America and Film have been entwined since the dawn of the pictures. Whilst the Lumière brothers, or perhaps even Eadweard Muybridge in 1878 are credited for the advent of cinema, America took it and ran, shaping and moulding it to be what we know today.
When we think about film, often our mind conjures up images of Brando as The Godfather, making irrefutable offers behind a guise of respectability. Or perhaps our memories are more deeply ingrained in Pop culture. Luke Skywalker finding out his true parentage at the most inopportune time, or John Williams’ score for Jaws (1975), that made a generation wary of dipping its toes in the ocean. Intriguingly, but not coincidentally, these films were all made in a period know known as ‘New Hollywood’, that lasted from approximately 1967 to 1980. Yet what sets these films apart is that one of them is a product of this era, whilst the other two spelled doom for it. The frantic, debauched fuelled years of New Hollywood filmmaking burned brightly – producing classics such as Easy Rider (1969), Taxi Driver (1976), and Chinatown (1974) – yet crashed spectacularly, leaving the heady days of experimental and daring filmmaking gone, but not forgotten. Americans may have been telling stories in the desert for decades, but they never did it better than when New Hollywood came knocking.
The era came about out of necessity. The studios had no desire to radicalise their way of filmmaking and follow in the path of the French New Wave, which was attracting a much younger demographic due to its edgier, more daring pictures that would ‘cut’ a scene when you least expected it, or cross a taboo previously deemed unfit for the big screen. The studios changed because they had to. The rise of television meant that older generations no longer wanted to leave the comfort of their living room to go to a movie theatre and watch a Biblical epic, for the 11th time, or a remake of The Sound of Music (1965). They had a plethora of shows ten feet away and that damaged Hollywood in the 1950s badly. Television wasn’t the only threat, however. The members of the counter-culture developing in 1960s America had very little interest in watching any one of the conveyor-belt pictures churned out by the studios with the intent of making you illicit the same emotions as every other film-goer who’d seen it. Hollywood had to start appealing to younger demographics or face potential ruin. Interestingly, the shift in power from the studio heads and producers to the likes of Warren Beatty (Reds), Francis Ford-Coppola (The Godfather) and Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), to name just a few, happened through gritted teeth, and in all probability, by accident.
Often when we discuss this era, we focus on what binds It together. Young outsider directors deviating from stylistic and narrative norms to forge a new non-linear storytelling path that sought to shock and perplex the audience rather than lull it into benevolent escapism. Yet we often forget the range of pictures being released, and that’s what sets it apart. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) started it all off, with violence, but not sadism, as Pauline Kael famously posited. It took America by surprise with its inconvenient ending and graphic, bloodthirsty scenes, but kept the younger generation hooked on every tantalising frame. We then traverse from Outlaw’s to Hippies when Easy Rider rolled into theatres in 1969. A defining moment in the counter-culture of the ‘60s, the film was an unexpected but bona fide success, almost exclusively with the younger generation. The picture revolves around two bikers, Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet) & Peter Fonda (Ulee’s Gold) who travel across the southwest of America in search of spiritual truth. Analysing the plot is of little value when it comes to Easy Rider. The film’s importance stems from the fact that it encapsulated the attitude and feeling of a generation, something that is very rarely achieved.
Comedic gems that would have never stepped foot anywhere near a film set were also made, such as 1971’s Harold & Maude, directed by Hal Ashby (Being There). This darkly humorous and almost absurdist picture centres around a young boy, Harold, who’s consumed by death, and as a result of this meets an elderly lady with whom he strikes up an unlikely bond. The film is not for everyone, but it has developed a cult following since its release, and deservedly so. Finally, it would be amiss not to mention Martin Scorsese’s (Goodfellas) unshakable masterpiece, Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader (Mishima), who penned the script, realized that he was writing not just about loneliness, but, in his words, the “pathology of loneliness”, and herein lies the brilliance of the film. A character study on mental anguish has arguably never been realized better, although another New Hollywood classic, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) might have something different to say about that.
So where did it all go wrong? Hollywood was producing diverse and absorbing pictures that were being heralded by critics and film-goers alike whilst regularly being runaway hits at the box-office. The difficulty was that these maverick directors were both the solution and the problem. As the films got better, their egos got bigger. They were treated like royalty and began to believe in their own legend. Films were now being produced on a much larger scale, with bigger budgets and greater risk. This, twinned with unhinged hedonism, was not tenable, not even close. The shift in power from the producers to the directors was uneasy from its inception. It danced on a razor’s edge, constantly precarious, always on the verge of downfall but somehow maintaining balance, until two cinematic events brought it down completely.
The first was the Hollywood blockbuster. In particular, Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List), and Star Wars, by George Lucas (American Graffiti). These pictures changed the way films were marketed and advertised, whilst opening the door to franchises. The name of the game in Hollywood shifted to making films that carried minimal risk but were trusted to reap big rewards at the box-office. This is why we see franchises on their 7th or 8th instalment or recurring themes and stories that have been told countless times before but will continue to get rehashed in the future. Secondly, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is often blamed for the demise of independent filmmaking, or perhaps scapegoated. The film ran vastly over its budget, whilst being panned by critics and pulled from initial release to avoid further criticism. It meant that United Artists, which financed the picture, was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, and it further eroded the trust in the directors to the point where the studios wanted nothing to do with many of them. Hollywood had wrestled back control with the advent of the blockbuster and the recklessness of the auteurs, and it had no intention of risking it all again. The by-product of this, however, is that the greatest era of American filmmaking was consigned to history.
Last modified: 27th February 2020