Book Review: WHEN THE MOVIES MATTERED – THE NEW HOLLYWOOD REVISITED (edited by Jonathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis)

Eric Gilliland with a review of When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited

When the Movies Mattered is a collection of ten essays edited by Jonathan Kirshner and Jon Lewis that reassess the New Hollywood years that spanned from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. As this period in American movies drifts further from the rearview mirror, new perspectives are taking shape. The thematic obsessions of the era – paranoia, political corruption, violence, the Vietnam War, and a general ambivalence towards post-war America influenced a generation of film goers and continues to be discussed and debated.

Many of the contributors were active writers during the era and offer perspectives tempered by the passage of time, free of nostalgia, replete with insight.

Molly Haskell’s contribution “The Mad Housewives of the Neo-Woman’s Film” revaluates the representation of women in New Hollywood cinema. During the 1970s Hollywood remained mostly a boy’s club so it comes as no surprise many of the famous films were preoccupied with masculinity. In her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies, Haskell argued female characters were more empowered during the Golden Age of Hollywood, stars like Bette Davis and Carol Lombard had agency and drove the narrative of their stories, while the “Young Turks” of the 1970s “were in flight from women in movies that took place in testosterone fuelled worlds of mean streets and open roads”.

Haskell analyzes a range of films with female protagonists including Jane Fonda in Klute an Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Second Wave feminism advocated for a place for women outside the patriarchal confines of marriage and motherhood. While Fonda and Burstyn pursued life on their own terms in the above-mentioned films, Haskell views their character arcs as more wish fulfillment of the feminist ideal with little relationship to the realities many women faced. Haskell sees more value in other Neo-Woman films that presented a more challenging narrative for audiences. The Rain Peopledirected by Francis Ford Coppola, and Wandadirected by Barbara Loden, featured female leads who abandon two of America’s most sacred institutions – motherhood and marriage. Haskell praises these two films for having the courage to be open ended and forsaking the happy ending of reuniting a family, presenting a true radical threat to the social order.

Other essays reconsider the cinematic possibilities raised by New Hollywood cinema. Jonathan Kirshner provides a history of BBS Productions, an independent film company that brought a European style to American movies in films like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, both directed by Bob Rafelson and starring Jack Nicholson. As incisive character studies, these two films spoke to the personal and cultural malaise of American culture as it was transitioning from the 60s to the 70s.

David Sterritt credits Robert Altman for creating a unique cinematic style and being the most committed to experimentation when compared to his peers, arguing each film in his catalog was a thought experiment full of “creative edginess” and “aesthetic surprise.” Sterritt also explores Altman’s background in television and making low budget b-movies as shaping his style that would flower in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and The Long Goodbye.

The Parallax View and Chinatown both remain iconic films dealing with corruption and paranoia. Film critic David Thomson argues that while The Parallax View succeeds as a political thriller it missed an opportunity by not taking the leap into being an outrageous satire. The film follows investigative reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) who stumbles upon a secretive corporation that is recruiting assassins. While Thomson praises the subversion of Beatty’s star persona, he wishes the script had gone further, imagining an alternate film starring Jerry Lewis who becomes a proselytizer for the nefarious corporation! Robert Pippin views Chinatown as the era’s bleakest film, set in 1930s Los Angeles Robert Towne’s script and Roman Polanski’s direction employed the tropes of film noir to tell a story involving murder, incest, and water theft. Unseen forces of greed and lechery, personified by the villain Noah Cross played by John Huston, are portrayed as covert forces influencing American history and shaping its future.

Heather Hendershot and J. Hoberman provide historical context in their contributions. Hendershot focuses on New York City through the lens of Al Pacino’s many iconic roles in The Panic in Needle Park and Dog Day Afternoon in which the city served as backdrop, “we can see how New York City which came to symbolize all that was wrong with America in the troubled 1970s, functioned as a narrative driving force, a character in and of itself.” J. Hoberman revisits the bicentennial year 1976 by contrasting two movies released that year, Taxi Driver and Rocky, the former capturing the grim mood of the time while the latter provided “a redemptive story of masculinity.” Rocky would become one of the first “feel good” movies that would reassert itself in the more conservative 1980s.

Phillip Lopate contributed a contrarian point of view in his essay “What ‘Golden Age’? A Dissenting Opinion”, arguing New Hollywood movies paled in comparison to the far more progressive European cinema of the 1970s, especially when dealing with gender and sexuality. Articles on John Cassavetes by George Kouvaros and Michelangelo Antonioni by Jon Lewis engage with their artistic films Zabriskie Point and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which both deal with the possibilities and limitations these auteur directors faced during the New Hollywood years.

In the 2000s it was common to hear “the 70s were the best decade for movies” or “Why don’t they make movies like they did in the 1970s?” Today, many are nostalgic for the Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters of the 1980s or the Indie film movement of the 1980s and 1990s. At this point, it is difficult not to long for the days of attending a Marvel movie opening on a Thursday night in a packed movie theater. As the essays point out throughout When the Movies Mattered, for all its flaws the New Hollywood era ignited a burst of creativity to American movies that raised the bar for future filmmakers.

While the spirit of New Hollywood lives on in the style of some contemporary directors, the previous decade of “peak television” revealed a deep influence of New Hollywood styles and narratives. Some shows adopted the visual aesthetic, Halt and Catch Fire took inspiration from the cinematography of Gordon Willis (the amazing cinematography of the decade may be one of its most lasting legacies.) Mad Men brought a literary approach to television drama with its moody portrait of the 1960s, not unlike that of BBS productions. The Sopranos took The Godfather aesthetic to its furthest limit. The paranoid thriller continues to influence many television shows including The X-Files, Mr. Robot, and Westworld.

When the Movies Mattered is an insightful read and a valuable contribution to film studies.

Author: Eric Gilliland

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