Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.
Note: this review is something of a repurposed college-age article, so be kind to the writing…
Edited May 2015
Armed with a 114,000 dollar budget, a few low-quality cameras, a non-professional cast, and its hopes and dreams (not to mention its fair share of nightmares), George A. Romero’s 1968 game-changer Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t seem an “ambitious” project on the surface. Or even one destined for competence. And that’s exactly why it’s so thrillingly disconcerting. It has, and needs, only one ambition: to scare. It eschews any hope of middlebrow competence. And due to its lean, mean, guerrilla filmmaking and single-minded obsessiveness, it doesn’t just scare – it instills a creeping, gnawing fear and doesn’t let up. Night of the Living Dead is, famously, about as economical as a film can be, with no shots wasted and nothing left up to chance – it’s a study in efficiency, but it’s more than that. It’s a study in terror.
Perhaps the most infamous “classic” American film ever released, Bonnie and Clyde was not just an important film but a signifier of something more important occurring in and around its release, a seismic shift in American filmmaking. 1967 is often considered a watershed year for American film with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate tackling difficult issues of race, class, gender, and age in ways American cinema hadn’t before. But while those films vary in quality (from kind-of terrible to merely good, unfortunately) and revolutionary status, none stand taller today than Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn’s explosive examination of Depression era American culture, and implicitly, the culture of the late ’60s in America struggling with social unrest. The film was one of the first to signal a New Wave of American Cinema, films which not only tackled more difficult subject matters but were more subversive in the way they tackled them and borrowed and expanded upon filmmaking tactics prominent during late ’50s and early ’60s European cinema. As such, it remains perhaps the earliest gasp of a fruitful future fifteen years of cinema which would redefine the nature of going to the movies.