Update 2018: I know Coppola’s film is famous for its sound, but there’s an indescribably elegant moment in the middle of the film that not only encapsulates The Conversation but sums up the American New Wave. When Hackman’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder after a drawn-out waiting game, a bloody hand lashes out at the frame, the film graphically matches to Hackman’s hand rising in terror, and the rest of a scene which had so elegantly wound-up its suspense in perfect continuity style now unwinds itself into a pit of abjection, the continuity of the editing ripping to shreds as if the film is scratching at its own celluloid in itchy paranoia. Hackman returns into his hotel, his fears clarified, but he can not ensconce himself in the safe haven of continuity cinema anymore. The film practically undoing itself before our eyes, it’s an incredible visual, and an even more incredible visual metaphor for the US in the ’70s.
Francis Ford Coppola arguably had a more sterling streak than any American director, or any director bar nation, throughout the 1970s. Partially, this is because he brought only four films to screen during that decade, but this argument elides the quality of those films. 1972 brought the most famous, the romantic, classicist The Godfather which moved with rhapsodic, soulful flourishes, and its 1974 sequel only went further by adding on narrative heft to the point where it functioned less as a film and more as American opera of capitalism and criminality.
Not content to release one of the grandest statements of all time on the American condition without also almost killing himself in the process, Coppola then had to set out to do exactly that on a four year trek that nearly claimed his sanity and the lives of many crew members. The production of Apocalypse Now famously became the story of the film, replicating the jungle-fueled haze of the narrative as Coppola and company became lost in disease, destruction, and their desire to put to rest the ultimate American story of the ’70s and to create and perfect the very of idea of opulently grimy filmmaking in the process. The voodoo of location worked its magic on them a bit too well, but the location was not the jungles of the Phillipines; it was the jungles of the mind. That mind was one of the most committed, perfectionist directors of the ’70s, a mind that almost got the better of him but one which took America to task in a way few other New Wave directors even attempted.
Having finished the extended yearly New Wave series that somehow held me hostage until well into the mid ’90s, I’ve decided to go back to a couple of reviews I had milling about but didn’t make it into the yearly bit. Both are related formally in that they star Gene Hackman and more existentially in that they illuminate important realities about the cynical ’70s that frighten like few films we can think of, and which may be more relevant today.
Viewing The French Connection in 2015 is a tall order, for the time period it exists in and its rampant amoral cynicism toward roguish individualist heroes seems increasingly ungainly today (even as it still pervades and even anchors our individual-smitten culture). The 21st century likes its cynicism to be of the slightly-masqueraded-by-humanism variety, and not the primal and primitively muddy variety exhibited by the early ’70s. William Friedkin’s The French Connection wholly defines this milieu, and increasingly stumbles into problems with its racist hero and its cautious way of staring him down without necessarily coming to terms with him. In today’s concerned world, The French Connection increasingly seems like a naively cynical product out of time with a none-too-well-guised fascist streak, a movie unwilling to address its problems and indebted to a form of cynicism perpetually stuck in a state of arrested development.
Science fiction was in vogue in the late ’70s, largely due to the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, which kick-started perhaps the greatest popular revolution in American film history and drove the medium to new commercial heights. Of course, it saw mixed results for the art-form: a rebirth of genre filmmaking married to the deadening and eventual end of the New Hollywood drama which had married classical themes to European New Wave modes of storytelling to brilliant effect and which, in fact, made American film interesting after a long drop-off in the ’60s. After Star Wars, many studios grew less interested in drama and shifted toward pop commercialism, aiming for big, big, and bigger at the expense of nuance.
In the midst of this transition, many filmmakers didn’t know what to do. Left with the choice of going “pop” or going further into independent art films, many succeeded at neither and floundered. However, one of the late-bloomers of the New Hollywood, someone who hailed from Britain unlike most of his brethren and who had given us one solid film in The Duellists, clearly saw the change coming and knew he had to adapt. He also knew, truly, that new genres didn’t necessarily mean fluffy ones. After all, Stanley Kubrick had given the film world one of its most esoteric, most haunted pieces of chilly intellectualism in the sci-fi genre, so why couldn’t others follow suit?
Update 2018: With all the news about the retail apocalypse, swamping America these days, it’s both curiously innocent and deceptively terrifying to return to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a vision of life after death where our consumer habits mark us as prematurely deceased in life anyway. In this film, the suburban consumer hub where we metaphorically (and literally) armor ourselves against assault from our zombified negative mirror-images also become our collective coffin. Because in life and death we can only think to shop, our protective shell becomes an iron maiden, America’s multi-story beacon of convenient commercialization and mid-century superiority curdled into a national self-cleaning oven.
Also, watching again, the film’s broad-side critique of masculine America’s preferred outlet for social critique during the ’70s – anti-social biker gangs choosing self-aggrandizing, mythic displacement and libertarian idealism over serious collective organizing – is all the more pressing today. Romero reads Easy Rider not simply as a hopeless quest for sanctity and a perpetual deferral of home in light of the dethroned classical nuclear family structure but a caricature of “rebellion,” an attempt by men to reinstate new social structures in ways which incline toward the brutishly male, the individualistically chaotic, and often – insofar as biker gangs and Neo-Nazis have a historical connection – the truly oppressive.
I wasn’t originally going to review two Romero films in the American New Wave series, but ’tis the season, and a horror review for the week of Halloween seemed only humane of me.
Dawn of the Dead is not a nuanced film, nor is George A. Romero a nuanced director. His scrappy, unfinished filmmaking was perfect for Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget monstrosity of the most blackened variety. The eternal concern of an independent filmmaker looms large over Dawn of the Dead, however: what hell hath a larger budget wrought? As it turns out, not much, for Dawn of the Dead manages to maintain Romero’s proudly non-nuanced filmmaking, marry it to some proudly non-nuanced social commentary, and elevate both to a sort of mythic nature that doesn’t need nuance when it can replace it with chutzpah and fearless gusto. And if Romero in 1978 as a director had anything, it was chutzpah and fearless gusto. Continue reading
Annie Hall is many things: a thoughtful, perceptive dissection of romance, a frothy, light romantic comedy, and a devastating depiction of the inevitability of loss in love. It is also, more than anything, not the film Woody Allen was on the path to making in 1977. While he was a noted comedy writer-director by this time, and one who had made several strong features, his films were defined by their frothy-caustic anarchy and generally zany Marx Brothers riffs, movies structured less like narrative than improvisational comedy. This last part continues in Allen’s then most mature feature, Annie Hall, but while it boasts a number of laugh aloud moments, its humor is underscored by a fundamental nervousness that puts it at odds with Allen’s previous works.
Personified in Allen’s Alvy Singer, the kind of figure who would soon become an Allen stereotype but who here feels youthful with worry, this film was Allen’s first to tread the line between the caustic and the deeply warm-hearted, the incorrigible and the unquestionably brittle. This isn’t a depressing picture per-se – it’s far too energetic and lively – but it does deal with ends as much as beginnings, innately creating a sort of finality that breeds some sense of loss absent in any of Allen’s previously more abstract, even obtuse, sketch-like works. Annie Hall is also, in addition to all these things, and perhaps because of Allen’s skill at combining them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, pure cinematic dynamite, a film so in love with and so angry at the world it cannot help but provide us with new ways of looking at it. Continue reading
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.
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).