The '70s films that changed everything
Ted Demme's (Blow) and Richard LaGranvanese's (Living Out Loud) paean to the countercultural revolution in American cinema in the 1970s.
Facts of the Case
A Decade Under the Influence premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in a redacted form that then made its way around theaters in a limited run. Its impact was far greater when presented on the Independent Film Channel, expanded into three one-hour episodes. Docurama's DVD presents the film as it was seen on IFC, and viewers are given the option of selecting an episode (each episode also has individual chapter stops), or playing all three in sequence. Here is a breakdown of the episodes:
Influences and Independents
"Cinema success is not necessarily the result of good brain work, but of a harmony of existing elements in ourselves that we may not have ever been conscious of, an accidental coincidence of our own preoccupations at a certain moment of life and of the public's."—François Truffaut from The Films in My Life
The first episode in the documentary explores the influence of foreign cinema on the young Turks who would change American movies in the '70s. Ironically, Truffaut, Godard and the other auteurs of the French New Wave, Kurosawa and Ozu in Japan, and Italian filmmakers like Antonioni, Rossellini, and Fellini had been inspired to one extent or another by the very Hollywood productions this new generation of Americans would reject in favor the more raw, realist aesthetic they saw in films produced outside the States.
Also examined is the seminal independent work of John Cassavetes (Shadows, Faces), and the central roles of both Bob Rafaelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Roger Corman in financing this artistic revolution.
Part 1 ends with Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, the picture whose massive financial success brings this stark, realist, and countercultural style of filmmaking into Hollywood's mainstream.
The New Hollywood
"I believe that a work is good to the degree that it expresses the [artist] who created it."—Orson Welles
As young filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show ), Hal Ashby (The Last Detail , Shampoo ), William Friedkin (The French Connection , The Exorcist ), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather , The Conversation ) take over the mainstream, a new kind of movie star begins to emerge. Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Bruce Dern, Roy Scheider, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and others bring to the screen unconventional looks and a close-to-the-bone naturalism never before seen in American cinema.
But the decade is dominated by a male perspective, what Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) refers to in the documentary as a "male energy." Still, films like Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman (1978), Alan Pakula's Klute (1971), and Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) cast a serious eye on the role of women in society, and the emergence of feminism. They also provided complex and challenging roles for the emerging class of female stars—Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burstyn, and Glenda Jackson to name just a few—women every bit as powerful as their male counterparts.
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
"A picture, often when it is good, is the result of some inner belief which is so strong that you have to show what you want in spite of a stupid story or difficulty about the commercial side. A picture is a state of mind."—Jean Renoir
Episode three looks at the social and political consciousness that define many of the films made during the decade: the moral ambiguity in Shampoo (1975); the anger and paranoia in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant screenplay for Network (1976); the anguish and confusion in Vietnam War dramas like Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby's Coming Home (both 1978).
The heaviness of the times, and the heaviness of these films creates a desire in audiences for escape, a desire filled by pictures like Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and George Lucas' Star Wars (1977). These massive blockbusters create a seismic shift in the film industry that ends the era of countercultural filmmaking.
The documentary ends with a brief examination of the current state of the film industry and the modern independent film movement's connection to filmmaking of the 1970s.
What Demme and LaGravanese have fashioned in A Decade Under the Influence is a love sonnet to the films they grew up on. And why not? The 1970s were without a doubt one of the richest and most interesting periods in the history of American cinema. The film's lack of objectivity and comprehensiveness is rooted in the filmmakers' decision to allow the directors, producers, and actors of the day be the only voices bringing perspective to the era. You'll find no critics or film scholars or even voiceover narration. The perspective is entirely that of individuals who have a professional and emotional stake in the material (shaped, of course, by the editorial hands of Demme and LaGravanese).
It should come as no surprise that the talking heads most prone to romanticizing the '70s are those, like Bruce Dern and especially Julie Christie, whose finest work and greatest fame never managed to reach outside the bounds of that decade. Others, like Scorsese, Coppola, Paul Schrader, and Dennis Hopper display a more balanced perspective regarding both the cinema of that period and of the decades since. Production designer Polly Platt (The Last Picture Show) is the only interviewee blunt enough to state outright that the magic of that era came to an abrupt halt not because the auteurs were eventually outmaneuvered by evil Hollywood suits, but because they got old and rich and lost touch with the reality they'd previously been so desperate to express in their films. Whether or not Demme and LaGravanese recognized the irony of interviewing old filmmakers bemoaning their displacement in the film industry when they themselves had displaced a previous generation of filmmakers decades earlier is hardly important. Neither does it lessen the film that so many important and still living figures are absent: Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, Hackman, Lucas, Spielberg, and many, many others (a readily obvious fact Demme and LaGravanese admit in the documentary's postscript). They still managed to tap over 25 subjects—most of them cinema legends now—and their individual perspectives easily make A Decade Under the Influence a worthwhile project and a fascinating viewing experience. These makers of historically significant, moving, and entertaining cinema aren't getting younger after all (some, like Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes are already gone). Their insights are worth preserving.
I mention all this mainly because Demme and LaGravanese have been criticized for making a documentary that lacks objectivity and is sometimes sentimental in tone. Those who level such criticism are missing the point: this isn't that sort of documentary. The fact the filmmakers eschew voiceover narration in favor of letting the filmmakers and clips from the films speak for themselves should make it obvious that this is a documentary driven by subjectivity, characterized by the passion of personal memory. And what's wrong with that?
Decade's only major stumble comes in the final third of the last episode when its financial backing by IFC becomes evident. If one had no knowledge of American cinema outside of the information presented in this documentary, one would think there are only two varieties of modern American film: corporate, focus group-driven blockbusters like Men in Black and Spider-Man (the bad stuff), or the highly personal, low-budget work emerging from the independent film movement (the good stuff, which coincidentally airs on IFC). Granted, there are valid critiques made of the current status quo (how much artistic substance can one expect, for instance, when films are designed to open in 4,000 theaters and recoup massive production budgets in a month or less before disappearing beneath the hype for the next major release?), and Scorsese and Hopper go out of their way to assert that a few blockbusters are good and loads of independent films suck as much as the stuff coming out of Hollywood. But what about those filmmakers who deliver extremely personal work through the mechanism of Hollywood studios? There are plenty. What about the Coen brothers (Fargo), or Steven Soderbergh (Solaris)? Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenebaums) is as influenced by European film as anyone working in the 1970s, and he hasn't left behind an iota of his personal style in making the transition into the mainstream. What about Christopher Nolan (Insomnia), or Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia)? Ah, well…it's a minor failing, and one I'd like to think emerged from the countercultural spirit of the film, and not as a concession to the money-men at IFC.
A Decade Under the Influence was shot on high-definition video and is presented on DVD in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer. It looks fine. Colors are balanced and strong, and the image is sharp even if it does look like video. Clips from the movies discussed are of varying quality, but most are presented in their original aspect ratio. The stereo sound perfectly renders people talking, which is all it's required to do. There's nothing outstanding here in terms of sight or sound, folks, but there's also nothing that will detract from your enjoyment of the film.
The extra interview segments don't add a lot to the experience, but they do provide some longer, entertaining anecdotes as well as added insights into particular films.
For '70s cinema neophytes, A Decade Under the Influence will make a solid primer and provide a laundry list of excellent films you really need to see. For those familiar with the era, the documentary is a sweet piece of nostalgia even if it fails to be comprehensive or intellectually incisive.
Either way, it's recommended.
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