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Vanishing Point: ‘70s Directors Today

we all know that ‘70s Hollywood bestowed upon a barely deserving world extraordinary and enduring filmmakers. Much has been written on the movie brats, the unusually cinematically conversant upstarts to whom ambition and success proved not merely good bedfellows but rut-hungry lovers. Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma, Woody Allen, etc. Amazing talents to be sure, and men who display a certain willingness to be part of the business—with an ability and acumen for playing the game, a knack for finding a commercial identity, and ultimately, despite their diversity, fitting in.

However, not all of the talent from that congested era found a voice or could think of anything left to say, having already uttered statements so devastatingly all-encompassing. There are a good many filmmakers who were unable to drag themselves out of the decade intact, some unable to reach beyond a single success, some inexplicably out of luck or ideas, and many exploring the outskirts of the industry for the last three decades in a state of bemusement. The 70s may have been home to some of the most lucid, lurid and vociferous figures in the history of film but it was also a rickety platform for some of the most unsustainably enigmatic.

Edge Of The Horizon

One of American cinema’s most intriguing riddles has to be: what happened to Monte Hellman? Yet another young buck from the Roger Corman stable, Hellman became a filmmaker of some note by knocking together two seminal existential Westerns—Ride the Whirlwind (67) and The Shooting (67) on location, back-to-back in the late-Sixties—sharing writing credits with a hungry Jack Nicholson, who also appeared in both movies. Hellman’s considerable understated talents bled freely into the early ‘70s with Two Lane Blacktop (71) and Cockfighter (74). The reputation of the former has grown since its recent DVD release, now reclaimed as a classic of the period. Two Lane Blacktop is a singular kind of experience, somewhere between Vanishing Point (71) and The Conversation (74), in which passing interest transforms itself into consuming obsession.

Washed-out and open-ended, like much of Hellman’s work, here he pushes the situation to a bleak philosophical limit. In Cockfighter the fatalistic salt of the movie encrusts the authentic, strained faces of its characters. A brutal and uncompromising film, practically unimaginable in today’s sensitive climate, Cockfigher is the frustrated masterpiece of a tired worker clocking out. Indeed, Hellman’s films since have been plagued by indecision and interference. His last wheeze was in 1989 with the compellingly titled Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! and remains his lowest point to date. Perhaps the outskirts of existential crisis can be skated around for only so long. It seems that Hellman’s work reached an inquisitive peak that has no logical following-on point. A totally un-commercial entity and seemingly uninterested in pursuing the controlling, business aspect of the industry, unlike many of his contemporaries, Hellman was unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to secure for himself a longer-lasting career.

There were many peripheral filmmakers who found themselves struck with fleeting inspiration during the decade. One such is Jerry Schatzberg, who directed two stunning reviews of low-life relationships in Panic in Needle Park (71) and Scarecrow (73). Both films are notable for breakout performances from Al Pacino, and the director’s naturalistic, long lens photography. Schatzberg had a light touch that brought a kind of freedom to his expansive frames and meandering narratives. Scarecrow is a remarkable and harrowing road-movie of the period: Gene Hackman and Pacino play likable drifters, unromantic runaways ultimately unable to face the lives they might otherwise lead if they hadn’t already escaped them. Winner of the Palme d’Or, this stunning achievement would be the peak of the director’s film career. A renowned stills photographer (responsible for Dylan’s 1966 Blonde on Blonde cover), Shatzberg continued to make admirable, interesting films such as Sweet Revenge (76) and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (79) but they are distinctly lacking in the magnificent spark of his earlier work.

James William Guercio is a man of mystery with a far more anomalous film career than any other director of the ‘70s. Indeed, he directed just one film, the extraordinary Electra Glide in Blue (73). A kind of posing cop-movie, Electra Glide works the odd and preposterous little-man charm of Robert Blake to full effect, resulting in an unusually moving central performance. The functional crime story narrative is of secondary interest—rather, it’s the arid desert landscape and desperation of the community at the heart of the film that draws the attention—offering a glimpse into the left-behind melancholy particular to isolated towns. An elegy of some kind, although to what is unclear, Guercio created an outstanding movie that was greeted with modest critical and commercial success.

