Film critic Charles Taylor’s first collection of essays, “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s,” explores the rich history of ’70s-era American filmmaking through a unique lens, opting to highlight some of the period’s underseen and often underappreciated gems. As one of the most fruitful times in American filmmaking, Taylor understands why certain features — including offerings from such respected filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Walter Hill, and Irvin Kershner — didn’t quite make it big at a crowded box office, but he’s also eager to give them their due.
Told with an eye towards the current state of cinema — a blockbuster-driven machine that Taylor calls “nonsensical” and contributing to “the destruction of the idea of content” — the book is a loving look at some forgotten gems and the power of moviemaking that can often be ignored. In our excerpt from the book, Taylor lays out what amounts to a compelling thesis, while also issuing a bit of a warning shot at contemporary movies. It’s an eye-opener.
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Later this week, New York City’s newly relaunched Quad Cinema presents “The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s,” a 9-film series based on Taylor’s book. The event will feature criminally under-seen titles like “American Hot Wax,” “Hard Times,” “Citizen Band,” and “Prime Cut,” with most films screeening on 35mm.
Check out our exclusive excerpt from the introduction to “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You” by Charles Taylor:
Forty years on, the 1970s remain the third—and, to date, last—great period in American movies. The late teens and ’20s gave us the lyrical flowering of silent movies. The ’30s through the ’50s, the sustained and breathless articulation of the language of classical American narrative cinema. These were the decades in which every now-familiar genre found its definitive form: Westerns, gangster films, screwball comedies and romantic comedies, musicals, war pictures, melodrama, film noir.
By the ’60s those genres seemed calcified, remnants of a familiar past that prevented the now-faltering studios from acknowledging the rapidly changing present. The censorious Production Code was toppling, and the studios knew they had to win the younger, hipper audiences who wouldn’t settle for the old formulas. Suddenly there was space for filmmakers who had grown up on American movies to bring a new realism to the genres they loved. Upstarts like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Paul Mazursky, Alan J. Pakula, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman were free to use the classic forms for work that reflected new realities, free of the official optimism to which Hollywood directors either had to accede or subvert.
There were variations on the Western (“The Wild Bunch,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), the private-eye picture (“The Long Goodbye,” “The Late Show”), the gangster film (“The Godfather,” “Thieves Like Us”), the marital comedy (“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”), the musical (“Cabaret”), the women’s melodrama (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), the small-town soap opera (“The Last Picture Show”), the sex rondelet (“Shampoo”), the military comedy (“M*A*S*H,” “The Last Detail”).
The new movies didn’t offer audiences happy endings or other assurances. Michael Corleone doesn’t get his comeuppance at the end of “The Godfather,” as the gangsters in “Scarface” and “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” did. At the movie’s finish, Michael has achieved a corporate ruthlessness far colder than the old-world courtliness of his crime boss father (Marlon Brando). What satisfied the audiences for “The Godfather” and the other downbeat hits of the day wasn’t the old morality that Hollywood bosses—if not filmmakers—had insisted on but the exhilaration of feeling that someone had cut through the bullshit and shown something of life as they knew it to be lived.
When movies as extraordinary as “The Godfather” or “The Wild Bunch” or “Taxi Driver” or “Cabaret” or “The Long Goodbye” were opening every week, when critics found themselves in the enviable position of having great work to acclaim—or argue over—week in and week out, you can’t exactly blame them for not paying attention to the pictures that seemed content to stay within the genre boundaries the celebrated works were exploding. Given the choice between devoting your column inches to new work from Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah, or Mazursky, or to a car-chase movie, to the instantly recognizable conventions of the new blaxploitation genre, to some new action movie, who could blame critics for sticking to the A list?
But these genre movies do share something with the A-list pictures of their time, something almost entirely missing in today’s commercial American cinema. In the ’70s the gritty and somewhat pessimistic nature that has always been characteristic of B movies translated into a refusal to keep bad things from happening to good characters, a resistance to handing out easy, happy endings. That’s why it’s possible to watch these movies now—despite the pulpiness, despite the obvious lashings of nudity and violence to satisfy the exploitation crowd—and feel as if you’re being treated like an adult. Their staying power is in the way they stand in opposition to the current juvenile state of American movies.
The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of “Star Wars” has become total. Mainstream moviemaking now caters almost exclusively to the tastes of the adolescent male fan. As they currently stand, mainstream Hollywood releases consist almost exclusively of superhero blockbusters, sequels, remakes, and comedies aimed at the frat-boy sensibility, many of them excuses to squeeze out the few extra dollars of admission charged for 3-D. Movies have devolved back to spectacle and gimmicks, not so much movies anymore as packages put together by studio marketing departments in the hopes of spawning or sustaining a franchise and maybe selling a line of merchandise along the way. Reboots, the periodic recycling of a property to lure in a new generation for whom movies that are just four or five years old are antiques, are factored into release schedules, which are now sketched out five years or so in advance. Theatrical runs have become temporary stops on the way to home video release, which accounts for a substantial amount of a movie’s gross. Disposability is the goal, the constant determination to make the audience hungry for new product.
Consequently, what’s happening in contemporary movies is not just the destruction of content but the destruction of the idea of content. What counts in most mainstream blockbusters are explosions, crashes, and constant displays of computer-generated imagery. The narratives are nonsensical, and so is the filmmaking. The incessantly moving camera and the Waring-blender editing that keeps shots to no more than two or three seconds destroy any ability to tell where characters are in physical relation to one another, thus eroding any kind of suspense and depriving us of any emotional stake in the outcome. We are not watching stories or characters anymore but brands. We’re not even watching movie stars. The deluge of trailers that precede movies in theaters or the ads that adorn billboards and buses almost never mention who’s in these blockbusters.
The B movies of the ‘70s possess a connection to the world, and to real-life emotions—not to mention the craft—that today’s blockbusters and remakes and churned-out franchises work so hard to avoid. The best genre movies, no matter how rooted in the conventions of Westerns, detective stories, adventure stories, or noir, have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility. The violence in those films is wrought and suffered on a scale far more direct than the explosions and anonymous mass killings of today’s big-budget action spectaculars. In the best genre films, we’re immersed in a world where decisions have to be made and consequences have to be endured. No one would mistake the 1975 “Hard Times,” Walter Hill’s Depression-era tale of bare-knuckle boxers, for a documentary. But when a waitress tells Charles Bronson that his nickel cup of coffee entitles him to only one refill, you get an immediate sense of the desperate straits of the time, the need to weigh every penny. The small towns, gas stations, and two-lane highways, the diners of “Vanishing Point,” “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Citizens Band,” and other movies, are all but absent from today’s screens, as are the seamy views of American cities that you get in “Prime Cut,” “Hickey & Boggs,” and “Cisco Pike.”
The new blockbusters, often taking advantage of 3-D or IMAX screens, seem to shrink while we’re watching them. The ‘70s B films, without a shred of ostentation, presented a vision that couldn’t be contained by the confines of a drive-in screen. For years moviegoers had been watching the characters on the big screen walk off into the sunset or into the moodiness of a nighttime city fog. Sitting in their cars at the drive-in, or in their seats at the tattered and second-run movie palaces that played these Westerns and action movies and crime thrillers and rock ’n’ roll pictures, 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 series runs June 9 – 13 at New York City’s Quad Cinema. Taylor’s book is available now.
From “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You” by Charles Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing © 2017 Charles Taylor.