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A Rambling Post About 1970s American Film

Last night I watched John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.  It was at the time, in 1976, a spectacular failure of a movie, surviving in theaters roughly six days, but has since been embraced by the film community. As a lover of 1970s cinema in general, I figured it was my duty to watch it. While I can understand its failure to gain an audience (the point of this post isn’t to comment on the film, but I will say I liked it — though perhaps only understood what the hell Cassavetes was shooting for after watching the interviews on the DVD’s special features), the full extent of its failure caused me to wonder when things started to change in terms of the reception of high-quality, edgy cinema in America.

The ’70s didn’t get off to a good start. The top two grossing movies in 1970 were, respectively, Love Story and Airport, neither of which you really ever have a reason to watch now — the year was slightly redeemed by the presence of MASH at number three. In 1971, things were a bit better. The top-grossing film was Fiddler on the Roof and third-highest was The French Connection. (Number two was Billy Jack (!!!).) In 1972 you had the undisputed reign of The Godfather — nothing else comes even close to it in terms of box-office pull. Then in 1973 you have a cluster of classics all at the top: The Exorcist, The Sting, Papillon . . . and, of course, Magnum Force.

So far, pretty good. Things take a noticeable turn, however, in 1974. The top movie of the year, The Towering Inferno, wasn’t awful, but certainly not something you’re likely to have near the top of your Netflix queue anytime soon unless you’re a Paul Newman or Steve McQueen (or, for the few & the proud, William Holden) completist. Rounding out the top five are the execrable films Earthquake and The Trial of Billy Jack.  If the year is rescued at all it is by the two enduring comedic classics, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  All this may be enough to indict 1974 as the turning point, but it is not enough until we note, too, that The Godfather II was only the sixth-highest grossing film.

Things kind of returned to form in ’75, with Jaws, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (ugh), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest & (shockingly) Dog Day Afternoon dominating theaters. They’re not all great, but each kind of “special” in their own way. I will submit, however, that 1975 was but the last gasp after the debilitating cock punch in 1974.

1976 may have given us Network, one of my favorite films of the late-70s, which incidentally did not crack the top-ten grossing films of the year, but it also birthed the Rocky series. Sure, the first one isn’t bad (neither is the second, really). But, aren’t they forever tainted now? 1976 also gave us All the President’s Men, which I watched again recently, and it just felt like it had aged as badly as Robert Redford’s face. The only two notable movies in the top-ten grossing films are The Omen and, of course, The Enforcer.

After this begins the age of the super-duper blockbuster, beginning with Star Wars and Close Encounters (1977), Superman and Grease (1978) — the highlight of either years being, respectively, Annie Hall and Every Which Way But Loose. In 1979 you have the spectacular death rattle that was Alien, Apocalypse Now, and The Muppet Movie. And then, like Keyser Soze, the ’70s were gone, replaced immediately by the 1980 onslaught of The Empire Strikes Back, Stir Crazy, 9 to 5, and Airplane! Now, yes, all of these delighted me as a child, but I can’t say I’ll be too disappointed if I never see any of them again, though surely TBS will test my resolve soon enough with a showing of 9 to 5.  Indeed, 1980 could not even be rescued by Clyde the orangutan, as even at the ripe age of six I was disappointed by the misguided sequel, Any Which Way You Can.

EDIT: I realized after submitting this post that it did not, in fact, have any point.  No upshot.  No argument, as such.  So what am I saying, really?  Basically, that 1973 was a watershed year for high-quality cinema that was eagerly watched by the typical American moviegoer, that 1974 was the cockpunch that knocked the life out this phenomenon — which means that while there were signs of life between 1975 and 1979, it had been dead for a while before it was finally buried in 1980.  This is not to say high-quality cinema ceased to exist.  Simply that the overall cultural & economic embrace of high-quality cinema in America did, and in large part contributed to the rise of the low-to-middlebrow films that spurred the massive growth of the major studios through the 80s and 90s.  I make no claims to originality in this thesis.

