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Culture Warrior: How the 70s Proved Mass-Marketing Wasn’t the Only Way to Make Movies

By  · Published on January 24th, 2012

As much as I admire the incomparable films made during the era, New Hollywood (the term referring to innovative, risk-taking films made funded by studios from the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is a title that I find a bit problematic. The words “New Hollywood” better characterize the era that came after what the moniker traditionally refers to. Think about it: if “Old” or “Classical” Hollywood refers to the time period that stretches roughly from 1930 to 1960 when the studios as an industry maintained such an organized and regimented domination over and erasure of any other potential conception over what a film playing in any normal movie theater could be, then if we refer to the time period from roughly 1977 to now “New Hollywood,” the term then appropriately signifies a new manifestation of the old: regimentation, predictability, and limitation of expression. Where Old Hollywood studios would produce dozens of films of the same genre, New Hollywood (as I’m appropriating the term) could acutely describe the studios’ comparably stratified output of sequels, remakes, etc.

What we traditionally understand to be New Hollywood was not so much its own monolithic era in Hollywood’s legacy, but a brief, strange, and wonderful lapse between two modes of Hollywood filmmaking that have dominated the industry’s history.

The much-celebrated years that gave us The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Five Easy Pieces, and Petulia do not constitute an “era,” but a lapse between eras which itself afforded incredible opportunities for visionary filmmakers and the type of unprecedented low-scale/high-risk filmmaking that will most certainly never happen again on an institutional level. I don’t have a name to describe what happened during that decade in the place of New Hollywood, but perhaps it’s better for the era to exist without a categorizing term, for it’s not an era characterized so much by what it uniformly was as what it most certainly wasn’t. This brief and anomalous window found filmmakers seizing on Hollywood’s identity crisis. It’s an era that was defined then and has been canonized since by alterity, not through the unity and consolidation Hollywood is otherwise known for.

With the occasional exception of a certified hit like The Godfather or The French Connection, in the for-profit ethos of Hollywood, the late sixties and early seventies constituted a hiccup and a drunken night of sleep experienced after a long series of regrettable mistakes and rare good fortune. Welcome sobriety came to the studios bearing the names of Spielberg and Lucas. Post-1977 “New Hollywood” simply proves the rule by rendering mid-60s-mid-70s films ever more exceptional with each passing, uninspiring year as we hurtle inevitably toward Transformers 4 – Angrier, Louder Toys.

Hollywood’s switch from risk and innovation to re-regimentation was not a uniform one. It took several years, and the fumes of what we traditionally understand as New Hollywood certainly wafted through the early 80s. But the year in which the era of Hal Ashby and Robert Altman’s first phase ended is comfortably situated as 1977, the year of two major releases from a pair of behemoths of the new studio aristocracy: Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, of course, Lucas’s Star Wars. Sure, of Spielberg’s 70s output, Jaws has a lot more to do with the current summer-blockbuster model of studio hyper-investment than the rather poetic and beautiful Close Encounters did, but the film solidified Spielberg’s reputation as a new kind of auteur: one who promised more premium entertainment and less insight into the state of the ashes of the American Dream. And as fun (though certainly not ageless) as the first two Star Wars entries remain, what the Lucas-logic wrought (franchise-think, privileging technological spectacle over storytelling, characters as stand-ins for cross-promotional merchandise) set foot for the worst habits of big studio filmmaking to come.

1976 was the year of Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men – some of the greatest films made during the era to be sure, but these films were not without a powerful stench of pessimism and defeat. Like Howard Beale, the voice of a frustrated counterculture would soon be abruptly silenced. (Still, it’s fun and strange to think that, in 1976, science-fiction meant Michael York running through a campy future or David Bowie falling to Earth, not Han Solo or Boba Fett.) Three years later, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (following the weary trail of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s New York, New York) would definitively knock down the altar to the auteur that the previous thirteen-or-so years had built. But 1977 involved some serious pre-decimation damage.

But if one looks a bit closer, it seems that unique, untraditional voices who longed to express themselves through the art of cinema had already developed a Plan B. Perhaps it’s useful to think of 1977 not as (or, at least not only as) the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, but the year of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. While independent cinema certainly existed at the margins of American filmmaking long before 1977, often in somewhat rickety association with the American avant-garde (in 1977, American indie pioneer John Cassavetes released the last great entry of his short-lived filmography, Opening Night), Eraserhead and Killer of Sheep were two black-and-white anomalies whose legacies run as deep for the American independent filmmaking era that followed as Close Encounters and Star Wars do for the American blockbuster that would continue its dominance.

Killer of Sheep made (early) good on the growing accessibility of the increasingly economically-friendly filmmaking materials that would continue to provide more and more opportunities for filmmakers which each new technological change. Made for $10,000, the film showed that you don’t have to have a theme song by Isaac Hayes to deal directly with issues pertaining to black American identity. The film’s pseudo-documentary, neo-realist slice-of-life feel makes it not only one of the most enduringly poignant and authentic representations of African-American life ever caught on film, but its preference of patiently depicting the everyday over conventional plotting made way for a similar approach to film structure exercised by an incredible variety of American independent filmmakers, from Jim Jarmusch to Richard Linklater to the so-called mumblecore aesthetic.

Eraserhead, as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum made notably clear, was the seminal midnight movie. Just as Hollywood franchises and blockbusters would seek to find as massive a mass audience as possible, Eraserhead proved that there’s a niche audience enduringly hungry for the unconventional. In the era of James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis, David Lynch’s career by any stretch of institutional logic should not have happened. The cult of Eraserhead had great implications for the future of American cinema that followed, for it proved that the traditional mass-market theatrical model of film promotion and distribution was not the only way for a film to find its audience – and in fact, imaginative and risk-taking films could benefit by taking routes to find their audiences that are as untraditional as the films themselves. Star Wars was the stuff of movie theaters and toy shops; Eraserhead was the stuff of roadshow screenings, compelling conversations, and, eventually, home video.

So while 1977 might be the accepted signpost of Hollywood’s stark transition from the gritty and the innovative to the accessible and the populist, two underground entries of that year portended the alternative routes to creative expression that have acted as the necessary route of escape from big fat new Hollywood’s structures of redundancy.

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