Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Endurance of Mid-Seventies Malaise Cinema

I can't totally account for it, but I have an abiding and all-consuming obsession with the culture of the mid-1970s.  Perhaps it's because I am fascinated by the world as it was when I was born into it, but I really do think the 1974-1976 time period was a unique turning point.  It coincided with three cataclysmic challenges to the American order: the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon's resignation, and economic instability that marked the end of the long post-war boom.  Understandably, these events led to films that reflected a sense of malaise and deep questioning of American society.  I happen to believe, despite recent revisionist thoughts to the contrary, that mid-70s cinema generated the best films about America, ones that really questioned this society before the era of blockbusters and Reagan washed it all away.  I think that these films endure because the questions they ask and the themes they explore are still with us.

I had a lot of these thoughts re-watching Nashville (the new Criterion version) last week.  Since I have been researching the mid-70s for a book project, that film's themes are even easier to trace.  It deals with the death of the dream of the 1960s, which has fallen into either wistful nostalgia (as in the Barbara Baxley character's sad lament about the Kennedys) or counter-cultural pleasure-seeking nihilism.  While third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (who you hear but never see) represents himself as a populist, his political henchmen are conniving and slimy.  Entertainers like Haven Hamilton sing treacly songs like "Keep A Goin'" that tell their working class listeners that they will escape misery if they just try hard enough, as if the game isn't rigged against them.  I could go on and on.  The film ends with a concert for Walker cut short by an assassination of one of the singers, and the startled crowd soon joins in the chorus of a song called "It Don't Worry Me."  In this film Robert Altman uses the city of Nashville, which proclaims its American-ness at every turn, as a symbol of a nation adrift and lying to itself.

Network is probably the only other film of the era to so completely critique American society writ large.  Decades before Fox News, it predicted the devolution of news programming into mere entertainment, and television audiences as easily manipulated.  In one of the most daring scenes in film history, the news anchor Howard Beale is treated to a mad sermon on capitalism by Ned Beatty's character, a reduction of the world into money that I am sure gave Reagan a boner when he first heard it.  (Beale's "mad as hell" monologue, which is an encapsulation of mid-70s malaise, is more famous, but not as good.)  I find it wonderfully insane that a major Hollywood studio once produced a scorch-earthed film that savaged both television and its audience, while containing a critique of corporate capitalism.  In 1976, in the midst of military defeat, economic decline, and Watergate, it probably didn't seem all that radical.

Although it's a period piece set in the late 1950s and early 20th century, The Godfather Part II is very much a product of the mid-70s malaise.  In the first film, for all of its gore and violence, you are kind of rooting for Michael Corleone as a man who is trying to protect his family even as he is losing his soul.  In the sequel, he's much less sympathetic.  He treats his wife poorly before she leaves him, and he has his brother killed.  Michael's story is juxtaposed with that of his father, and how he was able to make a way in America.  In this version of the tale of the American Dream, it is a quest that ends in soul destruction and even the destruction of the very family whose life was supposed to be secured in America.  It's also no mistake that the film portrays the Cuban Revolution and the imperial hubris of American mob bosses in that country, an obvious reference to America's adventure in Vietnam.

The first Godfather suggested a world where violent, shadowy men meet behind closed doors and plan all kinds of nefarious deeds, an image that would be even more powerful after the release of the Watergate tapes.  Watergate seemed to unleash a whole slate of paranoid films suggesting dark forces at work behind the scenes.  The lesser-known Parallax View suggests a cabal carrying out political assassinations and framing patsies. In The Conversation we follow a surveillance expert who finds himself the target of surveillance and who witnesses a horrific act undertaken by powerful elites, but also is unable to stop it or even keep himself from being watched. Also from 1974, Chinatown's noir mystery ends with the knowledge that powerful men behind the scenes commit unspeakable acts without ever being punished.  1973's Executive Action took that notion to its explicit extreme, and theorized a conspiracy to murder JFK.  After the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate tapes, it seemed downright foolish not to expect such nefarious deeds from the powerful.

Taxi Driver in 1976 may well have been the culmination of malaise cinema.  It presented a New York City full of crime, violence, and decay.  The main character is an alienated psychopath who almost assassinates a presidential candidate, one whose campaign is shown to be more concerned about rhetoric and grabbing power than actually improving anyone's life.  Travis Bickle is unable to carry out his deed, and instead "rescues" a teenage prostitute by carrying out a brutal triple killing.  That action turns a potential villain in the eyes of the public into a hero, but in either case he is a psychopath committing murder.  (It's also implied that Bickle is a Vietnam vet, and scarred by his experience.)  The film implies that our society could easily elevate someone like that into a hero.

As I am finding in my own research, in the midst of all this malaise, the public began to look for redemption.  Beyond its greatness as a film and its groundbreaking nature, when Star Wars came out in 1977 it directly hit that desire for uplift in a huge way.  That, I think, contributed mightily to the film's destruction of box office records.  I love it, but I also love those malaise films, which while they are a lot less fun, stick with me for deeper reasons.  Surveillance, the nefariousness of elites, America's loss of imperial prestige, economic decline, media manipulation, and political apathy are all quite relevant today.  Yes, I will be with the hordes seeing the new Star Wars flick, but when I want to contemplate the state of the nation, the malaise films are the ones I'll keep turning to.


Terry said...

Thanks for this thoughtful checklist. I have never been able to bring myself to watch The Godfather films. I can't deal with violence and gore, and I have never understood the fascination with the mafia, regardless of all the hymning about family loyalites yada yada. Somehow I missed out on ever seeing Network. My favorite of those you've listed is The Conversation. Simply brilliant. But I've seen most of the others. Do you consider Robert Redford's The Candidate as one of this group? At the time I was devastated by its bitterly realistic portrayal of how soul-corrupting American politics is.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I have never seen that film in its entirety, despite my interests. Being from '72, it's also a touch early for the mid-70s, since it comes before Watergate and the Oil Crisis. That being said, I need to seek it out.

john fremont said...

Interesting list and interesting blog too. Another good example of mid 70's cynical film is one of the first movies about the Vietnam War, Go Tell the Spartans. (The John Wayne flick. The Green Berets is pretty much a clichéd action war movie that's set in Vietnam. ) Go Tell the Spartans was released in 1978 and didn't fare well in the theaters. I don't ever recall seeing it in syndication on the UHF channels growing up in the late 70's and early 80's. (Your list here is bringing up memories of my early Gen X childhood) Burt Lancaster stars as a Korean War veteran major assigned to duty with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam in 1964. It's his last tour of duty in the Army as he has been passed over many times for promotion to colonel. The US military buildup in Vietnam is still a few years away so Lancaster and his unit are just a small detachment of soldiers training foreign troops in an exotic new country. Throughout the movie Lancaster's character sees the changes going on in the Army since WW2 and mostly laments them. Younger officers are infatuated with technology in age of Robert McNamara. In one scene a younger lieutenant tells the major that his sightings of enemy soldiers is not possible because of the calculations done by the troop movement computers say so. The film is a snapshot of the era that late the Colonel David Hackworth chronicled in his book About Face. Like Hackworth's book, the movie takes a look at the bloated techno bureaucracy that was coming into the military throughout the 1960's. The idea that the military was back then was completely together and could have easily "won" Vietnam gets a skeptical look here.
It seems fitting that a movie like this comes from the same era as all of the other movies on your list. It also stars a grizzled combat sergeant played by a young Jonathan Goldsmith, now known to millions today as the Dos Eqquis Guy, the Most Interesting Man in the World!