American cinema in the 1970s was an astonishment.
“The Conversation.” “The Last Picture Show.” “Klute.” “Nashville.” “Chinatown.” “Harold and Maude.” “Taxi Driver.”
Forty years on, it seems miraculous that so many masterpieces were produced within only a few years. This was largely the result of a tectonic shift in Hollywood power. As major studios foundered on the edge of bankruptcy, filmmakers enjoyed unprecedented freedom to make movies that were personal, political and adult-oriented.
In Charles Taylor’s “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You,” the ’70s are identified in the opening sentence as the “last great period in American movies.”
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And in some ways, Taylor’s book is just the latest in a growing library devoted to the history and analysis of Seventies cinema (or “New Hollywood,” as it came to be known). But in another, far more intriguing way, “Opening Wednesday” is less about the decade’s classic, beloved films than its forgotten, forsaken ones.
For example, you will find no trace of “Rocky,” or even “Raging Bull.” Instead, an entire chapter is devoted to the mostly forgotten bare-knuckle fight film “Hard Times.” Taylor finds much to admire in this brutal Depression Era drama (starring the taciturn Charles Bronson), particularly its desolate, lonely images of the city.
“The texture and mood of the era it recreates, so unobtrusively yet so deeply, sinks into your bones and makes you feel you’ve been given some essential knowledge of the time it depicts.”
This passage is an indicator of the author’s reverence for “disposable B pictures” of the 1970s. Released by studios with little fanfare or support, almost all were received with critical indifference.
But not by Charles Taylor, who reevaluates 15 films with critical acumen and fanlike exuberance. He’s Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold, and after finishing his book I was convinced of the many virtues to Floyd Mutrux’s “Aloha, Bobby and Rose,” Robert Culp’s “Hickey & Boggs” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”
In his preface, Taylor writes: “I want not just to describe the experience of seeing these movies, but to use them to unlock their time, to suggest what they managed to contain of America in the moment they were made.”
Of course, it’s not unusual for a movie to reflect, or be informed by, the social and political climate of its time. But Hollywood in the 1970s was unique. With less tampering from production bosses, and more permissiveness in the depiction of sex and violence, filmmakers suddenly had a much larger sandbox to play in. And “audiences could feel they were able to enter into something just as big: a vision of a troubled and tattered but still-vast America.”
The “road movie” was one way to convey how troubled and vast the country was. Taylor’s inclusion of the hypnotic, meandering “Two Lane Blacktop” and the nihilist, existential “Vanishing Point” comes as no surprise. Each film has garnered its share of cult cache over the years.
It’s the section on “Citizens Band,” directed by then-unknown Jonathan Demme, that made me especially wistful. This rich, multi-faceted comedy about the nation’s mid-Seventies obsession with CB radios is a forgotten treasure. Despite the film’s overall nuttiness, the script and direction refuse to condescend to its eccentric but believable working-class characters.
“The fate of Jonathan Demme’s comedy can stand as a tombstone for the era. Paramount, which had no faith in the movie, dumped ‘Citizen’s Band’ into second-run houses and drive-ins on May 25, 1977, the same day Twentieth Century Fox began a cautious limited release of their new picture ‘Star Wars.’ ”
The stage was set for the “state of arrested adolescence in which American movies now reside.”
Sam Shapiro is a manager and film programmer for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
“Opening Wednesday at at Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s”
By Charles Taylor
Bloomsbury USA, 208 pages