Seventies American Cinema
Horizons of Possibility
Watching Apollo 11, a documentary that relies on archival footage mainly shot by NASA cinematographers, we might understand that for all the importance of the assassinations throughout the sixties (Martin Luther King, JFK, Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X), the Vietnam war, the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State in 1970 and the Watergate scandal of the early seventies, the moon landing perceptually was the most important event of all. Rather than seeing it as a moment of great triumph for the country, it was as though filmmakers understood that it was an unusual moment for perception. The best way of understanding this is to see the images of earth from the moon as the greatest counter shot in history. If many a human on earth had looked up at the moon, how often had people who had been on the moon looked back at the earth? It was the most haunting of counter shots, giving us a sense that our firm gaze had been lost, our place on earth not so much diminished as properly perspectivised. The best filmmakers remained true to this proper perspectivism without necessarily seeing in it any obvious relationship with the moon landing. Directors may have been quick to draw parallels with their work and Vietnam, Watergate and the key assassinations of the sixties, but was the Apollo II mission an indirect influence too?
It is this look which interests us, seeing in seventies American cinema, in films by Altman, Penn, Pakula, Scorsese, Coppola and Kubrick a new type of cinematic objectivity, one that was no longer about how to tell a story and generating coordinates around that assumption, but about finding the appropriate means of observation. Yet at the same time, we want to pay attention to these other major events in American political life, trying to weave, between the social and the perceptual, a narrative that helps us to understand what we mean when talking about New Hollywood a period in American cinema that covers roughly 1968 to 1980. Finally, we want to distinguish the directors who wished to find in the medium a proper weight to the image (like Kubrick, Scorsese and Altman) and others who utilised it for fine-tuning cinema as a mode of entertainment. It didn't mean Spielberg, De Palma, Frankenheimer and others didn't make very fine films more that they did so emphasising the technique rather than elaborating on the complexity of their stories.
But to understand first an aspect of this technical development within the context of the moon landing, what better place to start than with Stanley Kubrick's 2001? The greatest irony is that the film was shot in the UK at Pinewood studios. And how can we not add a further irony in that a director so interested in space travel had ensconced himself in the UK not least because he refused any longer to fly? Of course, too, a merry band of conspiracy theorists believe that the moon landing never took place and it was none other than Kubrick who was the artistic perpetrator of this hoax, someone who had the technical know-how to make it look real. Putting aside the conspiratorial and focusing on the perceptual, Kubrick's film ushered in the awe of the space age. Prior science fiction films seemed so often allegorical works meant to tell us all about ourselves through utilising alien beings. Whether it was The War of the Worlds or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even Planet of the Apes, which came out a year earlier, S/F in film was a human drama rather than a cosmic spectacle. Kubrick's film understood the sudden smallness of the human story before the event, comprehended better than anybody else that impending counter shot. Subsequently, there is no unequivocal leading character in the film, only a disinterested gaze that moves from the dawn of man to cosmic consciousness, showing in between spaceships rotating through space to Strauss, and astronauts keeping fit on a huge equivalent of a hamster wheel. "I think one of the areas where 2001 succeeds", Kubrick said, "is in stimulating thoughts about man's destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives would never have considered such matters." (The Film Director as Superstar) One meditates on the images rather than getting caught in a story about astronauts.
If Kubrick was the filmmaker who anticipated and defined the perceptual apparatus which acknowledged a revolution in our place in the universe, a Galilean comprehension made real, then numerous filmmakers absorbed and modified it. In Altman's M*A*S*H and Nashville, the director uses amongst other things, the long lens. "The viewer is confronted by an image where the proximity of the primary subjects in relation to the camera can never be assumed", says Hamish Ford. This rests partly on "Altman's particular use of updated audiovisual technology [which] helped to forge a distinct authorial signature during this period. In particular, his highly prominent use of the zoom lens and very wide 2.35:1 frame - combined with hidden radio microphones that enabled the director's famous "deep focus" overlapping dialogue diminished the necessity of "blocking" for cinematographers, camera operators and actors." ('The Porous Frame: Visual Style in Robert Altman's 1970s Films') It hardly diminished the human drama on the scale we find in 2001, but it diminished it nevertheless. Altman was still very much a character director, interested unlike Kubrick in the idiosyncrasies of people's behaviour (and especially so in two great early seventies works McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye), but in both M*A*S*H and Nashville the films utilised the techniques Ford talks about all the better to generate dissolution in character and situation. Everyone is talking over each other, the characters are caught multiply in a wide frame, and people appear simultaneously close and far away, a virtue and a vice of the telephoto lens. The sort of technology deployed very well for the Apollo 11 build-up and take off as the camera is very far away, but where the longs lens shows the rocket in close proximity, is then utilised by Altman for very different ends. While the shots of Apollo 11 with a telephoto lens gives the impression of awe, Altman's use can seem close to indifference the shots leaving us to sort out what might be of significance within the frame while the characters are busily active but not especially focused. The long lens in Altman's work emphasises what philosopher Martin Heidegger calls frenetic inertia, the busy emptiness of a life. At the beginning of Nashville, Altman doesn't so much introduce us to numerous characters (as the Altman inflected but more brilliantly conventional late-nineties, Boogie Nights does), it introduces us instead to a milieu in which the characters are contained, and are secondary to it. Altman's great innovation was to use developments in sound and camera technology to generate a milieu into which characters and narrative events would fall. Out of that milieu we glean a story that the film isn't indifferent to, but which we have to pick out and work with. Scriptwriter Joan Tewkesbury acknowledged working with Altman that if you weren't careful, "if you gave him too much room it got sloppy and fuzzy and messy." (Filmmaker) Thus the messiness nevertheless demanded a strong structure, "because every single character is just as important as the next character. It was imperative to see every single character every single day so I laid out a grid. It was like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or whatever at the top of the grid, and then down the side were all the characters and time spans, morning, noon and night. I simply had to make sure that you saw each character every single day." (Filmmaker) Anybody watching the scene where Keith Carradine sings 'I'm Easy' in the presence of various characters can see how well crystallised the emotions are, as the film attends to various characters but where we increasingly are concentrated on two: Carradine and Lily Tomlin.
