Great post by Paleo Retiree and comment thread over at Uncouth Reflections, centering around William Friedkin's movie Sorcerer but wandering outward to touch on New Hollywood's rise and fall.
Few topics are in such dire need of revisionist history in art and entertainment as the demise of New Hollywood. I won't try to do all of that in a single post. I will, however, copy and paste the two long-winded but hopefully insightful comments I left over there.
The standard story is that the grimy, hardcore realistic, no-tidy-endings, fate's-a-bitch movies of the '70s were dethroned by crass commercial "fun for the whole family" movies like Star Wars and E.T. In reality, the '70s style thrillers were not dethroned, jettisoned, or blasted into outer space. The tradition was added to by taking things in a more science-fiction direction, and with a more satisfying catharsis by the end, a la Alien and RoboCop.
Examples from the later evolution of the grimy thriller are not optimistic, uplifting, fun for the whole family, or disposed toward mass merchandising and product tie-ins. ("Hey kids, this week only at McDonalds -- get a free CHESTBURSTER ALIEN toy when you buy a happy meal!")
This means the whole "Boo Spielberg" line of the pop history of New Hollywood is missing the big picture, and is just scapegoating the sci-fi chart-toppers like E.T. and Ghostbusters. The path from The Parallax View to RoboCop is more like an evolution of a species than it is a great extinction event.
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I can’t comment on Sorcerer, but you can see why the grimy realism movement of the ’70s only lasted for a moment — it wasn’t stylized enough.
Fortune plays a huge role in real life, and there typically isn’t a memorable, satisfying resolution to most stories. Fictional narratives ought to stylize those details of reality so that the random texture of events is still perceptible, but not calling attention to itself the whole time. And they ought not to get in the way of the larger structure of beginning, middle, and end, including a climax for the audience to feel catharsis, followed by some resolution to bring their elevated state back down to the mundane level.
Movies where you’re going through a variety of different positions, sometimes easing into it and other times jack-hammering away, have to push you over the top and let you come back down to enjoy that refractory period. Otherwise it feels like your partner is fucking around with you, and wasn’t it so cool how she just up and left without any ultimate climax or resolution to the night’s roll in the hay?
Hey, I like a lot of the grimy, fate’s-a-bitch kind of movies, but you have to admit why there weren’t so many that worked at the time, and why the movement didn’t have much momentum to keep it going longer. The range of stories that lend themselves to the approach is severely limited, and they’d more or less run through them all by the mid-’70s. Not every narrative calls for Sisyphus and Sado-Masochism, y’know? Not even a majority of them.
Posing this as a New Hollywood vs. corporate blockbuster thing is going too easy on New Hollywood’s superstar directors. It’s more like, stochastic and fatalistic blockbuster vs. purposeful and cathartic blockbuster, where a hero’s efforts achieve something.
The waning interest in attempted follow-ups to Chinatown owes more to the constraints imposed by human psychology on the viewer’s side, than to economic motives on the creator’s side.
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Pursuing the topic of New Hollywood burning out and what replaced it — it wasn’t Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, or any of the other optimistic blockbusters that the whole family could enjoy.
Those movies are so different in tone from Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and The Parallax View, that we’d have to conclude there was an abrupt U-turn in public tastes (or artists’ inclinations) around that time. And in general the second half of the ’70s isn’t so different from the first half of the ’80s — not one of those U-turn periods, artistically or pop culturally.
What represented the next step forward from the fate’s-a-bitch blockbusters of the New Hollywood period was the sci-fi thriller, whether dystopian or at least in the tradition of “Oh shit, mankind doesn’t belong in this hostile environment.” Alien, Escape from New York, Blade Runner, Videodrome, The Terminator, Predator, RoboCop, Total Recall.
They portrayed a grimy realistic setting (not an unconvincing emo caricature a la contempo sci-fi thrillers), where the deck is stacked against the puny heroes, and where cruel fate generally has its way with ordinary background characters and featured protagonists alike. Buuuut, where we sense a progression toward an ultimate climax of redemption — and where that is paid off by the end. This allows even the schlockier examples like Predator to satisfy the viewer in a way that the more pretentious examples in the Sisyphean / S&M approach cannot.
And by telling the story within science fiction, they could get out from the “is this story REALLY plausible?” constraint of the hardcore realism of their ’70s forerunners. Sci-fi is just plausible enough.
There was a related movement toward slasher thrillers in horror. Grimy, realistic, unrelenting hostile forces wipe out just about everyone, despite their best efforts and teamwork — but not everyone. There’s at least a Pyrrhic victory for the lone survivor. The supernatural element allows the story-tellers to move outside of the strict boundaries imposed by hardcore realism.
These related inheritors of the ’70s thriller both reached their end in the early ’90s, when Total Recall styled itself as the sci-fi thriller to end all sci-fi thrillers, and Twin Peaks styled itself as the supernatural thriller to end all supernatural thrillers.