Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

May 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 2

Days of Heaven

Remembering the ’70s

by Richard T. Jameson

Who knows he's living through a golden age while it's happening? Throughout the '70s, I marked each twelve months with a "that was the year that was" overview in the pages of our Seattle Film Society journal Movietone News, and most of the time I effectively chimed in with the next line of the song: "it's over, let it go." Movies were movies. Most tended to disappoint, or at least fall way short of the golden touchstones from earlier years, earlier decades. And when they didn't, when a Chinatown or a McCabe and Mrs. Miller or a Days of Heaven came along, one drove home in a glow, resolved to be back in front of that screen the next night and/or the night after that. That didn't happen very often. Realistically, it wasn't supposed to. Of the rest, one asked that they try not to be actively loathsome, terminally inept, numbingly dull. A little nice character work from one of the supporting actors, a memorable predawn glow outside a window in some scene, a magisterial tracking shot or a flash of sex-goddess epidermis: one learned to be grateful for whatever glimpses of glory one happened across.

But an "American film renaissance"? Nobody but overwrought copywriters and Pauline Kael acolytes was talking that way.

To be sure, there was a sense of something a bit different about our movies. A lot of rules had changed. In the mid-'60s, hammered on by growing (but never tidal-wave) interest in ambitious foreign-made movies, and the envelope-pushing of certain prestige events—such as Broadway hotshot Mike Nichols' screen-directing debut Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Burton and Taylor getting to say bad words at the Bijou because Edward Albee had won a Pulitzer Prize for writing them—the Hollywood establishment had backed off from its longstanding list of you-can't-do-that-in-the-movies taboos and instituted a rating system to advise filmgoers of a new, well, lack of community-standards homogeneity in American films.

I was helping to run an art house at the time (does "art house" still have any meaning?), and I can testify that the foreign-film business took the hit—a hit that, by the turn of the '70s, was all but commercially fatal. A measurable portion of the always-marginal audience that used to frequent the foreign-film theaters stopped coming. Suddenly, they could get their forbidden kicks—a freer sexuality, sociopolitical outspokenness, stylistic and technical experimentation—by going to regular theaters playing movies like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. And you didn't have to read any words at the bottom of the screen. Not only did our business fall off—businesses fell out. Hollywood majors folded their comparatively new art-house subsidiaries, small companies vanished, and the steady flow of European imports (Asian wasn't that big at the time) dwindled to the work of just the superstar auteurs (Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman) and the occasional salable succès de scandale (e.g., I Am Curious – Yellow). Jim Selvidge, Seattle's foremost purveyor of art movies, saw the handwriting on the wall and founded the nonprofit Seattle Film Society. Then he sold the wall.

Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and their ilk weren't just something new in terms of franker theme and content. They represented a new approach, or at least a new emphasis, in how films were to be made. With the development of faster film stocks, lighter equipment, and the Cinemobile (by the guy who used to photograph the globetrotting TV series I Spy), movies could be shot anywhere. The big studio factories were no longer necessary (they switched to producing non-globetrotting TV shows); they were also déclassé. The stagey Oliver! had won the 1968 Oscar, as My Fair Lady had done in 1964, but within a couple of years the reserved-seat "roadshow" attraction was on its way to oblivion. (And truth to tell, most of the last specimens of it were pretty dreadful.) Audiences were learning to prefer films that seemed more open and responsive to life as it is lived, made where it is lived, whether on the backroads connecting L.A. and New Orleans or the streets of New York. That formula could produce bad movies as readily as earlier formulas had. But it also held the promise of excitement, freedom, and discovery.

Exemplary films in the new modality started happening almost immediately. 1970's Five Easy Pieces, directed by Bob Rafelson, written by Adrien Joyce (who had scripted Monte Hellman's enigmatic cult Western The Shooting in 1966), and starring the newly discovered Jack Nicholson (who had been spinning his wheels in Z-movie land for more than a decade), was produced by the same company that had backed Easy Rider—and it was an immensely more sophisticated and accomplished picture. Robert Altman, the 15th director offered the chance to helm a "typical" Army comedy called M*A*S*H, seized his opportunity and revolutionized the genre, as well as indicating a whole new irreverent, adventurous way to treat dialogue, plot, characterization, heroism, morality, movie stardom, ensemble acting, and improvisation (Ring Lardner Jr. won an Oscar for writing a screenplay not one word of which, according to Altman, was ever heard onscreen). Somehow, both movies found themselves duking it out with Patton and Love Story for the Academy Award.

1971 was the first clear annus mirabilis of the new cinematic order. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (yes, a foreign film, but its landmark relevance is incontrovertible) dazzled audiences and filmmakers with its vibrant, polymorphous sexuality, coruscating color cinematography (blinkered world, meet Vittorio Storaro), and sidereal layers of quicksilver storytelling. Altman struck again with his first masterpiece, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a film of such mysterious beauty and unique, palpable atmosphere that it drove the Hollywood unions to apoplexy ("You can't hear half the dialogue! The photography is terrible!"). Monte Hellman made Two Lane Blacktop, a mesmerizing movie about a slow-motion road race with no discernible finish line. Peter Bogdanovich, whose brilliant 1968 debut Targets had gone all but unnoticed, vaulted to the top of the Hollywood pecking order (for one fleeting moment) by revisiting the oeuvres of John Ford and Howard Hawks to craft a modern, black-and-white classic, The Last Picture Show. Even an old Hollywood hand like Don Siegel seemed to have caught some kind of new wave with his breathlessly well-made cop-movie-as-zeitgeist-machine Dirty Harry. Maybe, just maybe, movies were better than ever.

