Friday, May 1, 2009

More from the Annals of American Cinema: 1970s Edition

Jay Bullock decided to indulge us in our film discussion by lending arguing that that the best year for American cinema in the last 20 years was 1971!

But, what the hell -- we'll roll with it!

We're going to change the ball field a little bit, and instead of working with films from the '90s and 2000s, we'll just look at the years that comprised the 1970s.

The 1970s is probably the single most revolutionary decade in American film and also one of the hardest to evaluate on a year-by-year basis because the common themes throughout the movies of the decade tended not to change as rapidly as they have of late. It was also a decade dominated by the first generation of film-makers who actually grew up watching movies and then went to film school. Another not insignificant quality of the decade was that it was heavily influenced by the French New Wave Cinema of the '60s and those fingerprints can be seen on most of the best films of the era.

That being said, Bullock makes a good case for 1971 -- though we feel obligated to gently chide him for omitting Shaft -- the epitome of Blaxplotation films -- and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (mostly because we here at the Chief are huge Angela Lansbury fans. Seriously, the woman can act the hell out of whatever she was doing. Broadway, film, TV, voice over for animation -- and her portrayal of Mrs. Iselin in the Manchurian Candidate is the arguable the best villain to come out of Hollywood. We'll put Iselin next to Hannibal Lecter any day.)

But at the end of the day, we're going to have to disagree with him and go with 1972. And there are basically five reasons for this, which we'll list here in order of least importance to most:

5.) Last House on the Left: One of the first horror films (that I can think of at any rate -- it's not a genre I'm terribly fond of) that inverts the roles of the good guys and the bad guys and asks the audience to question who the sickest characters in the movie are: the hippie drifters who murder the two girls or the the girls' parents who get their revenge? Testing the bounds of sympathy and questioning who the real monsters are in the film have been hallmarks of great horror movies ever since.

4.) The Poseidon Adventure: While by no means the first "disaster film," it was certainly the first blockbuster disaster film and Hollywood's been treating audiences to at least one big budget mega-disaster film on an annual basis ever since. The disaster films of the '70s also served as precursors to the big-budget summer action, adventure and science fiction blockbusters that followed.

3.) Deliverance: Something that usually gets lost in the describing of this film is how it functions like an inversion of Huck Finn's rafting trip down the Mississippi River -- only this was a nightmarish canoe trip into the heart of Appalachia. This would be a common theme throughout most of the great movies of the '70s (especially the early half of the decade): the examination of the dark side of the American Experience, Mythology and Dream.

2.) The Godfather. Enough said

And the number one reason why 1972 was the best year for American film during the 1970s -- which sure as hell better be a good reason, since the frickin' Godfather is at #2:

1.) Sex

In a lot of ways 1972 is to American movies like Sigmund Freud was to Victorian Society. While the topic had been discussed in films to increasingly more detailed degrees in the years that preceded '72, this was the year that the door to bedroom was finally thrown open. Sex was not only treat brutal and dark ways (see nos. 5 and 3), but in, shall we say, "non-traditional" ways in John Water's Pink Flamingos. Yet it was The Last Tango in Paris that really addressed the issue in graphic and explicit -- and yet very emotional and psychological -- detail.

Also, 1972 was the year that Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were released, two films that did more to bring pornography into the mainstream than anything before or since (save only the internet).

For better and for worse, American movies have been much more frank about their discussion of sex in terms of subject matter, dialog and, of course, photography since '72. Film makers no longer had to use symbolism and metaphor to describe sex -- and, in fact, were now able to use sex as a symbol and/or metaphor for other things. This didn't just happen in one fell swoop in the middle of the summer of '72 -- it took decades of incremental progress -- but 1972 was the year that all of that pushing and nudging of the boundaries of acceptable taste finally reached a climax (as it were).

There really is no end to this debate. Like we said above -- the 70's were an incredibly influential period for American movies. In so many ways it really established a model for the explosion of independent films in the 1990s (as the Brawler pointed out in the comments to the last post). We'd be happy to hear any other arguments for any other years from the decade or, hell, any other.

1 comment:

CJ said...

That's better.