Putting 1970s American cinema into its proper perspective is a huge undertaking, not just because packaging film movements into tidy time frames is a dicey proposition but also because the temptation to succumb to nostalgia can gloss over the more negative aspects of an era. As instructive as it is, Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme's A Decade Under the Influence: '70s Films That Changed Everything often falls into this trap while trying to capture the scope of the decade that some hail as Hollywood's last golden era. The Independent Film Channel gave the 108-minute film a theatrical release this past spring and will present an expanded, three-hour version for TV this week, first in a three-part installment Wednesday through Friday (followed by screenings of important movies of the decade) and then in its entirety on Saturday.
The film comes just five years after the publication of film journalist Peter Biskind's comprehensive book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Detailed, researched and deliciously gossipy, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls could be considered the final word on the decade and also was made into a documentary this year.
Thanks in part to Biskind's book, the influences of '70s cinema are pretty well understood. There was the tremendous upheaval of the 1960s: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement as well as the women's and gay-rights movements, the sexual revolution, assassinations. But just as influential were changes happening in Hollywood itself: the studio system was dying, losing millions of dollars on out-moded, expensive productions that audiences ignored in droves.
Into this void stepped a younger, more aggressive generation of Baby Boomers -- as well as older filmmakers liberated by their younger peers' boldness -- who overtook every facet of the business from studio head to actor. The '70s saw the emergence or creative peak of some of the most important directors, screenwriters and actors of American cinema: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ellen Burstyn, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Robert De Niro, Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Paul Schrader, Jane Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Julie Christie. And that's the short list. Then there are the films, which include the first two Godfather movies, Taxi Driver, Being There, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Last Picture Show, Deliverance, Annie Hall, Jaws, Star Wars, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now.
A Decade Under the Influence is at its best when key figures of the generation discuss the era. And while geniuses such as Altman and Coppola are always fascinating to watch, the star here is Julie Christie, the British beauty who co-starred with her then-lover Warren Beatty in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Ashby's Shampoo and Beatty's Heaven Can Wait, as well as with Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg's under-appreciated Don't Look Now. It is Christie who makes one of the documentary's most insightful comments; in discussing Shampoo, she says, "Hal Ashby, (screenwriter) Robert Towne and Warren Beatty showed an utterly immoral, grotesquely greedy, decadent society they felt was imminent."
Suddenly, directors and screenwriters overthrew producers as the source for movie ideas. The director as auteur, promoted in the United States by film critic Andrew Sarris and exemplified by French New Wave fan and actor-director John Cassavetes, was no longer just a European notion.
A Decade Under the Influence co-directors Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme dutifully trot out all of this information with myriad interviews and relevant scene clips. But a critical underbelly seems to be missing, which -- considering the era they're exploring -- seems ironic if not hypocritical. Demme, a former music-video director whose output before his death during the making of Decade was limited to such modest fare as The Ref and Blow, was never known for his artistic depth. LaGravenese is mainly a screenwriter whose only previous directing effort was 1998's Living Out Loud. Both seem to be fans rather than serious analysts; their music-video approach alternates between interviews, clips and period music with tons of quick edits keeping the pace fast and breezy.
But nearly a quarter-century after the end of this era, viewers deserve more than what executive producer Alison Bourke calls "a love letter." There is no worthy discussion about how poorly some of these films hold up over time or the era's lesser lights, Irwin Allen "disaster flicks," for example. The advent of the lethal "blockbuster" phenomenon and the critical selling out of so many of these mavericks gets only a passing nod, as does the amazing phenomenon of the black-exploitation genre.
For all its shortcomings, A Decade Under the Influence does offer neophyte viewers the idea of how Hollywood, for one brief moment, had a chance to redefine itself forever. It's just too bad the movie couldn't delve more deeply into that missed opportunity.
- Barbara Nitke/Courtesy IFC
Robert Altman, one of the directors who flourished in the 1970s, is among the filmmakers interviewed in IFC's A Decade Under the Influence.