We Lost It At the Movies around 1977…

I lived in Los Angeles, France, and New York City during the ’60s and ’70s, and though I was writing my doctoral dissertation on contemporary German and French philosophy, it is fair to say that my passion went overwhelmingly to film (and jazz). I was a regular at the underground film showings at the Midnight Cinema, and was addicted to the art films from Europe (Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Varda, Schlondorff, Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog, Skolimowski, Malle, Chabrol, Rivette, Akerman, and Rohmer–to name a few of the more prominent.)  And this leaves out wonderful films from Czechoslovakia, Spain, Cuba, Africa, and many other places.  As a film worshipper, of course I loved Hitchcock, and took pleasure, occasionally, in American Screwball Comedies of the ’30s, as well as ’50s melodramas like Sirk’s. But my tastes were rooted in (my own post-religious) snobbery regarding the “seriousness” of European films (God! Death! Alienation!). A deeper attraction was owed, however,  to the easier European standards regarding nudity and sex in mainstream films. Scopophilia ruled my film-going, but my justifications ran towards theory based in French existentialism.

My world was upended in my discovery of ’40s & ’50s film noir, while I was living in New York (there were seminal festivals at the Thalia and Bleeker Street Cinema).  I saw immediately that earlier American cinema was great as art–pushed along by my knowledge of Godard’s love of these films, and by the wonderful writing of Manny Farber, who championed the “termite art” of Don Siegel and Hawks, Walsh, and Sam Fuller, against the pompousness of Welles, and other high-gloss Hollywood filmmakers. (Farber died only 4  years ago, age 91, having established himself in a major way as a writer, critic, painter, and professor.  American culture is much in his debt.)

This new passion led to a decade of teaching courses in Film Noir, as I collected (alas, Beta format) videotapes of at least a hundred of the best of the noir canon.

What I hadn’t noticed in this little cultural trajectory is that American film was enjoying yet another renaissance. My own little cheat sheet on the history of American film would probably claim that the last great era of American filmmaking ended in 1977–the year that “Rocky” won the Oscar over “Network” and “Taxi Driver,” and immediately before the blockbuster syndrome completely took over the profit-making machinery of Hollywood. American silent film is unsurpassed (’20s). The screwball comedies and social soapers in post-depression ’30s films were unequaled in the world. Films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s were high art AS high entertainment. And the ’60s and ’70s brought us a golden age of American film that seems not to have a name.  But it did have its dominant chroniclers and “critics”–namely Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, who were, in a much diminished sense, the disciples and scribes of this movement in a way similar to the  role played by Truffaut and Godard in the explication of the aesthetics of the French New Wave.  But with a difference: they did not themselves make movies.  They made, or attempted to make, prevailing taste.  And unlike most other American critics of the time, they did not pontificate from a distance, but rather based their criticism in unabashed boosterism, enthusiasm, superlatives, and complete conviction about the role that their own personal feelings played in evaluating the films they reviewed.

I’ll take Manny Farber any day over Ebert, Siskel, and Kael, but these critics did preside over America’s introduction to a new “golden age” of world-class film making.  Just consider a short list of some of the better films made between, say, 1964 and 1978:

The Apartment, Cape Fear, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Medium Cool, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather series, Blue Collar, The Deer Hunter, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, Chinatown, Deliverance, Mean Streets, Badlands, The French Connection, The Conversation, and many more. These cannot be defined by genre, but there was this ferment, excitement, and cultural commitment in a large swath of educated Americans. Films still made a difference.  Rather a miracle, when you remember that this was the time of the transition from hippies to disco in pop culture, and the era of the tragedies of Viet Nam.

Of course there were many great films after this period (Scorsese made Goodfellas and Raging Bull later), and I’m sure you can name many other contenders.  But there was something special about the way American films appealed to grownup tastes across a wide swath of world film devotees from the mid-’60s to the late ’70s.  I rarely go into a movie theater now, and it it not just because I have Netflix, Hulu +, etc.: first-run movies rarely seem worth the time and money I used to give eagerly.

The best of the era, Chinatown: