[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 few days, and I should be up to date for this week’s episode.]
“I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
“These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.
After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.
First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.
He also speaks to Master Yuen Wo Ping, most famous here for choreographing the Matrix films, but as much as I love The Matrix, I’m almost more intrigued by the clips Cousins shows of The Iron Monkey. I also liked Yuen’s discussion of the differences between working in Hong Kong and in Hollywood – how planned and meticulously storyboarded The Matrix was versus his more intuitive approach to his own films. Of course, some of that may be merely different artistic processes. I really enjoy martial arts movies, but I haven’t gone back to see a lot of these 1970s Hong Kong titles, and they’re high on my list to check out. They look often cheesy and over the top, but that’s all part of the fun, and I’m curious to see them in more than just clip shows.
On to Bollywood, which has become the biggest film industry in the world by this point in the 1970s, with box office takes bigger than Hollywood’s biggest films could boast. We catch up with Sharmila Tagore again – we first saw her as a 14-year-old in understated Satyajit Ray films. Now she’s the Queen of Bollywood, leading bright and colorful musicals, the staple of Bollywood cinema. The King of Bollywood is Amitabh Bachchan, whose popularity matches that of a Valentino. Cousins spends most of his time talking about the film Sholay, the most notable film in Bollywood history, an epic with undertones of Leone, buddy cops, revenge, and of course, music. I’ve actually seen Sholay a long time ago when I was really into Bollywood cinema, but I don’t remember it that well. I enjoy the excess of mainstream Bollywood films; this segment has really inspired me to start seeking them out again.
Before heading back to America, Cousins stops by the Arab world with The Message, a film about the story of Mohammed and the beginnings of Islam that Cousins claims has been seen by as many people as any film in history. Despite my lack of knowledge of it, I can actually believe that – there are a lot of Muslims in the world, and I can see this being a major touchstone. Interestingly, it was shot in two versions – one with Anthony Quinn in the main role (Mohammed’s uncle) and one with an Arab actor in the role, so presumably the version that many in the Arab world have seen is actually not the one that Cousins showed us. Also interestingly, Mohammed does not actually appear in the film, since it is forbidden in Islam to depict the Prophet. I expect this makes for some weird cinematic approaches to get around that, but the scene Cousins shows, of Quinn talking to Mohammed by speaking directly to camera, is rather strangely effective. Cousins also briefly talks to Yousef Chahine, an Egyptian filmmaker whose quoted film is about the political turmoil surrounding the Six Day War. Chahine is a firecracker, going off on the Western world considering Africa and the Arab world to be the Third World. “Third World? We’ve been here 7000 years!” He’s got a point.
Several times throughout the series, Cousins has made a comment to the effect that “xyz film or filmmaker changed everything,” and often I can’t really see the importance to cinema overall, but when he says it about Jaws, The Exorcist, and Star Wars, yes. Absolutely those films are what created modern mainstream Hollywood moviegoing culture. That is, the culture of the blockbuster, and ever since Jaws, the big studios have been chasing blockbuster-sized success. The difference, of course, is that those three films were not only wildly popular, but terrifically innovative and beautifully made. I agree with Cousins, though, that their influence has largely not been positive.
Steven Spielberg comes across as an old-fashioned filmmaker, a return to the romantic tradition of Old Hollywood, and I think that’s entirely correct. I often find Spielberg a tad too sentimental for me, but I know I would buy that hook line and sinker in an older film – a double standard, I know, and for the most part, I do find myself going along with Spielberg’s pathos. Meanwhile, Cousins suggests that William Friekdin’s claim to have his finger on the pulse of America killed the complexity of New Hollywood. He doesn’t expand on that, but I think what he’s getting at is that blockbuster culture is audience driven, seeking to give the audience what it wants, whereas New Hollywood was auteur-driven, playing out the filmmaker’s personal visions with little regard to how it was received. I think there’s a balance in there somewhere, as taken to extremes one is pandering while the other is solipsism, but time has proven that what studios think the audience wants is to be shovel-fed more and more of the same derivative blockbusters. That’s simplifying; there are of course good, even great blockbusters, but as a whole, as a culture, blockbusters are a disease.
Cousins posits that people just wanted to switch off after the sweeping societal changes of the ’50s and ’60s, a bit of a dismissive tone to these movies, which I think really are worth a great deal (it’s only what came after them that I object to), but given his thesis and perspective throughout the series, it doesn’t surprise me much. Next up, he claims that the 1980s would be the years of protest – the next chapter should be interesting, since I generally think of the ’80s as fairly mild and boring (not my favorite decade). We’ll see what he has to say.