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A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

The period in American cinema from 1967 – 1980 has recently been anointed by some critics and historians as the last true golden age for Hollywood film production. This was a time of incredible risk-taking and creativity — when the first American film school graduates (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al) started to make an impact in Hollywood while a number of Hollywood’s older masters were able to take advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded by the death of the old studio system and its restrictive production code. It was also certainly the last era when the majority of America’s zeitgeist movies were aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers. In essaying the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, I am deliberately casting my net wide by also including independent films in order to paint as full of a portrait of the era as possible. I’m also leaving off such touchstones as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, anything by Spielberg and Lucas, etc. because those films have never meant much to me personally and, besides, they’ve been written up enough elsewhere.

David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, 1967)

david

A true American “kissing cousin” of the French New Wave, Jim McBride’s no-budget feature — made for just $2,500 in 1967 money — is one of the great debut films, one of the great mock-documentaries (before the concept even existed) and one of the great movies about filmmaking. The premise is that the lead character, David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), an amateur filmmaker, decides upon losing his job to document his life with a 16mm camera — believing that the filmmaking process will allow him to better understand himself. But things only go from bad to worse as he loses his girlfriend, his filmmaking equipment and eventually his soul. As a portrait of existential despair, I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece. “Bring your life into focus, lad.”

Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their attention. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

Fat City (Huston, 1972)

fatcity

John Huston, one of the American cinema’s most overrated filmmakers, was arguably the director from Hollywood’s Golden Age who most successfully took advantage of the death of the old studio system. Many of his best films came in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easier for him to take advantage of location shooting and laxer censorship laws. 1972’s Fat City, in spite of accruing a certain cult following, remains tragically underseen and is arguably Huston’s finest hour. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this incredible portrait of working-class life follows the opposite career trajectories of two boxers: the up-and-comer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the down-and-outer Tully (a terrific Stacy Keach). This is no Rocky-style underdog story, however. It’s a beautifully observed character study about losers struggling to survive in an authentically seedy milieu (the sets were designed by Dick Sylbert and the cinematographer was the peerless Conrad Hall).

The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

godfather

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a cultural phenomenon that is also a great work of art. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors (including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall), hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the Godfather Part II but not me.

The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)

long

Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

chinatown

Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

woman

John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

taxi

The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)

killer

The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)

days

Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

13 responses to “A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

  • John Charet

    I would like to offer a huge summary of how I felt about your choices (which are pitch perfect) and what I would have added as well (this is not necessarily my Top 10 Films of the 1970’s though some of them could be seen on there). The “New Hollywood” which began in the late 1960’s and lasted throughout the 1970’s was truly Hollywood’s last golden age before studios became more preoccupied with making money than with creating personal and daring masterworks. What was also refreshing about this list was the lack of obvious choices like The Graduate, Easy Rider and Harold and Maude. Whenever I just hear those films mentioned alone along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas Star Wars (despite my deep adoration for those last two titles), I start to get the feeling that people have an elementary like understanding of the “New Hollywood” era when their is so much to explore about the period. I have to go on my other computer right now to finish this reply, but in the next one, I am going to talk about your choices:)

  • John Charet

    Now my thoughts on your choices:

    1. David Holzman’s Diary (1967) (Dir: Jim McBride)
    Though This Is Spinal Tap (1984) popularized the sub-genre, David Holzman’s Diary which was made 16 years earlier is without a doubt the breakthrough mockumentary. And as you said “I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece.” Notice that I quoted you:)

    2. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) (Dir: Monte Hellman)
    I agree with you completely. Easy Rider feels completely dated when viewed from a 21st century perspective. Two-Lane Blacktop on the other hand has aged like fine wine. Interestingly enough, two people from that film have worked with Sam Peckinpah in the past. Actor Warren Oates, who worked with Peckinpah numerous times and was the lead in one of my favorites from him from 1974 entitled “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer penned the screenplay to two other great films of mine which are 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid directed by Peckinpah and 1987’s Walker directed by Alex Cox. Oscar nominations for Two-Lane Blacktop should have been Best Picture, Best Director (Monte Hellman), Best Supporting Actor (Warren Oates) and Best Original Screenplay (Rudy Wurlitzer).