Far more well known as a record producer (working with Frank Zappa and Blood Sweat & Tears, among others), Guercio eventually became disillusioned with both industries, setting up large-scale cattle ranching and property development businesses. In the late 80s, he was the driving force behind the Country Music Television channel. A seemingly restless character, his contribution to ‘70s cinema is great, despite his single deposit. Electra Glide in Blue is essential viewing, and Guercio brings to the narrative none of the baggage of someone entrenched in film culture. A truly enigmatic classic, very much in the vein of Easy Rider (69)—both films share an overwhelming desire to seek expression through movement and escape—Guercio should be considered a major marginal figure.

Nicolas Roeg's decline in critical and commercial intrigue has been so severe that it amounts to some sort of rape. It's fair to say that the relentless commercialism of the 80s (thanks Steven and George) was like a pole-axe to so many visionaries and perhaps there was no casualty so severely wounded as Roeg. Having cut his teeth as a cinematographer on some significant pieces of work—The Masque of the Red Death (64), Fahrenheit 451 (66) and Petulia (68) to name but a few, Roeg's visual style is at once revealing and private, familiar and dreadful; tugging at the seams of these apparent contradictions, his characters often unravelling in the process. This beguiling filmmaker was breaking ground, piecing together his stories with a kind of intuitive feel that, despite the outlandish plotlines, can only be described as true realism. Think of the match-cut between Julie Christie and her daughter in the brutal opening minutes of Don’t Look Now (73), both instinctively, unconsciously reaching for their mouths, conjoined by the director’s associative telling. Walkabout (71) and The Man who Fell to Earth (76) are completely out of this world and certainly beyond the reach of the majority of Roeg’s contemporaries.

At the very core of his work is a fanciful nihilism, at once alluring and devastating, the true pulse of tragedy. His use of landscape, internal and external, and his seemingly innate ability to create an emotionally and visually complex sort of story within each scene, make Roeg one of cinema's few truly brilliant filmmakers. Since 1982’s Eureka! Roeg's career seems an apathetic compromise of TV movies and nonsense, with Liz Hurley's Sampson and Delilah (96) just one of the descending low points. Bad Timing (80) marked the opening of a decade that would sideline him. The film is as compelling as it is ridiculous, as conceptually clever as it is actually inane. Roeg did himself no favours in the eyes of the studios with this metaphysical blowout, but cannot be criticised for following his explorative instincts to their distant, enthralling limits. Promisingly, he is now working on a number of projects such as Puffball (07) that suggest a more compelling late-period.

Some truly gifted directors seemed to take advantage of, or were struck by, the general fertility of the period. Donald Cammell, Roeg’s co-director on Performance (70) was a mercurial (if abusive) talent who bequeathed the decade the incomparably nightmarish Demon Seed (77) before killing himself in the mid-90s after his film Wild Side (95) was severely cut by the producer. He reportedly asked his wife for a mirror so that he could watch himself die after shooting himself. So, although never a particularly jolly chap, Cammell was a serious artist who found but brief satisfaction in an industry keen on exploiting rather than exploring his gift.

Others, such as Michael Ritchie—who found fame and fortune in the 80s with popular money-spinners such as Fletch (85), Wildcats (86) and The Couch Trip (88)—directed some of the decade’s most underrated films. Downhill Racer (69), on the verge of the period, is a terrific sports movie that offers one of Redford’s most natural performances and points the way toward the rather anxious, influential style Ritchie would find in the meaty gangster film Prime Cut (72). Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman growl their way through this study of corruption, masculinity and madness. It is an inexplicably overlooked film, truly one of the low-key masterworks of modern American cinema. Ritchie followed his hard-hitting exploration of the underworld with The Candidate (72), a bright and socially aware look at the American political system that remains one of the savviest and most scrutinizing treatments of the subject.