It went on like that. Not steadily, not every week, but often enough to lend some credence (if not complete credibility) to latterday encomia to a golden age. Of course, the critics of the day didn't always know what was best when they saw it. Myself, in 1979 I passed on a Ten-Best-of-the-decade list to salute ten movies that hadn't made any of my annual lists, yet already seemed invaluable: Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Alan J. Pakula's Klute (1971), John Huston's Fat City (1972), Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972 – a journalistic casualty of lagging release patterns), Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972), Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love (1973), Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), Pakula's The Parallax View (1974—the other annus mirabilis), Richard Lester's Juggernaut (1974), and Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975). Notice that my revaluation stopped halfway through the decade; 1976–79 were still steeping.

As a matter of fact, when SIFF Director Darryl Macdonald returned from this year's Berlin Film Festival, where he'd thrilled to a '60s retrospective, and asked whether I'd be interested in assembling a '70s retro for SIFF 2002, the first film that jumped into my mind was Night Moves. What a terrific movie! Arguably Gene Hackman's best performance; screenplay by Alan Sharp, who seemed to write half the most interesting films of the decade; the only later work of Arthur Penn to measure up to his decade-ruling '60s filmography. The genre is what we so carelessly call "film noir" today, when it scarcely ever applies; but Night Moves, like Chinatown, was a legitimate heir to and reinvention of classic noir's style and mood and worldview. And it distilled the sour legacy of Watergate without ever invoking it.

Hackman plays a detective, not very heroic and not very smart, who's asked to track down the runaway brat daughter of a faded movie star. He works that case, even solves it with no strain, but so much more slips away from him: his marriage (Susan Clark was so special), his embattled self-esteem, a couple of old friendships, his professional code, another woman he meets and loves and dares to trust (Jennifer Warren—why didn't we see more of her?). The mystery is bigger than what happened to the runaway (early Melanie Griffith)—bigger and, in an authentically weird way, scarier—but it, too, slips away at times, seems to leak out of the movie through one of those strange, lenslike windows that dot the decor. I always think of L'avventura, how the quest for the woman who goes missing in midfilm just ... ceases to be an issue ... as the lover and best friend ostensibly searching for her get off on an itinerary of their own, which even they couldn't explain. Night Moves was an art movie, then (no matter that Hackman's private dick, hearing that his wife has been to a Rohmer movie, added to our lexicon of definitive putdowns by churlishly cracking, "I saw a Rohmer movie once—it was like watching paint dry"). Such was the way with art movies in 1975; nobody went to see it. And I didn't quite get it onto my Ten Best list, though now I'd sliver it in right behind Nashville and The Man Who Would Be King.

I had hoped to show you Night Moves. Instead I'm just telling you about it, because its reputation was never made and now, somehow, Warner Bros. doesn't service prints of it. It's hard getting used to the idea that movies one has seen in first-run theaters aren't available to be seen again. We've run into a lot of that in the past few weeks of attempting to book them. Is the '70s that distant already? The era may have been golden, but a lot of the prints have gone magenta in the vaults. Don't even talk to me about Days of Heaven, of which there were 70mm prints not long ago, but the order went out to trash all the prints of Days of Thunder and.... True story.

So we beat on. What did the man say about boats against the current? We remember a time when young men named Scorsese and Spielberg and Coppola and Lucas and De Palma grabbed hold of a medium new to them and made it new and fresh and wide-open to possibility for the rest of us. Not that that was the only game in town, and not that they necessarily made the very best films of the era that carries their brand. Perhaps it's more important to remember the '70s as the last time it was possible to lavish more energy on making movies than on making deals; when there was still time to let the movies sink in—some to sink from view and memory, others to grow in beauty and resonance—instead of filing an overnight opinion on the Internet and waiting to spot the next trend. And the happy truth is, the '70s are not over; we don't have to let them go. The last picture show won't roll till the last of us who remembers movies dies.

Seattle International Film Festival 2002 will showcase six exemplary films of the halcyon '70s: Roman Polanski's Chinatown (May 26), Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (May 31 – pristine archival print), Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (June 2), Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (June 7), Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (June 12 – restored director's cut), and Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (June 14). Also, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes will be shown as a memorial tribute to the late Billy Wilder (June 9). All showings take place at the Egyptian Theatre. And if that doesn't float your boat, check out the nine additional '70s beauties to be screened by our friends at Grand Illusion cinema, May 31–June 27: Mean Streets, Two Lane Blacktop, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, Klute, California Split, Fat City, Shampoo, and M*A*S*H.

Richard T. Jameson is the ‘70s archival series programmer for SIFF 2002. He was the editor for Movietone News as well as Film Comment for several years. He is also a contributor to fine publications like The New York Times.

Programs Fund