Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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If I had to pick one thing that ties together the films of New Hollywood, despite disparate genres and directorial styles, it would be that they tend to all start with character and then build the narrative out from there, rather than starting with plot and then writing characters into it the way a lot of films do. I’d wager a guess that this is a major reason why so many 1970s films retain their power over thirty years later. Rather than starting with the idea “let’s rob a bank,” Dog Day Afternoon begins with a character, Sonny Wortzik, who robs a bank, yes, but is much more than a guy who holds up a bank.

Granted, this isn’t any old bank robbery, either – it quickly turned into a hostage situation with a media circus and a huge crowd outside. But it started with Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) entering a sleepy bank branch on a sweltering day, nervous and jittery. Their actions are reasonably well-planned, and Sonny’s first-hand knowledge of being a bank teller helps him out, but it’s clear these men are not seasoned bank robbers and are pretty much just as terrified as the employees about to be taken hostage. By the time they get to the vault and discover that the vast majority of the cash has been picked up for transit to the bank’s headquarters, the police are already on the scene and there’s little Sonny can do but hold everyone as hostages and think of a way out.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Nashville (1975)

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So far, Robert Altman is winning the award for my favorite filmmaker of this marathon – I almost want to say favorite discovery, which sounds weird when talking about someone of Altman’s reputation and stature, but it is true that I hadn’t seen any of his pre-90s films until now. And of all the films so far in this marathon that I hadn’t seen before, Altman’s have been consistently my favorites – Nashville only confirms and expands that.

Nashville is one of Altman’s most renowned films, and often cited for its use of a vast interlocking ensemble cast (something of an Altman trademark), yet even with that reputation in my head when I sat down to watch it, Nashville still managed to exceed my expectations. The setting is the lead-up to a political rally for the fictitious Replacement Party in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Meanwhile, various musicians and singers weave in and out of recording studios, live shows, traffic jams, parties, personal breakdowns, career disappointments, and affairs.

The balance that Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury find among all the different characters, giving each enough time and back story to make us feel we know them, yet never letting any single character become more central than any other, is nothing short of astounding. By using an extremely simple overall plot (three days of vignettes loosely tied together by the recurring political campaigning, though even that isn’t as central as I expected it to be) and letting the story flow from the characters, Nashville manages to avoid the pitfalls that many ensemble films fall into – especially that of an overly complicated plot preventing us from feeling connected to the multitude of characters.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

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My history with the Godfather trilogy isn’t that of your typical movie buff…and by that I mean I’m not a ginormous fan of The Godfather. The first time I saw it several years ago I really wasn’t a fan – I disliked Marlon Brando’s mumbling, I thought it was overlong with not much interesting happening, I didn’t like how it ended, I just…didn’t get it. I rewatched it a few months ago and appreciated it a lot more – I like the ending now, for example, and I can handle the pacing better, though I’m still not really a big fan of Brando (not just in this film, I’m not a Brando fan in general), and I still don’t particularly care for the way the Italy-set section plays out. But I can definitely understand now why people do like it, and I’m prepared to give it props for the many, many things it does beautifully. Anyway, from what I’d heard I was hoping to like The Godfather Part II a bit better. And I did, quite a bit better.

While The Godfather focuses on the changing of the guard from Vito Corleone to his son Michael and how Michael deals with becoming the leader of a family business he’d once hoped to escape, The Godfather Part II has a two-pronged story – alternating segments tell the story of Vito Corleone’s emigration to America as a boy and how he became a Mafia boss, and the continuing story of Michael as he tries to manage the family in the years after his father’s death. Perhaps predictably, given my ambivalent feelings towards the first film, I still found myself a little uninterested in Michael’s problems, but every single scene in the Vito story had me totally rapt.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Mean Streets (1973)

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Mean Streets was another rewatch for me, this time because I was really distractible the first time I saw it, and I wanted to give it another chance to make an impression on me. And it did. It really, really did.

You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.

MeanStreets_4.jpgHarvey Keitel is Charlie, a junior member of the New York mafia, in charge of shaking down local business for protection money. But Charlie, though he’s good at his job and enjoys a good reputation among his peers, isn’t personally invested in moving up in the organization’s power structure, and would rather take a more legit position overseeing a restaurant (one seized from the struggling owner in the mafia’s version of foreclosure). Meanwhile, he’s handling the careless Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), who is always in debt and doing very little to pay off those debts except getting Charlie to convince his creditors to back off. Plus, he’s secretly dating Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), a relationship that would be frowned upon by his superiors.