There are more still who gave some of their most compelling work to the era, if not their most immediately recognizable: such as Walter Hill with the Spartan thriller The Driver (78) and the delirious The Warriors (78), a director whose significance became squashed by the commercial climate; Douglas Trumball with the miraculous space-weepie Silent Running (72), a glorious talent more at home pioneering the field of special effects; Peter Fonda, who created one of the best last gasps of the Western with the restrained, contemplative The Hired Hand (71); Haskell Wexler, director of the charged, astute Medium Cool (69) and influential cinematographer who helped develop the visual style of the decade in films like The Conversation (73) and Days of Heaven (78). The climate could not be maintained forever, and the combination of the famed successes and calamities of some of the studio’s prize directors would ensure that such exceptional films and filmmakers would find it increasingly hard to find a place in an industry that believed it had found a more bankable formula for high-concept commercial success.

Nothing In The Tank

However it wasn’t just the marginal figures of the industry who found it hard to define themselves after the ‘70s; some of the industry’s marquee filmmakers simply broke-down, as if running on empty. Having out-run themselves for such a sustained period, careers came to a halt and skidded into freefall, bald tires providing little resistance.

William Friedkin offered a kind of robust, overtly masculine kind of story telling—Norman Mailer, with pictures. The naked aggression which propelled his best work—the relentless and combative chases of The French Connection (71), the ritualistic breaking-points of The Exorcist (73), the jagged death-struggles of Sorcerer (77)—was as exciting as it was refreshing. His adept success in such emotionally rigorous material promised another Robert Aldrich or Sam Fuller. Whether or not his notorious arrogance, propelled by self-induced chemical imbalances, took its toll on his natural energies and ambitions is unclear. Famous for being an asshole of some distinction in an asshole-high business so geared toward material success, Friedkin's output since his heyday is pretty abysmal and distinguished by a shocking lack of conviction for a man formerly defined by a ferocious confidence. His most recent effort, The Hunted, was a guileless mess that indicates that a renaissance should not be expected nor requested from this fallen giant.

A figure even less likely to resurface with colour in his cheeks is Michael Cimino. Unfairly blamed for destroying the world, by making the achingly ambitious (and rather good) Heaven’s Gate (80), Cimino might be likened to F. Scott Fitzgerald as a man ultimately too enthralled by his best work to muster the courage needed to surpass it. An unfortunate association with box office strangler Mickey Rourke—in the improbable action piece, Year of the Dragon (85), and the inconceivably bad The Desperate Hours, (90)—brought his deflated career to an effective end. Rumours abounded that Cimino had changed sex in an attempt to reinvent himself. Unfortunately, these whispers proved untrue and he is now preparing to make a comeback of sorts with To Each his Cinema (07), a portmanteau film in the style of Lumieré and Company (95), his first film since the flawed but intriguing The Sunchaser (95).

A figure who has regained much credibility of late is Peter Bogdanovich. From Targets (68) to Daisy Miller (74), the film-critic-turned-director set out on what looked might be a career of unending, glittering achievement. Here was a filmmaker who had a rare feel for the rich textures of cinema history: his human fables an amalgam of Welles' haughty guile, Ford's visual majesty and Hawks' cute wit, successfully pulling together the powerful charms of greater talents with admirable conviction. The film for which he will no doubt be remembered is The Last Picture Show (71), the timeless melancholy of its chrome saturation like a lost photograph come to life. Still, Paper Moon remains for me one of the most singularly impressive and deliciously poised American films of any period.

There are not many individuals in the modern history of Hollywood who managed to forge such an immediate and winning identity nor exude such an old fashioned sort of confidence. The trajectory and timbre of his career is not unlike that of Preston Sturges, both men displaying an incredible capability in the medium, an instinctive versatility that just clicked into place. Eventually, Bogdanovich seemed to topple under the strain of personal tragedy and increasing demands for commercial success. However, it's inarguable that his vision also began to fade in the mid-to-late-’70s—understandably so for a man who had so energetically vaulted far beyond what might have been reasonably expected of him. His mournful and bizarre personal life left him bedraggled throughout the ‘80s, an unsteady state from which he launched many personal yet minor television movies. Texasville (90) revisited the characters of The Last Picture Show. It’s a capable film, but one which also served to illustrate how far from his pinnacle the director had stumbled.

