It’s been called by the second golden age of Hollywood, that brief period between 1969 (post-Easy Rider) and 1980 (pre-Heaven’s Gate) when the American film industry seemed to be exhaling out masterpieces every other weekend. Liberated by an old-world studio system in decline, the taboo-busting of late ‘60s movies like Bonnie and Clyde, and film school studentshigh on European art house flicks, it seemed like the movies were free to rewrite the rules of the game. Social subjects could be dealt with head-on, traditional myths were debunked, experimental fancies might lead to indulgence or visionary works of art (often both simultaneously), and endings didn’t necessarily need to be happy.
Looking back in ardor at this anything-goes period of mainstream moviemaking, both the era’s pundits and participants seemed to agree that the ‘70s represented a last gasp of the artistic for our homegrown cinema. The decade’s output would have a long-lasting effect on the years that followed, be it in the spectacle-driven blockbusters which still trail in the Star Wars/Jaws/Exorcists’ adrenaline wake or in the Sundance generation’s gritty, personal opuses.
What’s surprising, however, is that there’s only a small body of literature devoted to this pivotal time in film history. A few books have paid lip service indirectly, such as the interview compendium of directors and critics in George Hickenlooper’sReel Conversations or the study of modern film giants in Philip Kolker’s extraordinary A Cinema of Loneliness. For the most part, readers interested in finding out more about ‘70s cinema have to sift through Ivory Tower essay collections steeped in semiotics jargon or attempt to brave Peter Biskind’s putrid, sensationalistic “tell-all” Easy Riders, Raging Bulls . The best usually lack conviction, while the uncontested worst of Biskind’s tome offers only passionate intensity.
Striding the median between these two poles is Peter Lev’s Conflicting Visions: American Films of the 70s, and for those of us obsessed with that particularly fertile period of our nation’s cinematic output, it seemed like our prayers have been answered. The central idea is especially intriguing: Look at the body of work produced during that decade’s zeitgeist and you’ll find, coded amidst the left-wing radicals and right-wing vigilantes, the Afro-ed ass-kickers and gung ho militarists, a nation tearing itself in two. Chapters are divided into genre-based studies (nostalgia ‘60s films, sci-fi, “disaster and conspiracy” flicks, blaxploitation) comparing and contrasting both the revolutionary and reactionary socio-political strains of similarly themed films in an intelligent, analytical manner. And despite the author, a Mass Communications professor at Maryland’s Towson University, proclaiming that the book “is loosely influenced by Russian literary critic/historian Mikhail Bakhtin (in) both the concept of dialogism and a skeptical attitude towards literary canons” in the preface (egghead alert!), he seems to care enough about his subject to avoid drowning it in layers of academic double-speak.
Yet even the most diehard of ‘70s film fanatics will notice between salivations that there’s a curious amount of empty calories being consumed here. When Lev sets his sights squarely on one or two films, such as his excellent essay on Last Tango in Paris or his astute look at Coppola’s Patton vs. his later Colonel Kurtz, he’s capable of hitting home runs. But his modus operandi seems to be the introduction of an idea in a semi-scholarly manner, the mention of three to five films that serve as examples, and then rather superficially skimming over his points without clarification or deeper examination. The chapter on “blaxploitation,” a film cycle ripe for sociological study, seems content to mention that “African –Americans began to make films about African-Americans” and essentially leaves it at that.
Lev also has a bad habit of employing brevity when a longer take on an idea is necessary to make his point. Some chapters seem over before they’ve even begun, barely giving the half-digested ideas presented a chance to register; clocking in a scant 185 pages, one wonders why he couldn’t have expounded further and let his theories breathe a bit. And though the author admits early on that plenty of worthwhile films didn’t make the cut, preferring specification to comprehensiveness, some omissions seem glaring (how can you devote an essay to opposing viewpoints in “feminist” films, to use just one example, and exclude Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as reactionary a film as had been made regarding liberated women? It smacks less of an aesthetic choice than of sheer laziness. And the list goes on )
There is much to like in Conflicting Visions, to be sure, and it definitely sparks both a rethinking and a need for reviewing several canon-worthy films from the Me Decade. Any writing on that era is certainly welcome, but the sense of a seriously missed opportunity is a hard one to shake. The concept that dualities ran rampant throughout those old classics is interesting, yet the one conflicted vision you’re left mulling over at the book’s end is the author’s, never a good sign. Consider it a primer, then head off to your video store.
– David Fear