PREVUES OF COMING ATTRACTIONS
FORTY YEARS ON, the 1970s remain the third — and, to date, last — great period in American movies. The late teens and '20s gave us the lyrical flowering of silent movies. The '30s through the '50s, the sustained and breathless articulation of the language of classical American narrative cinema. These were the decades in which every now-familiar genre found its definitive form: Westerns, gangster films, screwball comedies and romantic comedies, musicals, war pictures, melodrama, film noir.
By the '60s those genres seemed calcified, remnants of a familiar past that prevented the now-faltering studios from acknowledging the rapidly changing present. The censorious Production Code was toppling, and the studios knew they had to win the younger, hipper audiences who wouldn't settle for the old formulas. Suddenly there was space for filmmakers who had grown up on American movies to bring a new realism to the genres they loved. Upstarts like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Paul Mazursky, Alan J. Pakula, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman were free to use the classic forms for work that reflected new realities, free of the official optimism to which Hollywood directors either had to accede or subvert.
There were variations on the Western (The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), the private-eye picture (The Long Goodbye, The Late Show), the gangster film (The Godfather, Thieves Like Us), the marital comedy (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), the musical (Cabaret), the women's melodrama (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), the small-town soap opera (The Last Picture Show), the sex rondelet (Shampoo), the military comedy (M*A*S*H, The Last Detail).
The new movies didn't offer audiences happy endings or other assurances. Michael Corleone doesn't get his comeuppance at the end of The Godfather, as the gangsters in Scarface and Little Caesar and The Public Enemy did. At the movie's finish, Michael has achieved a corporate ruthlessness far colder than the old-world courtliness of his crime boss father (Marlon Brando). What satisfied the audiences for The Godfather and the other downbeat hits of the day wasn't the old morality that Hollywood bosses — if not filmmakers — had insisted on but the exhilaration of feeling that someone had cut through the bullshit and shown something of life as they knew it to be lived.
This book is not about those landmark movies, which have been written about eloquently by critics lucky enough to be working at the time. Their work will continue to provide material for new generations of critics to offer up new insights about those works.
The focus here is on some of the movies that slipped into the background while those pictures dominated the foreground.
The title of the book, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You, refers to the release pattern used for horror movies, biker pictures, nudie teasers, women's prison pictures, moonshiner sagas, phony documentaries like In Search of Noah's Ark, Eurosleaze exploitation pictures like Mark of the Devil ("Rated V for Violence" and including a vomit bag with every ticket sold). These pictures were preceded a week or two in advance by saturation advertising campaigns that seemed to appear out of nowhere, deluging newspaper, radio, and TV with ads that breathlessly announced the film would be "opening Wednesday at a theater or drive-in near you!" The aim, as with a traveling carnival and sideshow, was to get asses in the seats and then get the hell out of Dodge. Unlike the prestige studio movies, which were given platform releases, opening on a few select big-city screens and gradually making their way to more theaters and other cities — a release schedule that could keep a popular film in release for close to a year — many of the movies written about here began their commercial life in the second-run neighborhood houses and drive-ins — the very places where the big releases ended their theatrical lives.
Not every movie in this book opened that way. I am not dealing here with the lowest of the exploitation low. Nor (with the exception of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) am I arguing that they constitute a series of overlooked masterpieces. It wasn't critical ignorance that kept these movies from serious consideration. When movies as extraordinary as The Godfather or The Wild Bunch or Taxi Driver or Cabaret or The Long Goodbye were opening every week, when critics found themselves in the enviable position of having great work to acclaim — or argue over — week in and week out, you can't exactly blame them for not paying attention to the pictures that seemed content to stay within the genre boundaries the celebrated works were exploding. Given the choice between devoting your column inches to new work from Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah, or Mazursky, or to a car-chase movie, to the instantly recognizable conventions of the new blaxploitation genre, to some new action movie, who could blame critics for sticking to the A list?