All three of these characters are kind of outsiders in the family/organization; Johnny Boy because he’s basically a feckless bum, unable to make good in any way and in fact ends up causing a great deal of trouble to everyone, and Charlie and Teresa because they both ultimately want to escape the life, get out of the organization. The tension among the three of them as well as between them and the others in power is as electric as any of Scorsese’s later films, and has an added touch of raw vitality. If The Godfather is the epic story of the upper levels of mob leadership, Mean Streets is the microcosm of how it plays out on the streets.

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Finite Focus: The End of an Era (The Last Picture Show)

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Spoilers for The Last Picture Show

Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.

Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

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I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of Jack Nicholson. There are a handful of his movies I like a lot, but it’s often in spite of his involvement rather than because of it. A unstated side effect of this marathon was supposed to be for me to gain a better appreciation for him. So far, it isn’t working very well. I’ve actually started watching Five Easy Pieces before, and didn’t finish it (I’ve forgotten why, but probably some combination of being distracted and lack of interest). This time I did finish it, and I can find a good bit to like about it, but I still don’t “get it” the way I was hoping.

Nicholson is Bobby Dupea, an oil-rig worker who lives with his shrill but well-meaning girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), in between killing time bowling with buddies and picking up other girls to break up the monotony of his life. As the film goes on, we discover bit by bit that Bobby wasn’t born a working-class stiff – rather, he comes from a well-to-do family of musicians and artists, who he turned his back on years earlier, feeling pressured and trapped by their expectations of him. When his sister contacts him to let him know of their father’s declining health, he travels back home to visit with Rayette in tow, creating a tense juxtaposition when she and his family meet.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: New Hollywood Marathon

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My largest and most glaring gap of cinematic knowledge, at least of American film, is easily the 1970s. I grew up watching the films of the Hollywood studios’ golden era, the 1930s-1950s, and of my own generation, the 1990s-current, but have only sporadically caught the films in between. Given that many of the greatest and most iconoclastic American films of all time come from the 1970s, I have decided that enough is enough, and this year I am going to eliminate my New Hollywood list of shame, which includes: The Godfather Part II, M*A*S*H, The Exorcist, Five Easy Pieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Badlands, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, and others.

easy-riders-raging-bulls.jpgBecause my knowledge of the whole era is a little superficial, I’m reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Generation Saved Hollywood to give myself a background in the history and temperament of the era, and watching the films he discusses while I’m reading. And I figured, might as well share my journey through New Hollywood as I go. The list of films you’ll find after the cut is culled from Biskind’s book and Wikipedia’s entry on New Hollywood, leaving out some that I have already seen.

One thing that has fascinated me as I worked on creating this master list is how varied the films are – drama, comedy, action, satire, war, crime, romance, horror, western, science fiction, concert film and period piece are all among the genres represented. What they have in common: 1) a willingness to push the boundaries of what cinema was allowed to do and to explore themes of sexuality, antiheroism, and isolation that were previously taboo, 2) a sense of brashness and raw vitality brought by the eager young filmmakers wresting the reins from entrenched studios, 3) a tendency to focus on character and script rather than plot, and 4) a knowledge of and appreciation for cinema itself, from the masters of Golden Age Hollywood to the imports coming from Europe and Japan.

This quote from Biskind’s introduction I think sums it up nicely:

[The 1970s were] the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work — work that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily. […] In a culture inured even to the shock of the new, in which today’s news is tomorrow’s history to be forgotten entirely or recycled in some unimaginably debased form, ’70s movies retain their power to unsettle; time has not dulled their edge, and they are as provocative now as they were the day they were released. […] The thirteen years between Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 and Heaven’s Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood, the last time people could be consistently proud of the pictures they made, the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that could sustain it.

And it wasn’t only the landmark movies that made the late ’60s and ’70s unique. This was a time when film culture permeated American life in a way that it never had before and never has since. In the words of Susan Sontag, “It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to the movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself.” Film was no less than a secular religion.

A few Row Three contributors have already shown an interest in writing about some of these as well; if you’d like to watch and share your thoughts about any of them, please do! See also the list at the bottom, which includes several films I’ve already seen and don’t intend to rewatch and write about, but someone else certainly could. If you’re not a R3 contributor and would like to join in, just email me and I’ll post your reviews with credit.

 

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