Plush red carpeting surrounded by walls of art deco sconces dimming. Then total darkness. The curtain reveals the screen as if hiding an elegant silver gem. On your lap, an enormous tub of buttery, salty popcorn. Ushers with flashlights seat the late arrivals, careful not to blind patrons with their flashlights. Settled in, there follows only a brief segment of trailers, or none at all. No announcement about turning off cell phones. And for all that is sacred in the world, this is a venue where never an advertisement is heard.
Rated-R. How did I get in? Just barely a teenager for The Exorcist and its projectile vomiting and levitation. It wasn’t safe to go into the water because Dreyfuss and crew needed a bigger boat to hunt the terrifying great white. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie reaching up from below the earth to grab the unsuspecting victim.
My question: As in all art, what do films reflect about time and place?
My answer: More questions.
And that’s perfectly fine.
Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network (1976), winner of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, minces no words about mid-decade 1970’s American malaise being subservient to the avarice of corporate puppeteers. The face of this farce: one Howard Beale, masterfully acted by Peter Finch (posthumous winner of the Best Oscar for Lead Actor). Equally germane to the times is—then, one of Hollywood’s A-list actresses—Faye Dunaway in the role of Diana Christensen. With the ERA and Women’s Liberation Movement taking its long overdue center stage, Dunaway’s character faces the paradox of being a dynamo working woman playing against the emptiness of her non-professional life—leading to an emotionless affair with William Holden’s character, Max Schumacher, equally undone by a marriage in name only. Even though this masterpiece of filmmaking is a satire, the self-destructive behavior by most of its well-drawn characters is overall extremely moving. Perhaps this is encompassed best by the brief onscreen appearance of Schumacher’s wife, played by Beatrice Straight, whose beguiling and heartfelt disappointment in the love of her life steals the moment outright. Deservedly, she won Best Supporting Actress. The movie is remembered mostly for its “mad as hell” scene. But that would never happen today. When Ned Beatty’s sinister businessman character, Arthur Jensen invites Beale to the boardroom table the size of a small country, outlining to the perplexed man just how the world works, about how the mighty dollar, big oil and men in dark rooms make decisions for the rest of us who lack the know how—we are sold and ready to buy in. When Beale is assassinated on live TV for ratings, we’re left to wonder could this ever happen in this country.
Have you been following the news these past several months?
Jodie Foster has been my favorite American actor of my generation. (Please, do we have to use the term, actress?) Like many my age, I grew up with her, watched her remarkable, courageous performances, and cheered her on for directing at a time when few women were behind the camera. If you ask me what I admire most is how she inhabits a role with all of her heart and soul. It’s her conviction. Such is the moment in Contact (1997), in the role of Dr. Ellie Arroway, when Tom Skerritt, playing the role of David Drumlin (her constant nemesis always manipulating her part in the SETI adventure), have a set-to in Puerto Rico, and Foster stands her ground and snaps, “It’s my life!”
However, in Taxi Driver (1976), director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader most definitely differentiate between such earlier Foster’s roles as Samantha in the feel-good Napoleon and Samantha (1972), or as Becky Thatcher in Reader’s Digest’s production of Tom Sawyer (1973). For Taxi Driver’s tremendously violent climax, in advance Foster was given detailed preparation of moment-by-moment for the scene, as well as psychological testing in accordance with the law.
Travis Bickle, played by the up-and-coming, Robert De Niro, just absolutely explodes on the screen—in every possible way. New York city. More indignation and disgruntlement with its prostitution, degradation, crime, and all manner of despair. Playing an honorably discharged Marine veteran, he meets a dreamy Cybil Sheppard. He tracks the politician for whom she works just to get near her. He rages against pimp, Harvey Keitel, for his pugilistic handling of Foster, who plays a twelve-year-old prostitute. Somewhere between anti-hero and sociopath, on the disturbed pages of his diary, and in the porno theaters where he goes to lose himself in the leery shadows, De Niro sets in motion yet another assassination—not of some television guru, but of an actual candidate. (This was an ever-popular topic of the decade’s films). Mohawk hair. The Mafia. Perhaps the creepiest monologue ever captured on film as De Niro and his gun have a heart-to heart with his reflection in the mirror. Well I’m the only one here. And, oh, the voluminous amounts of blood that had to be re-colored in order to pass the MPAA rating.
Copies distributed to television came with a surprise. Disclaimer anyone?
To our television audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. “Taxi Driver” suggests errors can be made.
Whereas I underscore directors, writers and actors above, Rocky (1976) is noteworthy not for:
Running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In the role of Rocky’s trainer, “Mighty Mick” Goldmill, Burgess Meredith’s leathery voice from ringside.
Stallone punching dead cows in the meat locker or swallowing farms-full of raw eggs.
And, with a one-million-dollar budget, it would become the highest grossing film of the year at $225 million.