Most of the movies in this book did what they set out to do: make money fast. Some are good, solid pieces of moviemaking, and some are shrewdly put-together junk. Outsized claims for their greatness would only falsify their grungy, visceral appeal. But I believe these movies do share something with the A-list pictures of their time, something almost entirely missing in today's commercial American cinema. In the '70s the gritty and somewhat pessimistic nature that has always been characteristic of B movies translated into a refusal to keep bad things from happening to good characters, a resistance to handing out easy, happy endings. That's why it's possible to watch these movies now — despite the pulpiness, despite the obvious lashings of nudity and violence to satisfy the exploitation crowd — and feel as if you're being treated like an adult.
There were downsides to that lack of varnish. The critic Geoffrey O'Brien characterized the movies of the period as "rough and pitiless the way you always secretly wanted them to be," and went on:
No major adjustments had to be made in deep plot structure. The grammar worked the way it always had. Merely rearrange a few markers, switch the goal posts. This time the good guys lose. The thieves get away with the money. The girl is not rescued but murdered. The cop didn't save anybody, he set them up in the first place. The babysitter wants to destroy the family. The government investigator was assassinated because he found out that the government did it.
O'Brien isn't just talking about B movies, either. If you were a constant moviegoer in the '70s you endured an extraordinary amount of hopelessness and cynicism. The U.S. was still fighting in Vietnam as the first revelations about Watergate began to surface. Watergate ended with our system of government working exactly the way it was supposed to, and a corrupt president condemned in something like the legislative equivalent of his landslide reelection. But instead of being hailed as a victory for American democracy, Watergate became a cynical confirmation of our worst suspicions: The system was rotten; all politicians were corrupt; the guilty would never pay for their crimes. When Nixon told David Frost he recognized his legacy as the cynicism young people showed about public office, he was acknowledging the psychic toll his crimes would take on Americans as his most lasting contribution to politics.
Many of the most acclaimed movies reflected the new cynicism. Even as a young moviegoer just barely in my teens, I remember going to the movies week after week and seeing that cynicism on screen. After a while the self-loathing on display led to the numbed certainty that this rotten state was just how things were and they would never get better.
I don't see that easy cynicism in the movies that are the subject of this book. Pessimism, yes, but that's a different creature. There's the sense that the deck is stacked and the characters might not amount to much. But there's a certain pleasure to be taken in the hard honesty of these pictures. There's comfort in someone leveling with you. Pessimism doesn't leave you feeling unclean the way the cheap and easy despair of some of the bigger pictures did, like Chinatown, which said that the corrupt power mongers would continue their figurative and literal rape of the land and the people and there was nothing to be done about it. Seeing that movie, you could forget that America had just toppled a corrupt presidency.
Forty years later the movies that are the subject of this book, many of which seemed in the '70s to be no more than disposable B pictures, are still with us, constituting something like a shadow cinema of that time. Part of that has to do with the way digital culture, via DVD and Blu-ray and streaming, has empowered movie cultism. Home video and digital streaming have made it possible for fans who'd never forgotten them to once again see The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Jackson County Jail, The Legend of Nigger Charley, Black Mama White Mama, Truck Stop Women, Outlaw Blues, 'Gator Bait, and a deluge of other pictures whose titles suggest movies more vivid than the actual films themselves. People who never forgot a certain Hammer horror movie, a Filipino action movie, a bit of soft-core porn seen at just the right moment of adolescence, a Saturday kiddie matinee of Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, can engage their obsession in chat rooms and on tribute sites, can obsess over them like, in Geoffrey O'Brien's words, "an acolyte carrying the words of Thomas à Kempis or Bodhidharma in his head."
For me, the staying power of these movies has to do with the way they stand in opposition to the current juvenile state of American movies. The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of Star Wars has become total. Mainstream moviemaking now caters almost exclusively to the tastes of the adolescent male fan. As they currently stand, mainstream Hollywood releases consist almost exclusively of superhero blockbusters, sequels, remakes, and comedies aimed at the frat-boy sensibility, many of them excuses to squeeze out the few extra dollars of admission charged for 3-D. Movies have devolved back to spectacle and gimmicks, not so much movies anymore as packages put together by studio marketing departments in the hopes of spawning or sustaining a franchise and maybe selling a line of merchandise along the way. Reboots, the periodic recycling of a property to lure in a new generation for whom movies that are just four or five years old are antiques, are factored into release schedules, which are now sketched out five years or so in advance. Theatrical runs have become temporary stops on the way to home video release, which accounts for a substantial amount of a movie's gross. Disposability is the goal, the constant determination to make the audience hungry for new product.