    3. Fat City (1972) (Dir: John Huston)
    This film and his final film from 1987 entitled The Dead helped gain him a spot on my Top 100 Filmmakers of All-Time list (3 * * * * star films or more grants you a spot). In this case, his 4 * * * * star films are The Dead (1987), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Fat City (1972) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). His 3 * * * 1/2 star ones are The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Beat the Devil (1954) and The African Queen (1951). Anyway, this is an authentic and tragically underrated masterpiece that makes perfect use of location shooting (courtesy of Dick Sylbert, cinematography (courtesy of Conrad L. Hall) and last but not least the acting (courtesy of Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell).

    4. The Godfather (1972) (Dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
    A year after William Friedkin became the first of the “New Hollywood” filmmakers to win the Best Director Oscar (for The French Connection), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather hit the scene and became arguably the most beloved “New Hollywood” classics. Talk about the “New Hollywood” era to any non-cinephile and they will talk only about The Godfather Films. I absolutely love all three of The Godfather films. Your thoughts about every aspect of the film echoes mine completely:)

    5. The Long Goodbye (1973) (Dir: Robert Altman)
    I agree. Along with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye represents the twin achievements of his deconstructing of genre pieces. Though I would probably rank McCabe & Mrs. Miller as number 1. I would rank Nashville and Short Cuts as the twin achievements of his ensemble pieces and 3 Women is one of my personal favorites of Robert Altman’s work. Altman’s take on the detective Philip Marlowe is like a blend of 1970’s sensibilities with a subtle dose of vintage MAD Magazine like humor. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is being adapted to the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson this year and this would be a great film to introduce a non-cinephile to before they watch that one and any non-cinephile who loves The Big Lebowski needs to watch this. Great cinematography too by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond with a music score by John Williams.

    I will finish discussing the other 5 later, but what do you think of my thoughts. I would really love to hear your opinion:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      Wow, thanks for the detailed reply. I’m amazed that THE DEAD and FAT CITY are your two favorite Hustons because those are my favorites as well. This allows me to overlook the fact that you love THE GODFATHER PART III. 😉

      The one film that I really regret not including on this list is NIGHT MOVES. I totally forgot about it but it’s absolutely one of the best American films of the 70s.

  • John Charet

    I agree Night Moves (1975) is a truly underrated gem. That and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are the only two films from director Arthur Penn that I actually love. I gave them both * * * * out of * * * * stars. Speaking of Night Moves, remember that one line about Eric Rohmer films spoken by Gene Hackman’s character. Anyway, here are my detailed responses to the last 5 films.

    6. Chinatown (1974) (Dir: Roman Polanski)
    No list of definitive “New Hollywood” films is complete without Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. I echo every single sentiment you express when discussing this film. Though it works as an homage to the film noir’s of the past, I think it also works completely on its own as a definitive film noir or in this case neo-noir. Interesting bit of trivia: some people think that the plot involving the supply of land and water influenced the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) (the greatest Frank Tashlin film that Tashlin never made).

    7. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) (Dir: John Cassavetes)
    No doubt John Cassavetes is as you say “the godfather of independent American cinema.” While Shadows is a great film, their always seems to be another Cassavetes film that will take the number one spot on any cinephile’s list regarding Cassavetes best films. I have to look at my own list to see what his * * * 1/2 star films are that I chose, but I chose 5 of his films under the * * * * star category and for me those are: 1. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). 2. Shadows (1959). 3. Love Streams (1984). 4. A Woman Under the Influence (1974). 5. Faces (1968). Cassavetes wife Gene Rowlands delivers her greatest performance and I can not remember If she was Oscar-nominated or not, but regardless it is one of the all-time great performances. I agree completely with your last sentence and let me add that the emotional drama of this film puts overrated dreck like Love Story and The Way We Were to absolute shame.

