The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Nine

[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week’s episode. I’m writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I’m going to just post catch-up posts over the next four days, and I should be up to date for next week’s episode.]

New Hollywood was full of mockery and stylistically bold. Old school laced with new truths.

We’re back on more familiar ground this week as Cousins moves into the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. After the upheaval of the 1960s and the tragedies that seemed to mark the end of the revolutionary spirit of the decade – the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. – you’d think that the 1970s would be a rather deflated time in American filmmaking, but instead it’s exactly the opposite. The studios were floundering toward the end of the ’60s, desperate to attract a younger crowd of people – their solution was to give bright young film-school trained directors a shot, and the result was New Hollywood, which is considered one of the liveliest and most inventive periods in American movie history.

New Hollywood directors knew their cinema history, both American and European, and they respected and in many cases loved it, but they wanted to test the waters, to bend and break the rules. Cousins identifies three types of approaches common in American film of the 1970s – satirical, dissident, and assimilationist. I don’t think the distinctions are quite as cut and dried as he implies, but it’s a decent enough set of classifications to start. Satirical films look askance at society, believing that it’s too late to save it, so let’s poke fun at it. Cousins does point out that satire is hardly new to cinema, and gives some great scenes from the Marx Brothers to show it (he skipped them in his 1930s episode, so I guess he figured to sneak them in here), as well as some Frank Tashlin from the 1950s.

Jack Nicholson is the sane among the insane in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cousins identifies writer Buck Henry as the major satiric voice of the 1970s, who wrote the film version of Catch-22 as well as The Gradate. Other films he mentions in the satirical vein are M*A*S*H, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m intrigued by this combination of films, because the only one of those I really like is The Graduate. I think Catch-22 is a mere shadow of the book (even the central scene Cousins uses where the phrase “catch-22” is explained feels all wrong to me in line reading and performance), and I never really felt connected with either M*A*S*H or Cuckoo’s Nest. Maybe this type of satirical film is not really my thing. Anyway, Cousins does do a good job of showing how the films depict a world that’s upside down, where crazy people are perhaps the most sane and sane people are actually crazy.

Cousins terms most of the directors associated with the New Wave as either dissidents or assimilationists, and while I understand the distinction he’s making on the surface, I’m not sure it plays out as cleanly as he suggests. Cousins says dissidents offer a challenge to film style, wanting to find a way to open up the form. He lumps Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Charles Burnett, and Woody Allen under the dissident label. He claims that assimilationists were less anti-Old Hollywood, but wanted to apply Old Hollywood forms to new content. He puts Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, Terrence Malick, Bob Fosse, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola (again – he considers The Conversation dissident and The Godfather assimilationist) in this category.

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show memorializes the end of an era – both cinematic and cultural.

I can kind of see what he’s going for, but I’m not sure I see the sharp delineation he makes between new forms and new content here – all of these filmmakers bring new approaches to form and content, I think, and many of them have extreme reverence for Old Hollywood, especially Scorsese, Allen, and Bogdanovich. Peckinpah is basically a transitional figure between Old and New, while Polanski and Forman tie the European New Waves into New Hollywood. The time is too varied, too simultaneously revolutionary and nostalgic, and too complicated to be broken down into these simplistic labels. As if to prove my point, in Cousins’ introductory interview with Robert Osborne, he says “people like Scorsese wanted to take old forms and apply them to modern people, like Travis Bickle” – that description would put Scorsese among his assimilationists, though, not his dissidents.

I did really appreciate his section on Charles Burnett, one of the first modern black filmmakers, and hearing about Burnett’s experiences of going to UCLA film school and having only one teacher who showed films made by anyone but white males was eye-opening. I haven’t seen Killer of Sheep yet, but I did record it and hope to watch it some point. Even though this was again a pretty straight down the line episode in terms of well-known American filmmakers, it’s good to remember that people like Burnett were there as well. I had heard of Burnett, it’s not that Cousins is pulling people out of the woodwork for this, but it’s all too easy to focus on the Coppolas, the Scorseses, the Allens, the Altmans, etc. As a side note, I hadn’t thought about Allen really bringing Jewishness to the forefront, but it’s really interesting that this is the case, since basically all of the studio era moguls (along with many of the directors) were Jewish except for Walt Disney and Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck. But they didn’t make films about being Jewish.

Cousins says New Hollywood was the party to be at in the ’70s, but there were other parties around the world that were just as radical and self-possessed. The past few episodes have alternated between well-known American/European cinema and lesser-known movements in other national cinemas, and presumably the same thing will happen here – the same basic time period, with a more global focus.

Where Else to See These Films

The Graduate: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube ($1.99 rental)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
The Last Picture Show: not available to stream; available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon
Mean Streets: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Badlands: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental)
Cabaret: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
M*A*S*H: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Chinatown: Amazon Prime,
Killer of Sheep: YouTube