Couple weeks back, at the end of my post Polyester Nightmares, I started a list of movies from the 1970s that I thought would help me see what the 70s actually looked like at the time.
As I wrote, I don’t seem to have any of my own visual memories of those years. What happens when I try to remember that time of my life is that instead of “seeing” what I actually saw I see photographs, TV news clips, advertisements, album covers, magazine covers, and other sorts of visual artifacts. I would like to be able to remember my teenage years with the same visual clarity as I can remember other parts of my life and not “remember” them as a multi-media museum exhibit some Qiana-wearing elves have curated in my head.
I had the idea that maybe if I watched some movies from the 70s I might see things that would jog my memory into action and I could replace some of the acquired, second-hand images with the real things.
Ideally, the movies I watched would be home movies. But this would require a raid on my parents’ attic and the purchase of a working Super 8 movie projector from ebay or finding someone who could transfer the film to DVD. I would like to do that. But in the meantime I figured that the next best thing would be to watch some commercial movies from the period that would, naturally, show what life looked like and that might do the trick.
So I started my list.
One of my criteria for putting a film on the list is that it couldn’t be about the 70s. Movies with a too political, topical, or satirical bent were likely to exaggerate and over-emphasize things the filmmakers deemed representative of their life and times and that would include fashions and attitudes. I think everybody who was over the age of nine back then knew we were living through a period of enforced ugliness but it was possible to ignore it and even find some things worth looking at and enjoying for their own sake.
Any movie that set out to capture the moment, then, was likely to capture what was most unusual about the moment compared to other moments and people tend not to process the unusual as if it’s, well, usual. It was always a shock to see a Gremlin on the road. (“Where’s the rest of it?”) What I’m looking for is a view of the roads back then that would have been busy with more five year old Chevy Impalas than shiny new Pintos, Pacers, and Gremlins.
I want to see what I actually saw when I looked at a girl and not Laurie Partridge or Marcia Brady on a magazine cover.
Trends and fads don’t come and go in strict accordance with the calendar years they defined. Things have a habit of lasting. A lot of what was faddish and trendy in the 1960s was still around in the 1970s. For the matter so was a lot of what was faddish and trendy from the 1950s and the 1940s.
And in any decade what is faddish and trendy is often nostalgia. Sometimes I think I have a better idea of what the 1970s looked like from watching college students today than from watching re-runs of The Rockford Files. Saddle shoes were very popular around my high school. Unfortunately bobby sox, poodle skirts, and tight sweaters weren’t, so the look suffered. Saddle shoes with knee socks was classic 70s ugly and a turn off to anybody without a schoolgirl fetish.
So, a movie that caught that detail by accident might make my list while a movie that got it exactly right about platforms and Earth Shoes might not because it would look too much like The Seventies and not enough like what life looked like if you happened to be alive and wandering around with your eyes half-open back then.
This knocks some very good movies off the list right away. Shampoo, Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, Nashville---great movies that set out to show their audiences what was really happening at the moment and now that the moment is long past feel a little bit like history lessons.
I also excluded most genre films out of hand because those tend to be overly-stylized and the designers give themselves permission to go a little overboard.
Most genre films. But not all. Especially in the early and mid-70s the makers of detective movies went out of their way to depict the seedy side of life as it’s really lived instead of the romanticized underworld of detective movies of a more romantically minded Hollywood of the past.
For your assignment tonight, class, write an essay comparing and contrasting Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. What do the two different portrayals of Philip Marlowe tell us about the attitudes of the periods in which they were made.
With this in mind, I decided to start looking for movies to add to my list by watching Night Moves, a detective movie released in 1975 starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn.
I now have another disqualifier for my list.
No movies that contain too many of the decade’s movie making cliches.
There are technical clues that will tell you when a movie was made even if you couldn’t tell by the stars or by the fashions. Editing tricks, lighting standards, narrative shortcuts, the rhythms and uses of dialog, the color palette, actors’ gimmicks, the sort of location and establishing shots the director and cinematographer use to break up their scenes, music cues.
Most of these aren’t specifically 1970s cliches. They’re really post-Bonnie and Clyde-isms and post-MASH-isms and by mid-decade they were old-hat, which gave movies that relied too heavily on them a datedness when they were released and make them seem even more dated now.