    8. Taxi Driver (1976) (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
    If you have read my revised list of my favorite Martin Scorsese film, you will notice that I now proclaim Taxi Driver as my number 1 favorite under the * * * * star category. Again I agree with everything you have said in this summary. In fact, I heard that The Searchers is one of Martin Scorsese’s many favorite films of all-time. Credit should also be given to Bernard Herrman’s jazzy music score which was his last before his death.

    9. Killer of Sheep (1977) (Dir: Charles Burnett)
    Although released in 1977, it made its home video and in some ways theatrical debut in 2007. It was so refreshing to hear that whoever represents Charles Burnett were able to secure the music rights so this could get re-released. If this had a wide release back in 1977, it would have been rightfully labeled as one of the defining films of the “New Hollywood.” Again, I agree with everything you say here. The only difference being I was born in Illinois, grew up there and I am still here to this day:) I turn 30 later this year:) On a side note, it is sad that so many cinephiles only know the name Spike Lee when I mention names of African-American filmmakers. I do not blame this inability on them, Charles Burnett was always an independent filmmaker and Bill Duke and Gordon Parks are either underrated or not examined deeply enough.

    10. Days of Heaven (1978) (Dir: Terrence Malick)
    Each number keeps getting easier to discuss:) I agree once again completely with what you are saying about Terrence Malick’s widely-acclaimed masterpiece. I am not surprised that a cinematography won an Oscar and Ennio Morricone’s music score is just phenomenal.

    Overall what do think of my thoughts on numbers 6-10:) I would really love to hear your opinion:)

  • martin fennell

    john houston. An overrated filmmaker. Come on, you can

  • martin fennell

    john houston. An overrated filmmaker! Come on, you can’t just make statements like that, and not back them up with evidence. Yes, there are mediocre movies. but He made more good ones than bad ones. Okay, there aren’t many that would be regarded as classics. The Maltese falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen. But There are also highly regarded movies such as The Dead, Prizzis honour, The man who would be king, wise Blood, Under the volcano,fat city, heaven knows Mr Allison, key largo, The ashpalt jungle. let there be light, and his other war documentaries.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I agree with you about his good movies but Huston arguably made more terrible-to-mediocre movies than any other “great filmmaker.” Have you watched CASINO ROYALE, VICTORY, PHOBIA or ANNIE recently? Entire projects where it seemed like he didn’t care what he was doing, and he was doing them voluntarily in the post-studio system era! He is one of the most well-known names from the golden age of Hollywood and yet his name shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath as Ford, Hawks, Welles or even Raoul Walsh.

  • martin fennell

    Yes. I have seen those movies you mention except Phobia. I agree that casino royale isn’t up to much. I can’t remember what I thought of victory. But, and here’s where you go “WHAAAAT” Annie (at least on last viewing) which was some years ago is one of my favourite movies.
    But of the directors you mention, Hawks is my favourite.
    Have you seen this. AMC ‘s 50 greatest directors. Well it’s the 50 greatest hollywood directors.
    http://movies.amctv.com/movie-guide/the-50-greatest-directors-of-all-time/
    Any thoughts.
    I have. But might spoil it for you if i said anything.

  • Annie Oakley

    I feel like I am the only person on earth who hats days of heaven. In fact I don’t like much of Malicks work at all. But more than anything I can not stand Richard Gere, something about him just turns me off, probably the pretty woman film.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Ha! Lots of people hate DAYS OF HEAVEN. Just ask my students! I’m ambivalent about Gere but I love the movie. My problems with Malick are only with his last three films.

      • Annie Oakley

        I think it’s an american thing, like some Australian films are more understandable and relatable (just made up a word?) to Australians. I know that the U.S. has or had an affinity with hobo’s and wanderers

      • michaelgloversmith

        You might be right about that. Malick’s cinematography also draws inspiration heavily from American painters (e.g., Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper) — so it can be seen as a quintessentially American movie in more ways than one.

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