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Andy Bluff the Film Buff

The Story of Cinema Part II

by Andrew Smith

The 1970s, it has been said, is the decade that taste forgot. Whoever proclaimed this is likely to be stuck somewhere in the 1980s - the decade that truly forwent fashion - proudly sporting chinos, foot-tapping to Phil Collins albums and blow-drying their bouffant. Oh no, the '70s were cool as fuck, if only for the films.

Before the late 1960s, all Hollywood films were made to the exacting specifications of the studios. If a director wanted to waste the gross national produce of a small country on an ego-driven whim, or introduce a gratuitous beaver shot into a film about accounting, or depict a man's brains being shot out of his head and onto a wall like an explosion of rice pudding and jam, or even if he just wanted to make the film a bit glum at the end, a vaguely threatening cigar-chomping exec would tell him in no uncertain terms to take a reality check or a hike. The concept of the "auteur", which contends that directors are to films what composers are to music or novelists are to novels, hadn't yet made it to Hollywood. By contrast, a handful of French directors had been making self-indulgent, pretentious nonsense masquerading as art for years, virtually unhindered by protesting cries of "but hey, that's shit." These yawnsome pictures tended to flout convention by actively working against the notion that films were supposed to be in any way entertaining. But at least the French proved it was possible to circumvent the system and maybe they inspired sparkier souls across the Atlantic to make original films that were fun to watch too. Or perhaps it was just the acid.

For in late 1960s California everybody was dropping out, dropping in, dropping this, dropping that and generally, carelessly dropping things, but mainly they were dropping LSD, and usually down their throats. It was a time when bright young things wore flowers in their hair and used two types of grass, one for lying on, the other for inhaling, and whose financial standing was such that they need not do much else besides, and among these indolent tykes were those whose financial standing was such that they could set up a film company just like that and invite any free spirit to try their hand at filmmaking, no matter how far-fetched their ideas might be, and who knows, it could, like, just work out, it might just sell, which would be cool, man, and it was a time of indulgence, of tolerance, of open-mindedness, of acid-altered perspectives, a time when sentences like this would seem, like, concise.

And that's what happened when a drugged-up madman named Dennis Hopper and the drugged-up hippy son of Henry Fonda approached a couple of drugged-up self-styled film producers who had money to burn and asked to make a film about two drugged-up motorcyclists who travel the country and take lots of drugs, and the drugged-up producers replied, "sure, why not," and history was made. The result, Easy Rider, was pants, but that wasn't the point. It was a hit - its audience was on drugs and shorn of critical faculties - and it paved the way for a slew of more talented directors to realise their visions unfettered by studio dogma.

Fortunately, Easy Rider, which was essentially two hours of pissing around with a camera, did not become the template to emulate. This had much to do with the Francis Ford Coppola, an alien from the planet Zog near Pluto, who arrived on earth one day and kicked some movie butt. Coppola, who always insisted he was of Italian descent, possessed a beard so big, dark and bushy it was said to be inhabited by several American black bears. Writer/director and all-round clever-clogs, he helped galvanise a wealth of young talent - Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Friedkin - which was to dominate Hollywood for the next 10 years. And he was no slouch himself. Combining directorial flair with restraint, his Godfathers are among the best films ever made, except for the third one, which isn't. By the end of the decade this restraint had fallen foul to rampant egoism, resulting in the overblown, overbudget Apocalypse Now. But it was still about 10 million better than anything James Cameron has achieved.

Which leads me to the thrust of my argument. Actually, I didn't realise I had an argument, still less a thrust, but it's just come to me now. Hollywood films made in the 1970s, even the dodgy ones, are inherently better than films made now. 70s films are visually more inventive, more memorably brooding and nihilistic, meaner, leaner, less sentimental and less formulaic. I'd like to give some examples but then I might undermine my argument, which I rather like the sound of. Oh all right then, take the horror movie. The 70s threw up a couple of the best ever. The Exorcist managed to be creepy, shocking and intelligent all at once. Even if the effects have dated, the obvious thought and invention that went into the production still shine. Don't Look Now, by British director Nicolas Roeg, is the creepiest film I have seen. It is the stuff of nightmares and sometimes I still wake up screaming like a baby, the final images of the movie burnt on my mind and an unsettling trickle of what I hope is sweat running down my leg but which usually turns out to be diorreah... Anyway, the point is both these films are superbly imaginative and brilliantly done. And what do we have to show for the genre these days? We have the Scream franchise, mildly engaging first time around but by now about as funny as swallowing a turd. We have Scary Movie, which spoofs Scream and so reaches new depths of laziness by taking the piss out of a film taking the piss out of horror films. And regressing to Easy Rider territory we have the Blair Witch Project, two hours of pissing around with a camera. (Its sequel is supposed to be so appallingly bad as to defy description.)

