Written by Giovanni Battista
The New Hollywood (roughly from 1967 to 1980) was the last Hollywood golden age. A time when big studios, quickly losing audiences, were forced to give younger directors a chance. This allowed the breakthrough of a legendary generation (Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, etc.), most of them freshly graduated from film schools and highly knowledgeable on film technique and cinema history. The freedom they had as artists doesn’t exist in Hollywood anymore, and since the USA was going through such a period of transition, marred by the disasters of Watergate at home and Vietnam abroad, this was also the last era when films in the US could truly make commentary on where America was heading as a society. As there is such an abundance of films to choose from, I have stuck to a one-film-per-director rule. The order is purely chronological.
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Several ground-breaking films started off the New Hollywood (Easy Rider, The Graduate, The Wild Bunch…), but Arthur Penn’s film captured both the cinematic and cultural traits that would characterise the forthcoming era. Two glamorous, bank-robbing lovers were morally questionable protagonists by 1967 standards, especially when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway make them so likeable and the film is largely on their side! This lack of preachy moralising helped reach out to younger audiences who’d felt alienated by the staleness of Hollywood’s output. It also brought the spontaneity of the French New Wave (these two dangerous but chic outlaws could come straight out of a 60s Godard flick) to US cinema, and raised the bar for graphic violence. Millions were seeing daily TV footage of the Vietnam War, and movie violence had to catch up to that in order to feel real. Famously, Penn deliberately added a small chunk of flesh flying off as a character gets shot in the head, which adds gruesome realism and is a subtle reference to the JFK assassination. Penn was a close friend of JFK’s, even working for his presidential campaign. For him and a whole generation of Americans, something was lost forever that day in Dallas 1963, metaphorically reflected in Bonnie’s haunted nostalgia for her lost family. As great a yarn as this classic is, it also tells us so much about the period in which it was made.
Maverick director Robert Altman was a key figure of the New Hollywood, and spent the 70s reinventing the classic Hollywood genres with his own twists. McCabe & Mrs Miller sees him tackle the western, that most American of genres traditionally tinted by nostalgia for a bygone era where gun-slinging heroes expanded the frontier and represented order and civilisation. But Altman totally demythologises these clichés, stripping away all romanticism to leave behind disillusion and melancholy. As small-time entrepreneur McCabe (Warren Beatty) opens up a whorehouse saloon, he teams up with Mrs Miller (Julie Christie), a cockney madam with shrewdness aplenty. Their initial success leads only to trouble, however, as capitalistic powers soon arrive in town ready to stop at nothing to buy off their business. In this version of the western, violence is no longer glorified but gratuitous and utterly futile, the conventional final shoot-out made deliberately anti-climactic, and lives a cheap commodity to be exploited. The result is as melancholy as it is beautiful. Made all the more wistful by a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs and autumnal colour tones from legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, this remains one of the most deeply affecting condemnations of the American Dream.
A third “double-act” in a row. They popped up a lot in New Hollywood movies but none more weirdly wonderful than the friendship and budding romance between Harold, a morbid young man of 20 obsessed with death and suffocated by an overbearing mother, and Maude, a vivacious 79-year-old hippy who remains young at heart and eager to live every minute to the fullest. Harold’s elaborate faked suicides and Maude’s increasingly rebellious and hilarious shenanigans provide a unique mix of quirky dry humour and emotional poignancy. Director Hal Ashby was a child of counter-culture and could not have ended up in Hollywood during any other era. True to those values, this cult gem gently pokes fun at authority figures (even Nixon isn’t spared) and attributes the flower-power ideals to the least likely of candidates — Ruth Gordon has an effortless charm as Maude, as she teaches Harold and all of us how to grab life and embrace eccentricities. Cat Stevens’ folk-rock soundtrack is also perfect for the film, right up to the heart-breaking “Trouble” over the final montage. Its finely balanced tone between comedy and darkness can still be felt as an influence on so much contemporary US cinema, most especially on Wes Anderson, who is a massive fan.
In between making The Godfathers I and II, Francis Ford Coppola might have been forgiven for taking a breather. Instead, he used that brief interval to shoot this masterpiece. Based on a script he wrote in the late 60s, under the influence of both Antonioni’s Blow-Up and the on-going national obsession with analysing the Zapruder video of JFK’s assassination for new evidence, Coppola zooms in on the private life of the extremely conscientious surveillance expert Harry Caul. Caul is one of Gene Hackman’s finest performances, an emotionally cold loner whose work is his life and pride. His latest assignment involves secretly recording a conversation between two people in a public square, which triggers memories of a past job that went badly wrong. For this reason he fears history is repeating itself and that the people in the recording are under mortal danger. As he becomes obsessed with listening to his recording over and over again looking for hidden clues (hence the connection with the JFK video), we are completely immersed into his psyche and Hackman is supreme as cracks start to show in his character’s hardened exterior. This paranoia-filled thriller won the Palme d’Or in 1974 and is a brilliant enquiry into a conflict between ethics and professionalism.
A presidential candidate is assassinated atop Seattle’s Space Needle tower. The official version says a lone psychopath did the deed, but did some of the witnesses up there that day see something else? And why are more and more of them turning up dead, killed by strange accidents — is it coincidence or something more sinister? When cocky journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty, again) sets out to investigate, we seem destined for a conventional conspiracy thriller, the likes of which the 70s post-Watergate era was full. But Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece is more audacious and radical than the rest, with a second half dominated by incredible cinematography by the late, great Gordon Willis. Buildings and architecture begin to overshadow the human characters, a visual sign that faceless corporations are winning out over individuals, while the central test-film sequence remains a breath-taking piece of film editing. The Parallax View is the perfect summing-up of the post-JFK, post-Watergate mood in the USA, haunted as it is by the shadows of the political assassinations of the 1960s, and offers a frighteningly believable portrait of the world with its depiction of power structures as shadowy hidden networks.