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June 14, 2009 - Posted by | film

9 Comments

  1. By only paying attention to the biggest commercially or critically acclaimed movies, you’re not only missing the best part of ’70s cinema (I presume in this crowd I don’t really need to put a so-my-opinion spin on it) but also the reason for its decline: loss of the sustainable low-budget industry which fed so much feisty crafty talent into the mainstream. The last wonderful death rattle of Roger-Corman-weaned filmmaking was the brief re-blooming of slapstick comedy and horror in the early ’80s. After that, Hollywood only existed to produce blockbusters and self-entombments, and the closest thing to industry salvation was Spielberg’s/Lucas’s high-budget low-brow blockbuster formula, where you spend umpteen kazillion dollars to approximate the experience of a two-week drive-in-aimed production.

    Comment by Ray Davis | June 14, 2009

  2. Agreed, Ray. It is this “sustainability” that I find interesting of good, creative work (another way of expressing “high-quality cinema,” in my mind), and looking at the mainstream box office successes of the 70s was just the quickest way to bang out an idea about it. The low-budget industry you’re mentioning here died, or at least was marginalized even more than it already was, because something happened to the cultural embrace of “cinema” along the way. I identify 1974 as a pivotal moment: look at the top-ten commercially successful movies compared to even the critical successes (e.g., Godfather II, Amarcord, Chinatown). Mainstream success has always deviated some from critical/artistic success, but the divide here seems stark to me, and goes a few steps in explaining the misdirection of funds that crippled edgier productions.

    Interestingly, I think w/ the rise of digital technology we’re at a stage where the production & distribution of quality low-budget work is at least thinkable.

    Comment by Brad | June 14, 2009

  3. not the 70ies, but Making waves is a cute movie, about the ham radio users, so like blog readers, i just watched it
    perhaps WS should write a movie script about bloggers and be first at it
    i’m willing to play my part/ a joke, i never etc
    i confess i made two times a thousand tsurus in my life, just had a lot of origami papers and time at evenings
    don’t remember where i left them though, i certainly didn’t throw them away, maybe i just left them in the bag at my sister’s place
    hopefully they burnt them or put into the river or the sea

    Comment by read | June 14, 2009

  4. There’s a blogger in the American adaptation of State of Play, but I understand she’s kind of an inane insertion (I’m watching the British original now.)

    But yeah, I don’t think blogging has really come into its own cinematic existence the way e-mail did with You’ve Got Mail.

    A read movie could be pretty awesome.

    BTW while we’re on 70s film let me sing a song for the back-and-forth between Robert Redford and Warren Beatty: I see your Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I raise you a Bonnie and Clyde. I see your Three Days of the Condor and I raise you a Parallax View. I can’t figure out how to respond to The Candidate until the 1990’s when I give you Bulworth.

    I’m very excited to rewatch The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and skip the new version. I can rent it on my Apple TV!

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 14, 2009

  5. December 25, 1973 was the day they released Magnum Force, the sequel to Dirty Harry. Remember that – outside of a limited range of children’s movies and “sleazy” low-budget numbers (and James Bond) – sequels didn’t exist before then. That is, didn’t exist until Magnum Force and the Dirty Harry series solidified BOTH the sequelization business model and the whole action movie structure (currently, it’s hard for us to percieve because almost all of our movies are now action structured, but even something like 1968’s Bullitt has only 3 action scenes).

    I would also challenge that Magnum Force is a classic. At minimum, it created a huge number of very troubling precedents. Magnum Force, for example, doubles the number of action scenes from Dirty Harry.

    Comment by burritoboy | June 15, 2009

  6. No,I said that not about me, recalled a proverb, odin v pole me voin, means one doesn’t make a battle, close to that, but not literally
    That ham radio movie was pretty close description, just for people whose primary perception is through their ears or who like their voices
    bloggers are people who like to read coz their eyes are their main tool of perception perhaps

    Comment by Read | June 15, 2009

  7. “Every Which Way But Loose”? Really?

    And don’t you slam The Muppet Movie. You’ll slam The Muppet Movie over my cold, dead… er… Jim Henson.

    Comment by stras jones | June 15, 2009

  8. Stras, I think lumping in the Muppet Movie with Alien and Apocalypse Now means that the “death rattle” is the last moment of vibrancy before everlasting sleep.

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 15, 2009

  9. I would never ever slam The Muppet Movie. Wrongshore has the right interpretation of what I was after.

    Comment by Brad | June 15, 2009


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