So then, how about we give props to the film’s composer, Bill Conti. Indirectly, a friend of our family’s, initially the job had been offered to David Shire, wife of Talia Shire, who played Adrian. He had commitments, so, offered a ridiculous budget of twenty-five-thousand, Conti took the deal knowing full-well the limited funds would be earmarked for him, the orchestra, the studio time, and the tape on which the score was recorded. “Gonna Fly Now,” co-written with Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins topped the Billboard singles charts in July of 1977. Fanfare-like, similar to Star Wars soon-to-follow, its appearance throughout the movie uplifts the film, particularly in its two most critical scenes: the training montage culminating at the museum steps, and when, after fifteen rounds and no KO, he and Apollo Creed agree to “no rematch” as Adrian races down toward the ring. You can say this about ninety-percent of films: Try watching them without the soundtrack and see what gets lost in their artistry. Conti and his co-writers strike the right chords, bringing an uplifting spirit to a film that depicts how society was so weighed down yet again by rifts in its fabric, by the disenfranchised, and by the larger issues such as mistrust in government.
Not bad for $25K.
Often Rocky and Raging Bull duke it out for best sports films of all time. Certainly, a case can be made for both. Me? I loathe boxing, and for that matter, any act of violence. And to get paid for it! Grrr. Hockey? Will the NHL ever ban fighting? Baseball—the incomprehensible bean ball thrown at the head? Bull fighting? Por favor, no mas. As much as the peacenik in me is likely preaching to the choir, Rocky was critically panned and praised—read: it was a difference maker. No matter which side of the rope you stand, it was what most of us teens were yammering on about that year. “When he swallows those eggs? Gnarley!”
The Bee Gee’s first Top Ten hit in the states charted in 1968. It happens to also be my absolute favorite. Why? Because the Gibb brothers wrote about something socially meaningful. Flash forward nearly ten years later, and as I’ve written here, the cocaine and razor blade pump shoe culture had its sonic soundtrack: Saturday Night Fever.
During the opening credits, as hard-luck dreamer John Travolta’s Tony Manera traverses the streets of Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, the (ear) strains of “Stayin’ Alive” begin their Night Gallery insertion between the audience’s ears (see “The Caterpillar” episode, 1972). And yes, this song lays eggs as well. However, heavyweight critics, Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael’s reviews were disco ball glowing:
The former: “One minute into Saturday Night Fever you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it’s talking about.”
The latter: “The way Saturday Night Fever has been directed and shot, we feel the languorous pull of the discotheque, and the gaudiness is transformed.”
Even the National Film Registry and The Library of Congress got in on the act by selecting the film to their registries.
Am I missing something here?
We can all accept the story, the dancing, its similarities to other dance films that make us feel good. However, culturally, I remain confounded by how this one struck a white-suited chord in the fabric of a nation. Vinnie Barbarino?
Underdog stories are the meat and potatoes of American cinema. We gobble them up until the scale beneath our feet no longer registers. Connection: Howard Beale, Travis Bickle, Rocky Balboa and Tony Manero are earlier versions of John McClane (Bruce Willis in Die Hard), Tris (Shailene Woodley in Divergent), Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson in Taken), and my personal favorite, Seabiscuit (Popcorn Deelites, Rich in Dallas, and three other horses in Seabiscuit).
Treatise? Here goes. The evolution of art on the big and little screen when combined with the proliferation of delivery platforms has made edgier works more the norm than ever before. Take Breaking Bad, The Affair, or The Sopranos. Match these up with Baretta, Police Woman, or The Streets of San Francisco. No comparison. Yet it gets interesting with movies. The Godfather series (1972, 1974) can hold a candle to anything produced today. Apocalypse Now (1979), you bet your Robert Duvall’s Lt. Kilgore smell of napalm in the morning. The Last Picture Show captured the sense of place you’ll find in films like No Country for Old Men and the recent Hell or High Water. Sophie’s Choice (1979): an unthinkable decision.
A final related measure: What holds up to the cruel test of time, and what becomes dated like the rings of a redwood? You love a film. You haven’t seen it since you were much younger. It’s showing tonight on AMC. Fifteen minutes in, you’re disillusioned by its treacly tone, its loss of something you can’t exactly pinpoint. What is evident is that, like the house you grew up in, you can’t go home again. Usually. Which takes us to the flip side. How many times have you watched the classics? Gone with the Wind? West Side Story? In the Heat of the Night? Midnight Cowboy? Well, it all depends on your age. Me? I can watch Big (1988), Ordinary People (1980), City Slickers (1991), and Sideways (2004) endlessly. Therefore, “dated” is intensely personal. One person’s Junior Mints is another person’s Hot Tamales.
What do films reflect about time and place?
Referencing my favorite equine film again, jockey Red Pollard comments:
“You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.”
Less about reflecting, more about learning who we were as a culture during that ten-year-span, films provided escape or they challenged one’s thinking. They moved us in ways that spoke to us then. Revisionist thinking can inspire a certain inured, unwieldy viewpoint, or it can look squarely at the likely truth: for the time in which they were produced, they belonged. Only a few earn the status of belonging to the ages.
And so, the question that will probably remain unanswered no matter how many AFI lists are published: What makes certain 1970’s films sustain elite status and withstand the weathering of time, technology and talent?
Nothing is quantifiable. The only measurement belongs, to you.