June 12, 2014

What killed New Hollywood, what took its place, and why?

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

10 comments:

  1. When I think "New Hollywood" I tend to think more Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick. I guess Peckinpah too*.
    *I wrote that before getting to the bit of Sawhill's post where he mentions Wild Bunch. I was also thinking of Aguirre as similar to Sorceror, but Herzog is too weird to be representative of anything, and I have no idea how he got the money to drag a boat through the jungle in Fitzcaraldo.

    I'd heard great things about Sorceror, but I think I preferred Apocalypse Now. And I think the latter is probably overrated. Still a fan of Friedkin though (who is apparently forsaking movies for TV).

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  2. It's seems undeniable that the 1980s and the late 1970s really did change the picture at the top of the film charts in favor of bombastic, epic scaled adventure and action, and trend has only increased since then.

    However, in the 1960s and early 1970s, those chart topping positions weren't held by anxious thrillers made by art cinema influenced new film makers, instead more by comedies, cartoons, smaller scaled action films, romantic epics and musicals.

    The post-Spielberg blockbuster period *does* show the emergence of a new style of film. Was this style of film really in competition with the experimental and thriller themed movie New Hollywood had to offer? To me it doesn't seem so. That does depend on whether we actually class the non-thriller chart toppers of the 1960s and 1970s as "New Hollywood".

    I think you could actually make a stronger argument that the sci-fi thrillers of the 1980s, which you've described as descendants of the New Hollywood thrillers, were killed off by blockbusters - for a example, from The Terminator to Terminator 2, from Alien to Aliens to Alien 3 to Alien 4, etc. Thus the resurgence of iconic contemporary crime and noir themed films in the 1990s.

    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.”

    The Mad Max series is a fun example here in that you can actually see the transition in progress here, as the series morphs from lightly sci-fi 1970s brutalism, through full on, hostile environment post apocalyptic dystopia with a larger than life anti-hero then into a more formulaic, feel good ending blockbuster.

    when Total Recall styled itself as the sci-fi thriller to end all sci-fi thrillers

    Total Recall also fits interestingly. It is both a zenith or close in the dark humor laden sci-fi thriller trend, an attempt at synthesising this with the post-Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters and a satire of the same blockbuster trend (the overblown, blockbuster line of the plot with its rebels, villainous corporations and ancient Mahtians is arguably all in Quaid's head, escapism for a mundane construction worker... and if not he as the squeaky clean hero is arguably a totally fake person made in a lab, etc.).

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  3. Bombastic, galactic-scale epics are part of the Midcentury and Millennial eras, not the '80s. Type in "YYYY in film" at Wikipedia with a year at the beginning, and it'll give you a list of the top 10 box office movies for that year, with links to other years in a convenient table.

    (You can see longer lists at Box Office Mojo, but you have to re-enter each year, and they don't give you much info about the movies, where Wikipedia has links to their entries.)

    Let's check in with the year that produced Return of the Jedi, #1 at the box office for 1983. In order, the other top-ranking movies were such bombastic galactic-scale epics as:

    Terms of Endearment
    Flashdance
    Trading Places
    WarGames
    Octopussy
    Sudden Impact
    Staying Alive
    Mr. Mom
    Risky Business

    How about five years later, when Die Hard perfected the kickass summer action blockbuster? It was not even #1 in 1988, but #7. Here are the others in order:

    Rain Man
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit
    Coming to America
    Big
    Twins
    Crocodile Dundee II
    Naked Gun
    Cocktail
    Beetlejuice

    Even as late as '93, where Jurassic Park ranked at the top, Schindler's List took #4, and Cliffhanger #7, the rest were:

    Mrs. Doubtfire
    The Fugitive
    The Firm
    Indecent Proposal
    Sleepless in Seattle
    Philadelphia
    The Pelican Brief

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  4. Comedy movies rise in popularity in outgoing times, and fall in cocooning times. Data from 1915 to 2011:

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2012/11/popularity-of-comedy-movies-1915-2011.html

    I just checked the data for '12 and '13, and the picture is unchanged. Among the top 10, there was only one non-animated comedy in '12 (Men in Black 3), and zero in '13.

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  5. When the crime rate began rising rapidly, it disoriented people so much that life may have seemed hopeless. In this way, the "New Hollywood" was a product of the times. In Taxi Driver, for instance, Travis believes the world is being overrun by vermin; the Godfather portrays a dangerous world in which only criminals can protect themselves and their families.

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  6. One reason "Sorcerer" failed because of its misleading title. When the director of "The Exorcist" produced it, people were expecting another supernatural thriller. But the death knell of New Hollywood was "Heaven's Gate," a box office flop of such proportions, it single-handedly sank United Artists as well as ruining the career of its prolifigate director, Michael Cinimo. Incidentally, "Heaven's Gate" also had a bummer ending.

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  7. Yeah, sure, I'd only say the late 1970s-1980s was formative for this kind of cinema, as the absolute most successful individual movies / series of the period. They didn't dominate the top ten in any given year and weren't the most popular genre.

    Comedies do look popular during the 80s. I would say that although they don't tend to be among the top ten very frequently, they still capture about a 20%-25% of the gross in any given year, in the 1995-2013 era (where www.thenumbers.com has data).

    http://imgur.com/R1P1myc

    In the gross data, the comedies don't seem to decrease in popularity with violence, rather they seem to broadly peak up from 1995 - 2008, then fall sharply with the recession years. They're the most popular individual genre, if you use thenumbers genre breakdown. It's a shame there isn't gross data by genre going back to the early 1980s. Comedies might have gone over 30-50%?

    The difference here might be due to lots of small, cheap movies with narrow appeal, playing for a short amount of time (which might be less profitable for cinema companies, but the only way that comedies can work in the cinema these days).

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  8. Sorcerer is one of my ALL TIME favorite films!!!!!! watch it now!

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  9. By the late 70s and 80s, the crime rate had slowed down. The world was still dangerous, but the good guys had gotten their act together. Things weren't as confusing. You couldn't make a movie like the Parallax View, where the common man was portrayed as powerless against hidden, enigmatic forces.

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  10. The crime rate basically plateaued in the 80s, but it didn't really decline until 94 or so.

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