Category Archives: American New Wave

American New Wave: Taxi Driver

Edited for Clarity

Taxi Driver seems to take place in New York circa 1976. Perhaps it does, but the New York it essays is a thin façade stretched over a more hellish imagination-scape where the real essence of the city brews to a boil. This is a nightmare version of poverty-stricken urban life that bears a resemblance too close to reality for comfort. It’s an empty, soulless urban jungle. It produces men and women who accept it, who hate it, who love it, who are indifferent toward it, and a few who try to fight it. It produces men like Travis Bickle who is all of these things even when he won’t admit it.
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American New Wave: Dog Day Afternoon


dog-day-afternoonEdited

In what is often considered the greatest decade of American cinema, 1975 was perhaps the single greatest year of “American” film. This isn’t to say it produced the “best” films from American production companies – that’s far more open to debate. But 1975 was a year when many filmmakers took their hearts to exploring the then current state of “America” and what it meant to be an American at the time. Among the fresh crop of 75 is Dog Day Afternoon, often undervalued in relation to the other pillars of that year’s Oscar showdown (Jaws was the first American release to hit 100 million dollars box office gross and ushered in a new era of blockbuster filmmaking, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would take most of the glory at the Oscars, becoming one of only three films to win the Big Five awards, and Nashville is, well, the greatest and most definitive examination of American life ever made).
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American New Wave: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Updated mid-2017 after another rewatch – such an amazing, amazing film, not particularly violent in a diegetic sense, but one which feels as though violence has been done to it. 

This post being in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary this upcoming Wednesday, October 1. Here’s to forty more years of soul-deadening terror. 

The story of five nobodies wandering through rural Texas and running afoul of America’s hidden secrets, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is infamously violent, which is curious because it’s hardly violent at all. The body-count is shockingly low and deaths happen mostly off-screen, relegated to the abyssal margins of an already poetically empty screen space, one which seemingly voids participation in a wider social milieu. But if the movie feels violent more than it is violent, that’s because it feels positively disgusting. This is grimy, disturbing filmmaking in every possible way, almost toxically fugitive in its disobedience to propriety. It may be one of the grossest-looking famous movies ever released, somehow both punishingly direct and monstrously, mystifyingly oblique, like it’s showing us everything head-on while veiling more submerged truths about American discontent. The film grain, even for the time, is knowingly poor – it feels like a documentary more than a film, lending it an unsettling and grimy immediacy, but also an evasive sense of ambiguity. The film-grain scratches which are testament to the authenticity of its expression of reality also suggest the film’s curiosity about a reality that is ultimately inexpressible, a sense of horror which is both extremely forthright – sometimes breaking through the film screen itself to confront us head-on – and obliquely suggestive of terrors we aren’t, and perhaps can’t be, privy to.
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American New Wave: Badlands

Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one.
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American New Wave: Frogs

Were you expecting maybe Bugs Bunny? So we arrive at 1972, not nearly the best year in the American New Wave, but the year with the release of the most famed film to call the time and place home. Yes, The Godfather is a classic piece of American cinema and a great film in its own right. I’ll maintain a certain confusion as to its status as the most loved of all American films (only rivaled by Citizen Kane and Casablanca). It’s undeniably stellar, but there is a mighty space on the couch between very great and quintessential, and I’ll leave the discussion with that. Mostly, it’s just a film that so much has been written about, I do not feel I can add anything meaningful (not that such a pesky thing has ever stopped me before, but I’m not above bad excuses).
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American New Wave: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (AKA: Yes, yes I did two Altman films in two weeks. Deal with it. He deserves it.)

hero_eb19991114reviews08911140301arEdited and Updated 2016

Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits.  Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading

American New Wave: MASH

mash-2-560Update mid-2018: This remains one of those very early college-era reviews I’m not especially content with. In an ideal world, I would write up a new piece, but having recently rewatched the film, I’ll simply note how much I still admire its bracingly self-effacing tone, its stylistic shagginess, and its will to break any illusion of a dramatic arc. Before, of course, Altman finally side-winds us with a self-critically arbitrary conclusion: a parodic football game that sketches the link between competitive sport and war-mongering, doubles as a satire of dramatic pay-off, and triples as a mockery of masculinity – that ego-stroking liminal realm where the interstices of anarchy and authoritarianism, id and dogma, collapse into one another – played in Altman’s quintessentially sardonic key.

Original – Edited – Review:

Long considered one of America’s favorite comedies, MASH was, ironically for its famed humor, director Robert Altman’s coming-out as a serious filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Released in 1970, it was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War (albeit under a historical guise) seriously and, released in January of 1970, it was the first masterpiece of the literal “1970s American New Wave” (which technically began a few years earlier in 1967). It’s a comedy, yes, but it’s also a daring, caustic exploration of male culture, American smugness and malaise (categorically Altman’s favorite topic as a bitterly comic dissector of his nation’s culture), and war bureaucracy (the connection to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is unmistakable, perhaps fitting considering the underwhelming formal adaptation of that book released the same year – one can’t complain though, for Altman gave us all we’ll ever need on the book). This is a film with many big laughs and many more subtle chuckles. But that I have used the word “serious” multiple times in only the first paragraph is anything but coincidence.
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