No New Hollywood list would be complete without the showman and innovator Brian De Palma. Like the rest of the ‘film school generation’, De Palma was a movie buff whose influences were transparent in his films. But his intelligence meant that no filmmaker was ever as effective at appropriating various influences and mixing them together to make a film entirely his own. In his wild and baroque rock musical (ba-rock musical?), Phantom of the Paradise, the sources are literary: a blend of “Phantom of the Opera”, “Faust” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a songwriter who gets exploited by evil music producer Swan (Paul Williams, who also wrote the film’s music and won an Oscar for it), until an accident turns him into a disfigured recluse and he hatches up revenge plans… This is zany fun and De Palma’s trademark inventiveness is ever-present in his use of new video techniques as well as his satirical wit — there’s a parody of Psycho’s shower scene, as well as ingenious critiques of the music and entertainment industry and (as always with De Palma) thinly veiled references to his JFK obsession.
Few of these films are exactly ‘feel-good’, and Chinatown is no exception. However, this reflects the mood of the times, when the US endured a crisis of national faith. All of a sudden, the archetypal Hollywood heroes (someone like a Wayne or a Bogart) felt outdated, and instead the great films of the era were characterised by ambiguous heroes/antiheroes. Take Jack Nicholson in his flawless performance as Jake Gittes, a detective who, like Harry Caul, is haunted by past mistakes. He is desperate not to repeat them when a seemingly simple extra-marital affair case turns into a far more complex scheme involving murder and the grabbing of land and water rights (based on real Los Angeles history). Yet he is as powerless and fallible as any ‘hero’ ever presented on film. Only in the 70s could such a dark update of film noir be realised so perfectly. Roman Polanski, having seen such horrors in his life, is the ideal director to bring Robert Towne’s intricate screenplay to life. Faye Dunaway is impeccable in a deeply moving role, and John Huston is creepily convincing as the megalomaniac who is corruption personified. This is essential viewing.
Most people will have seen this one before (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), but I include it as I feel it has often been misunderstood. That Travis Bickle has somehow become an icon to many, and his “You talkin’ to me?”, a tough-guy catchphrase, seems slightly at odds with the film. As charismatic as De Niro’s performance is, Travis still remains a sociopath, who is bitter at not being able to integrate into society (he complains about the ‘dirt’ of the streets, yet chooses to work there and spends his free time in porno theatres), and racist (just watch again how the mise-en-scene depicts Travis every time he is around black people). His final actions are not heroic but simply due to his botched assassination attempt on the presidential candidate. He ends up ‘rescuing’ a young girl as an incidental by-product of his psychosis; the film shows us he just as easily could have been another Harvey Lee Oswald. That we should empathise, understand and even relate to Travis is part of Taxi Driver’s immense power. But should we admire him? I think not. In any case, this high point of 70s Hollywood was the first collaboration between three artists who perfectly complemented each other: Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro, and remains as hypnotic and divisive today as it ever was.
Bill (a young Richard Gere) is a worker in 1910s America who heads to Texas with his lover Abby and young sister Linda, along with thousands of migrant workers looking for jobs in the wheat fields. After harvest the workers leave to look for work elsewhere, but Bill gets other ideas when he learns the rich and lonely farmer is terminally ill. Bill convinces Abby to pretend she is his sister and respond to the farmer’s romantic attention so they can stay at the farm and eventually get the land when the farmer dies. This simple love-triangle motivated by greed and jealousy would be formulaic under the direction of most others, but the vision of philosopher-filmmaker Terrence Malick turns it into something transcending its plot limitations. The cinematography boasts some of the most stunning images ever shot. Morricone’s score is tinged with haunting nostalgia. The mood and feel of the period are brought to life with incredible lyricism: the opening montage of real period photographs of working-class Americans looking at us frozen forever in time; evocative shots of insects and wildlife in the fields inserted in between scenes; the voiceover narration by Linda which is both poetic and strangely childlike. It all gives the film a scope that is cosmic, somehow encapsulating the mysteries of being alive and having your destiny depend on nature, fate and countless factors you barely comprehend. Malick’s reputation as the most unique of film artists working in the USA was cemented.
Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, or how giving a megalomaniac genius unlimited funds and complete freedom to make a four-hour epic didn’t turn out so well. The fiasco surrounding this film’s release is now infamous, critics attacked it viciously, and it effectively bankrupted United Artists. But looking beyond that regrettable controversy, the film in its director’s cut stood the test of time and is finally being appreciated for the great American masterwork it is. A four-hour epic about the Jackson County Wars, between rich cattle barons and a community of ranchers and immigrants, the film is never less than thrilling, teeming with life and activity. As he did in The Deer Hunter, Cimino celebrates the America of the immigrant experience here, an America he clearly loves and shows with splendour and poetry, but at the same time an America that has been lost to big business. It is quite apt that it is regarded the last film of the New Hollywood as it is the culmination of all that era’s values, in a project as big and ambitious as imaginable for a film to be. Where could they go from here? And with the rise of blockbusters like Star Wars, challenging and dark films like Heaven’s Gate and most of the NH output had run their course, 80s audiences now wanting happier, lighter fare. But these classics are still there and deserve us to keep rediscovering them.