And while I'm blathering about these particular films, let's touch on an ubiquitous aspect of present day movies that is gratifyingly absent from 1970 equivalents: chat. Films today are too fucking chatty. Chat has become a measure of a film's intelligence and intellectual worth, its credibility. It is as though throwing in a few minutes of facetiously argumentative yet utterly irrelevant dialogue about, say, the relative merits of cheeseburgers or Star Wars films suddenly transforms a film into a brilliantly clever take on popular culture. Now many of the best films ever made are talky. But there's a difference between smart dialogue that enhances character or drama and smart dialogue that is there just to be smart. The give-away is that in chatty films everyone talks in this smart-assed way. Examples? Aforementioned Blair Witches and Screams, Swingers, and anything by Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. These are just the well known culprits; you can see the insidious influence of chat creeping into TV too. Both Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer use oh-so-clever wisecracking dialogue and pop-cultural references to hide the fact that one of them is a soap for teenagers, the other a ropey spin-off of a ropey movie.

Compare this with the brooding immortals of seventies cinema. You don't see Dirty Harry wittily dissecting the idiosyncrasies of spaghetti western movies, or Michael Corleone prattling on about Burger King, do you? No you bloody well do not. That's what makes them immortal.

So what has happened to the bright lights of seventies cinema?

Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola's finest moment was The Godfather Part II but he has directed little worth watching since Apocalypse Now. A few years ago he plumbed depths previously unknown to man by making Jack, starring Robin Williams. His beard now houses a family of grey squirrels.

George Lucas
Perhaps the laziest man in Hollywood, Lucas couldn't be bothered directing the Empire Strikes Back or Return of The Jedi and therefore doesn't deserve credit for Empire..., easily the best of the trilogy. He then sat on his flabby arse for years before getting his special effects team to make the lumpen cash-cow that is The Phantom Menace. Two more sequel prequel thingys are in the pipeline. Great.

Robert De Niro
Bob's lost the plot a bit. Now reduced to cameo roles or sending up the gangster roles the made him a star. He has smelly breath. Probably.

Martin Scorcese
Unlike his contemporaries, Scorcese has carried on making good films, scaling the heights with Goodfellas (probably The Best Film Ever Made), although Casino was unashamedly derivative of this. Made the Guinness Book Of Records as Thefastesttalkertheworldhasknown.

Dennis Hopper
Never really had a talent for anything other than taking lots of alcohol and drugs and being an arsehole. Continued in this vein for years before ditching the intoxicants and becoming a sober arsehole. Now advertises things on telly.

Al Pacino
In the Godfathers he was the epitome of understated menace but now HE JUST SHOUTS ALL THE TIME? LIKE HE'S ASKING QUESTIONS?

Peter Fonda
Fonda went from being known as "that bloke who's related to Henry and Jane Fonda" to being known as "that bloke who was in Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson." A total nobody, to be frank.

Steven Spielberg
Now makes kid's films about dinosaurs when he's not making dull, worthy, grown-up films about whatever he feels is worthy of his dullness. Recent marathons have included Thindler's Lithp and Shaving Ryan's Privates.

Stanley Kubrick
Is dead.

Next Month:
I could bring you the horror that is NINETEEN EIGHTIES CINEMA. But I don't know if I have the strength. Whatever criticism I may have levelled at our pointlessly loquacious 90s hip flicks pales next to the ineffable naffness of 80s films. Suffice to remind you, this was the decade that made famous the likes of Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise and the rest of that hideous brat-pack lot. It was also the era that somehow granted a steroid-guzzling bodybuilder from Austria a licence to appear in just about any film he wanted. And even decent Eighties films are marred by God-awful soft-rock music. These years have so much to answer for and I don't think I'm up to the task, for I, along with anyone else unfortunate enough to have lived at that time, must take some tiny measure of blame. We sat on numbed, complacent arses, letting atrocities such as Rambo, Top Gun and St. Elmo's Fire pass us by without protest. If I were writing an essay and wanted to sound clever I'd go as far to say we were all quiescent participants in a cultural abasement. But I'll leave that sort of talk for the next Kevin Smith flick.

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