Around 1967 the American film industry "bent," to use Paul Schrader’s word, giving birth to a revolution in Hollywood movies that would last the better part of a decade. A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary about "the New Hollywood" by Richard LaGravanese and the late Ted Demme, is at its best in tracing the causes of the eruption. The old studio system was dead and the moneymen’s best guesses about audience tastes had led them to big-budget exploding cigars like Cleopatra and Paint Your Wagon. In the late ‘60s the prohibitive Production Code was replaced by the MPAA rating system, allowing a greater frankness of treatment and theme. An agitated political climate increasingly pointed up the grotesque disparity between reality and irrelevant mainstream entertainments. Finally, a disaffected youth culture turned a $340,000 biker picture called Easy Rider into a runaway hit, causing a seismic shift in box-office demographics.
The providential alignment of circumstances allowed a new breed of American director to slip through the studio gates like Viet Cong and seize the day. In an unheralded turn in American film history, the suits surrendered control to the artists: Arthur Krim, the head of United Artists, would listen silently to his filmmakers’ pitches before telling them, "Just invite me to the premiere." The directors began filling their pictures with a new kind of movie-star, physically imperfect by Hollywood standards, but sporting lived-in faces and a catchy, streetwise attitude that made their fallibility seem heroic. (While casting The Godfather, Francis Coppola would have to battle against the powers at Paramount who thought that Michael Corleone should look like Ryan O’Neal.)
Together these people crafted films that buried the old assumptions. The directors, who had learned at the knee of Godard, Corman, and Cassavetes, forged an immediate and nimble cinema, a raucous, profane, lyrical, and often savage distillation of American life. Some did their best work in modestly scaled fables about native misfits: divorcees engaged in the lonely work of rebuilding their lives, gas-station attendants falling into money, cab drivers slipping into madness, compulsive gamblers lost in a perpetual twilight. Others, whose search for root causes led them backward through history, would mount some of the most ravishing visions of the past that the movies have ever seen. And yet others poured their obsessions into ordinary genre pictures, creating abstract webs of love and disillusionment that crackled through audiences like an electrical current. Each of them worked on a plane that was distinctly his own—one could glance at their movies and know who had made them—and even their failures were more rousing than others’ successes. For week after week, and year after year, their astonishing pictures kept on coming.
LaGravanese and Demme’s admiration for these people is palpable, and they’ve drafted some fellow contemporary filmmakers, including Alexander Payne and Neil LaBute, to help them interview an array of the 70’s most visible directors (Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, Mazursky) and actors (Christie, Voight, Burstyn, and Dern). But the fact that it’s an inside job may explain why A Decade Under the Influence has the scrubbed and sanctioned air of a televised AFI tribute. The clips come largely from the era’s most famous pictures—MASH, The Godfather, Network, Annie Hall—when its spirit could’ve been equally well served by such attention-starved films as California Split or Melvin and Howard. (Some clips, such as the one from Chinatown, leave you wondering why the filmmakers picked them at all.) A Decade does well at conveying the unpredictable, even assaultive, quality that made moviegoing an often gut-wrenching experience in those days, but it doesn’t have its larger priorities straight. Content to deal in meaningless trivia—who would have guessed that Bogdanovich shot The Last Picture Show in black and white because Texas landscapes show up less bleakly in color?—it avoids distinguishing between films that were freed by the new permissiveness and those like The Exorcist, which merely cashed in on it.
To its credit A Decade Under the Influence isn’t interested in the hedonistic excesses that turned writer Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls into voyeuristic twaddle, but its other omissions are less admirable. Such central talents as Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah, Terrence Malick, and Jonathan Demme either receive short shrift or are ignored altogether. (Meanwhile, journeyman director John Avildsen, whose bland commercialism embodied everything that the New Hollywood stood against, is included as an interviewee, and a clip from his instantly forgotten exploitation picture Joe chews up even more screen time.) Those grubby genres that helped fill out the cultural horizon, blaxploitation flicks and cheapie road-movies, are overlooked. And Pauline Kael, the film critic who championed the early work of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola, and whose writings laid the groundwork for much of our appreciation for their films, isn’t mentioned at all. Ultimately, A Decade Under the Influence’s biggest omission may be a sense of sorrow, for it never seems to recognize how badly our movies have deteriorated since the mid-1970s. Instead it views the era, not with rue for what might have been, but through a hazy nostalgia more suitable for hula-hoops or saddle-shoes.
A jaunty end title acknowledges the film’s many oversights, but there’s no getting around the fact that its choices render A Decade Under the Influence all but worthless as a documentary. These flaws may be rectified, however. The Independent Film Channel will run an expanded version of the film from August 20 to August 23, and hopefully the longer running time will allow for a little more genuine insight. As it stands, the theatrical release provides a breezy but incomplete valentine to the most fertile period in American film. Anyone wanting the real lowdown needs to grab a copy of Kael’s For Keeps and head for the nearest video store.
– Tom Block