Bogdanovich's valuable and amenable role as celebrity film custodian, coupled with his admirable (acting and directing) work on The Sopranos, means that he is no burned out-wreck. Indeed, his recent The Cat's Meow (01) was his best work in years and reports are that he is will finally complete the editing on Welles' long buried but highly touted The Other Side of the Wind. I wouldn't count the seemingly buoyant Bogdanovich out just yet.

Many of the best filmmakers eased into pedestrian careers, with varying degrees of resistance. Alan J. Pakula—responsible for what might well be the greatest modern detective film with Klute (71) and undoubtedly the most sinister conspiracy thriller of them all, The Parallax View (74)—settled into such a careful and sedate professionalism that his reputation is unjustly muted. Sydney Pollack, too, put together a remarkable string of movies—They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (69), Jeremiah Johnson (72), Five Days of the Condor (75)—yet seems to have allowed the more lucrative role of producer strip him of his earlier ambition. Bob Rafelson is another whose early dynamism seemed to rob him of stamina. Five Easy Pieces (70) and The King of Marvin Gardens (72) are the kind of naked, emotionally engaging works that are in such short supply today. His tendency toward excess in his private life—despite the spare economy of his early films—is responsible, to a large degree, for his relative disappearance from the scene. The well has dried up and The Lionel Richie Video Collection (03) may well be the last we hear from him.

Miles On The Clock

And then there are those, to consider only briefly, who have proven to be enduring figures: Scorsese, Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader. They have shown an ability to adapt, challenge themselves, fail and then succeed. Of course Malick is exempt from such reviews, plotting as he will, his legend as a sequence of flawless, reasoned chess moves. Commercial success is fickle—Spielberg has proven the most brilliant earner and Scorsese seems to have finally found a way to cash in on his own incredible talent—but Schrader, Allen and (until recently) Altman continue to push a personal kind of cinema, working through the same elusive themes to be found in their earlier work, with varying degrees of critical and commercial success.

There is a figure I have avoided mentioning, and that’s George Lucas. I can only briefly bear to touch upon the bouffanted buffet-slayer to say that, of all ‘70s directors, surely his career must rank among the most disappointing. He made, with THX–1138 (71), the most enigmatically sketched dystopia yet committed to film. At the center of it all is an intelligent human tragedy, an authentic center, a narrative of some reckoning and maturity. Lucas is an interesting figure in that each subsequent project has been not only more dismal but also more expensive than the last. If he were to carry on making films indefinitely, the world and its dwindling resources would surely be sucked into his juvenile universe. If he had not become obsessed with overdeveloping a children’s film into six epics, then he may have created something even more magnificent than his debut feature. If only Nicolas Roeg had $5 billion instead. We’d all be rushing out buying lunchboxes with pictures of drowned little girls printed on the front, or action figures of a naked Jenny Agutter.

It’s more than possible that expectations of sustained artistic merit and integrity are unrealistic. The toll that such commitment takes is perhaps not worth it for the individuals in question. Is it so unreasonable to churn out sub-standard films to earn a little money in an unstable industry, to send your kids through college or secure an easy life? Maybe it’s just unfair to ask for more than one enduring classic from any filmmaker. The problem is, the ‘70s spoiled the modern era of mainstream cinema by producing an almost ridiculous climate of high-quality, challenging movies. It’s hard to think of too many such enduring talents who have emerged of recent years. David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro are mainstream directors who have allowed us to hope for the best. Perhaps now, in a comparable political climate (supported by a technological revolution of accessibility) such lasting figures will start to show themselves. Boldness and originality becomes harder to achieve as time moves on and business interests close in—however, there is the expectancy of a response to the challenges of the world that I hope will be met.

By: Paolo Cabrelli
Published on: 2007-08-23
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