Paul Newman’s 1966 detective movie, Harper, is a much better movie all around that its 1975 sequel, The Drowning Pool, for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Harper contains (or is constrained by) far fewer 1960s movie cliches whileThe Drowning Pool is practically a visual manual on how to make your movie look like every other movie made in the mid-Seventies.
Here are some of those cliches:
A gritty “realism” that focuses on the junkiness and sordidness of life. The cinematic equivalent of the Ash Can School of Painting. We’re meant to find the real significance of life in what we’d normally regard as either too ordinary to bother noticing or too ugly, beat-up, worn-down, or mean. This applies to attitudes and emotions as much as to the visuals and movies in the 70s were often about finding the anti-hero in every hero, the opportunist in every romantic, and the jaded cynic in every idealist. In most cases we’re actually meant to admire the anti-heros, opportunists, and cynics more, at least for their honesty, if for nothing else.
This is the decade that killed John Wayne.
Shot him dead in The Cowboys.
In the back.
By Bruce Dern!
Then it turned around and made Dern a leading man.
An anti-aesthetic in the cinematography, lighting, costuming, and make-up intended as the visual expression of gritty realism. Characters wear what a real person like them would have put on in the morning without regard for how their outfits would clash with those of other characters or any of the backgrounds they will be playing in front of. The lighting is “natural” resulting in shots that are overlit or underlit, occasionally prettily lit, but rarely dramatically lit---unless the cinematographer was Gordon Willis---so that the light plays little role in the storytelling, it’s just there, with the result that long stretches of the movie will look like a home movie or like a television show. This is a way of pointing out that photography isn’t much of a factor, except when it is. A related anti-aesthetic is a washed out color palette. Lots of earth tones, more grays than either blacks or whites, and red tends to be reserved almost exclusively for blood. Which brings me to---
“Realistic” violence. Not in the sense of excessive gore. Even The Godfather isn’t as gruesome as you maybe remember. Things are bloodier than they used to be, but the bigger change is in how character react to being bloodied. They hurt, more and for longer. Heroes are especially sensitive. They rarely finish a fight on their feet or looking as if they’ve won, usually because they didn’t win. Even if they’ve put the bad guys out of action and seemingly saved the day they’ve often suffered some sort of moral defeat in the process. That circles back to the gritty realism which is also present in---
Intentionally thwarted happy endings. Filmmakers of the period seemed to feel that they’d failed if they allowed a happy or even an at least emotionally conclusive ending. Moral ambiguity and psychological dissatisfaction are the grace notes of countless 70s movies, including many comedies.
One last one for now.
At least one gratuitous nude scene usually involving a starlet you don’t recognize because the nude scene turned out to be a career killer. But we’re not allowed to enjoy these nude scenes as nude scenes. The nudity is fleeting, total but you can’t be sure. The director doesn’t let the camera linger or the lighting to flatter or the actress to pose. And the scene is justified psychologically, dramatically, or thematically in the clumsiest and most hypocritical ways. She’s a nympho or she’s been drugged or she’s on drugs or she’s a hippie chick so of course she’s completely uninhibited or she just had to take a shower at that moment. Sometimes she’s naked to show us that the hero is uptight or nobly and admirably self-restrained. Sometimes she’s naked to show us the bad guy’s hypocrisy or depravity. It’s almost never plausible and you know the scene’s only there because somebody with the clout to make it happen wanted to see a pretty young actress photographed naked.
Some things never change.
Few movies avoid all the cliches, but including one or two or several or even all of them doesn’t necessarily ruin a film. Night Moves includes all of the above, although her nude scenes didn’t kill Melanie Griffith’s career, and it’s not a bad movie. But it does look like a Seventies movie, and that made it useless for my purposes. I didn’t see my life and times in it. I saw another artifact from the period to add to the museum in my head that’s getting in the way of my seeing my life and times.
As a movie, however, it’s worth watching for its own sake, and worth writing about, and that’s what I’m going to do in my next post.
The tradition continues: Speaking of movie-making cliches, they don’t make ‘em like the used to, but they often do make them like everybody else does. From Cracked, 5 Annoying Trends That Make Every Movie Look the Same.
On killing the Duke: Mark Rydell, who directed The Cowboys, talks about what it was like to work with John Wayne (all good, to Rydell’s surprise at the time) and about being the one who had Wayne gunned down by that lowdown dirty backshooting skunk Bruce Dern.