’s clearly the problem kaiju of the prophecy.  But wait…!  That’s not Godzilla at all!  Leave it to the real Godzilla to arrive and reveal the imposter beneath the familiar outer lizardly veneer for what it is: a death-dealing stainless steel (actually “space titanium”) Godzilla knockoff!  

They do battle several times, with the robot proving its formidable might in the initial scuffle.  And because no Godzilla movie is complete without human characters getting caught up in whatever reason the titans are clashing, we have not only prophecy-laden subplots and scenes (a woman on an empty beach sings an entire fully-produced song to awaken another heroic monster, King Caesar… a differently-mutated mogwai-type creature who doesn’t do much of anything) but also numerous confrontations with the hostile humanoid alien invaders who’ve dispatched Mechagodzilla in the first place.  (Actor Akihiko Hirata, who’s portrayed various doctors and professors in many of the Godzilla films going back to the Ishirō Honda’s 1954 original classic, is on hand to stoically advise, this time as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa).  

Both super-cool and super-cheesy if not always narratively obvious, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is perhaps also notable for a surprising uptick in monster-on-monster bloodletting.  I detected something of a martial arts film influence insofar as Godzilla adopting fighting stances and even “brushing off” a failed attack.  The movie delivers in a way most fans would want a late-Showa era Godzilla film to land: plenty of monster action, dopey diabolical alien intrigue, and a funky anything-goes vibe throughout.  It was good to finally catch up with this one.  Now bring on “David Lynch Film Admissions!”