That ’70s Glow

Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme illuminate a cinematic Decade Under the Influence.

Perhaps it was manipulative cutting, but when the absent Roman Polanski took top directing honors at the most recent Academy Awards, the lens briefly landed upon Martin Scorsese. The hopeful nominee looked as stricken as a slapped child, then, probably noticing onlookers, quickly adopted a theatrical “good sport” grin. Losing — especially to a guy who can’t even enter this country legally — seemed to have burned the dedicated purveyor of gritty American cinema.

Give the matter a little perspective, though, and Polanski and Scorsese become tight creative peers, almost peas in a pod. They — along with Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, and a host of others — entered their golden years in the 1970s, catalyzing a predominantly American but globally resonant filmic revolution. Formulaic studio pictures continued to be produced, but suddenly the mavericks had seized control, and independent-minded cinema ruled the day. It’s this era that the late Ted Demme (Blow) and Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud) investigate and celebrate in their expansive and immensely entertaining documentary, A Decade Under the Influence.

This Independent Film Channel production — which will run in August on IFC in an extended three-part format — opens tellingly with a quote from François Truffaut (defining film as “an accidental coincidence of our own preoccupations”) and immediately starts rocking. The title montage happily and unpretentiously evokes Straw Dogs and Star Wars, rock idols and Rocky, landing on a juxtaposition of George C. Scott as stern Patton and Dennis Hopper as Easy Rider‘s dusty Billy (technically a ’60s crossover, but hey). Thereafter, the big studios’ declining popularity is briefly touched on via the glitzy Hollywood premiere of Fox’s bloated Hello, Dolly! (1969). Without so much as a how do you do, suddenly we’re sitting in the laps of Paul Schrader, Paul Mazursky, Roger Corman, Julie Christie, Pam Grier, Altman, Coppola, Pollack, on and on.

Putting it all in focus via race, the vital-as-ever Grier explains (possibly through audio splicing), “The ’70s … was the first time we could celebrate the freedoms won from the ’50s and ’60s with our art — where whites could go see James Brown and Tina Turner and not be called a nigger-lover … where Jimi Hendrix could play white rock ‘n’ roll and not be called an Uncle Tom.”

Setting aside the fact that barbiturates effectively stopped Hendrix from tasting more than a few months of the ’70s, Grier’s angle on the revolution rings true. (Besides, doesn’t Jimi keep releasing new albums to the present day?) Even a visitor from outer space — say, The Man Who Fell to Earth — could grok the period and its multiple zeitgeists from this smart, sharp study. Although an exhaustive list of great movies would be, well, exhausting, sociologically it’s all duly noted. We get the sexual revolution, the drugs, Watergate, Vietnam, civil rights, religious and political revisionism, and — significantly — the dissolution of the restrictive Production Code and the deaths of big studio cheeses like Harry Cohn, Louis Mayer, Jack Warner, and Darryl Zanuck. It sure isn’t boring, and even devout cinephiles, Boomers, and burnouts are likely to find it an exciting ride through the epoch.

One of the sweetest segments is a montage of the 1970s American greats name-checking the global greats — Kurosawa, De Sica, Fellini, Renoir, Visconti — who inspired them. Soon enough, we garner that Christie’s shepherd, John Schlesinger, brought his class-driven British sensibilities across the pond and suddenly we had Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man. The connections are myriad and endlessly diverting.

Affection for the period is key, and while it’s not clear exactly where Demme’s work dropped off (he died playing basketball in 2002) and LaGravenese’s work picks up, it’s abundantly obvious that they both adore the material. Yet love is not enough; merely loving these films and their makers would have produced an incomprehensible train-wreck of a documentary. Instead, the cutting is sharp and smart, and a load of credit should be given to editor Meg Reticker, who manages to weave talking heads, classic scenes, sound bites, and quick symbolic shots of the period (hippies! vets! boobies! Nixon!) while preserving the integrity of each element.

If this were merely a series of placid interviews, à la Encore’s The Directors series, the subjects would prove more than adequately captivating, as they’ve got plenty of stories on tap. Generously interspersed with telling scenes, however, the project becomes a vital time-capsule for those who already love these movies, plus a perfect primer for neophytes. There’s perhaps too much emphasis on Dustin Hoffman’s late-’60s work, but clips from John G. Avildsen’s Joe, Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park, and many others reflect the collective goal Christie sums up as “to reflect life as it was, rather than how authorities wanted to be.”

This stuff’s still volatile, serving as the antidote prescribed by Schrader when he exclaims, “The film business was a decadent, decaying, emptied whorehouse, and it had to be assaulted.” Indeed, the project serves as a reminder for the current crop of filmmakers — many underpaid and marginalized — to storm the studios anew. Presently, Polanski may be walking proud while Scorsese is pouting, but above and beyond the awards shows, their generation is now encapsulated, summed up. We should hope that their cinematic progeny can produce films at least as revolutionary.

Frankly, I’m hoping they’re even more so.

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