Shiny Shelf

The Wild Bunch: American Cinema 1967-1980

By Stephen Lavington on 18 December 2004

In 1998 Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was published. Taking as its subject the explosion of innovative, eccentric and electric filmmaking in 1970s America, it covered the whole era, from Arthur Penn’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ in 1967 to ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in 1980. It’s driving theory – that Hollywood was briefly invigorated by a generation of radical young filmmakers before falling back into the doldrums with the advent of the blockbuster courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – is contentious to say the least. However, it cast light on one of the most exciting periods in American cinema, a period now recognized in a monster two-month, 52-film season at the NFT.

So far details have only been released for the first half of this season, which takes us up to the mid 1970s, but it is apparent that the BFI have taken Biskind’s book as a guiding blueprint for the programme. This is not a criticism, for as ‘Easy Riders…’ was the perfect introduction to the actors, directors and producers of the time, so this season is a dream primer for anyone who wants to catch up on their films.

There is a chance to catch some of the undisputed classics of the time on the big screen. Must sees are Francis Ford Coppola’s majestic ‘The Godfather’ and William Friedkin’s gritty ‘The French Connection’. Also up are George Lucas’s ‘American Grafitti’, Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ and Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’, though the centrepiece of this first month is probably a new print of Scorsese’s breakthrough film ‘Mean Streets’.

As with many of the films on offer this is a supremely ragged and messy affair, lacking discipline and coherence but plugging the gaps with raw energy and a sincere (if misguided) attempt to capture ‘reality’ on film. This obsession with ‘reality’ is one of the three key features of the season. Though it often manifests itself in crude sound production values and grainy cinematography it is the perfect vehicle for the cynical sentiments of the filmmakers at the time; a variant of noir with all the fatalism and downbeat endings but little of the immaculate art direction.

Couple this with the filmmakers’ own conscious belief, verging on arrogance, that they were ‘making history’ and ‘beating the system’. They rocked into a decadent Hollywood straight out of film school packed with ideas about theory and film as art. This often translated into pretension and would prove the downfall of these would-be auteurs as obsession with detail and belief in their own greatness led to a string of hugely expensive films with little or no appeal to moviegoers. However, when this approach did work it created cinematic magic. ‘Easy Rider’ is at once intolerably smug and strangely moving.

The third element is America. Seems obvious, but it’s easy to dismiss films that come from the USA as ‘blockbuster’ or ‘indie’ while the film industries of other countries are saluted for their national relevance. From the first line of ‘The Godfather’ (‘I believe in America’) through the cross-country road trip of Wyatt and Billy (‘Easy Rider’) to the diner and drive-in nostalgia of ‘American Graffiti’, each film in this season is an investigation of America, in tune with the national soul-searching which followed the collapse of hippy ideals and the Watergate scandals and preceding the blind self-confidence of the Reagan era.

There are omissions, some of them glaring. There is no sign of ‘The Conversation’ (a contender with ‘The French Connection’ for Gene Hackman’s best work) nor of ‘The Godfather Part II’ (though in mitigation Francis Ford Coppola is already represented). There is no sign of Sidney Lumet’s work – not ‘Serpico’, nor ‘Dog Day Afternoon’. Equally amazing is the absence of ‘Chinatown’. (Perhaps excluded on the ground that it’s director is not American? There can be no other excuse.)

However, these complaints are rather churlish especially as all these movies are available on DVD and shown quite regularly on TV. It is for the best that time has been devoted to films that have, for one reason or another, fallen by the wayside. Peter Bogdanovitch’s ‘The Last Picture Show’ is frequently lauded but rarely screened. Hal Ashby is one of the forgotten members of the hell-raiser director set and gets recognition here with ‘The Last Detail’. Bob Rafelson has likewise become neglected – two of his collaborations with Jack Nicholson (‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’) are being screened, though sadly there is no sign of psychedelic Monkees tie-in ‘Head’.

The programmers have not been afraid to pick films that don’t feature in the pages of Biskind. The presence of ‘Shaft’ goes to show how overwhelmingly white most of the other films on offer are, while ‘Night of the Living Dead’ steps away from the doggedly ‘realist’ format of its contemporaries while delivering a much starker message on American culture and society.

There is an amazing range of movies, and that’s before the NFT have announced what’s in store for February (which could conceivably include some of the missing films mentioned above). It’s unmissable for any self-respecting film buff, and must count, with the Kurosawa and Hitchcock retrospectives, as one of the best seasons at the NFT in the last five years.

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By Stephen Lavington

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