Consequently, what's happening in contemporary movies is not just the destruction of content but the destruction of the idea of content. What counts in most mainstream blockbusters are explosions, crashes, and constant displays of computer-generated imagery. The narratives are nonsensical, and so is the filmmaking. The incessantly moving camera and the Waring-blender editing that keeps shots to no more than two or three seconds destroy any ability to tell where characters are in physical relation to one another, thus eroding any kind of suspense and depriving us of any emotional stake in the outcome. We are not watching stories or characters anymore but brands. We're not even watching movie stars. The deluge of trailers that precede movies in theaters or the ads that adorn billboards and buses almost never mention who's in these blockbusters.
Part of this was swirling around unarticulated in my head one night a few summers back when I went to New York City's Anthology Film Archives to see Jonathan Kaplan's 1975 trucker-vigilante movie, White Line Fever. Anthology, founded in 1970 by, among others, underground filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, is by far the most avant-garde and daring rep house in New York, devoting its programming to experimental work as well as commercial pictures they believe deserve another look. White Line Fever was shown as part of a series of '70s genre movies that (at the time) were not available on home video. I went because I'd enjoyed some of Kaplan's other B movies, like the teens-onthe-rampage picture Over the Edge, and Heart Like a Wheel, a biopic about the race-car driver Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney. White Line Fever follows the standard B-movie vigilante scenario of upright hero who strikes back after being pushed too far by the corrupt bad guys. Except that the movie was filled with recognizable details of day-today working-class life. The struggling trucker hero Carrol Jo (Jan-Michael Vincent) and his factory-worker wife, Jerri (Kay Lenz), eat spaghetti for dinner for days on end and don't own a set of matching sheets. When Jerri has to go to court to testify for Carrol Jo, who's been indicted on a trumped-up assault charge, she wears a polyester-print shirt dress with pink collar and cuffs. It's the type of thing a woman would put on for church or to apply for a bank loan, what she'd wear when she wanted to make a good impression. It's easy to imagine Jerri treating herself to the dress, thinking how fashionable it looks compared to her usual jeans and ladies' western shirts, and never imagining she'd have to wear it to try and keep her husband out of jail.
But all this is nothing compared with a scene that takes place midway through the movie. Jerri is talking to her brother, who's also Carrol Jo's best friend. She's just found out she's pregnant. She and Carrol Jo have wanted to start a family but intended to wait until they were on their feet financially. Jerri knows that if she tells Carrol Jo she's pregnant, he'll work himself ragged to make ends meet. She doesn't want that. And so she confides in her brother that she's going to have an abortion and doesn't intend to tell her husband. She doesn't go through with it (for reasons that have more to do with the revenge-movie mechanics of the plot rather than any ideological conviction), but that's less important than the matter-off-actness of Jerri's reasoning and Kay Lenz's plainspoken reading of the lines. The scene leaves open the possibility that Jerri will regret her choice. The movie doesn't hold the realities of human behavior hostage to ideology, and we can see that Jerri would like to be able to bring this pregnancy to term. But regret isn't the same thing as shame, and there's no shame in the character. The consistent assumption is that this is a woman's choice, even if she's married, even if she's making it for economic reasons. And this in a movie whose association with trucking and with Carrol Jo's record of heroism in Vietnam — not to mention the country music on the soundtrack — tagged it as directed at a rural, probably conservative audience. Today it's a shock when an indie picture like Obvious Child, starring the comic Jenny Slate, manages to be unapologetic about abortion. It's unthinkable that a contemporary mainstream movie, even one upfront about its liberal politics, would portray a woman making the choice at all without falling prey to the shame and regret that never occurred to the makers of White Line Fever.