The long lens is also important in some of Steven Spielberg's early work. This can take the modest, hectic form we find in so many Altman films but applied to a domestic environment that Spielberg has always admired and that Altman has had little time for. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss is dad and Teri Garr mum, trying to cope with three fiendishly noisy and bored kids. At one moment we see Dreyfuss in the foreground and one of the kids banging a doll in the background. The shot keeps both equally in focus. in the earlier Jaws, Spielberg contains the chaos within incipient suspense. Roy Schneider is police chief Brody, fearing a shark attack as he sits on the beach. The film plays up the numerous people in the water, the various interactions between characters on the shore and all the while we are focused on Brody's sense of fret. One shot shows us Brody conversing with a local in the foreground while a boy plays in the water in the distance. Rather than using a long lens that would compress the planes, Spielberg here emphasises the difference between the foreground and the background. By using a diopter lens, which splits the shot down the middle, allowing for a sharp focused foreground while keeping the background vivid at great distances, Spielberg shows us that while the man in the foreground has a pressing problem he wishes Brody would deal with, Brody's mind is elsewhere.
Though Spielberg would become one of the most 'political' of New Hollywood filmmakers later in his career (making films about the black experience in The Color Purple and Amistad, the Holocaust in Schindler's List, WWII in Saving Private Ryan, and Middle Eastern terrorism in Munich), he was always at his best preying on fears rather than playing up issues. The techniques utilised work well for awe rather than understanding, for milking a subject rather than trying to find an insight into it. When Spielberg insisted he admired greatly John Frankenheimer (Seconds, Black Sunday), saying "his editing has more energy than the content of the story", it could be seen as the praise towards another that would contain within it a criticism that could be later levelled at him. When we look at a Frankenheimer film like Black Sunday, we can easily see why Spielberg admires the director while observing that such admiration works well within the context of entertainment, but is troublesome when applied to material that asks for our comprehension. One particular scene in Black Sunday captures clearly Spielberg's statement and it is a scene similar to a number in Spielberg and Brian De Palma's films too. Here we see a Goodyear blimp composed of plastique and a quarter million flechettes finding its way into a football stadium filled with fans. Frankenheimer skilfully moves between the fans' fears, the villain's determination to light the fuse, and the hero's attempt to hook the huge balloon bomb to a helicopter and towards safe detonation elsewhere. The film isn't interested in a nuanced account of political interests in the Middle East Mossad are heroically presented and Black September clearly the villains but within the context of a film that Spielberg rightly indicates is more interested in how the story is put together over the content to it, the film, like many a seventies thriller, shows proper craft.
What we mean by this is a tightness to the action, well aware that motivation is the predicate upon which sequences are created rather than the other way round. If Spielberg's later films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are often flaccid it lies in the misaligned tension between the dramatic needs of the sequence and the moral assertion in the content. Shot for shot Jaws is much tighter than the later films, with Spielberg's complete attention on the sequence itself because he feels little need to attend to the content of the story. In Schindler's List, even to use the term action-sequence to describe the clearing of the Warsaw ghettoes can seem offensive. Spielberg tones down the 'action' but doesn't find a proper alternative means by which to show the clearance, falling back on the sentimentality of the symbolic child in red to register it. Spielberg's proper craft rests on the technical brilliance of a sequence rather than finding a new means of presentation which creates a tight knot of the ethical and the aesthetic. The opening twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is brilliantly done but still quite conventional and far less sustained than an earlier work like Elem Klimov's WWII film Come and See. Hence, any admiration we might have for Spielberg's equivalent to Black Sunday, Munich, is evident not when it tries to lay out the complexity of the Middle Eastern situation, but when it works suspense. Spielberg shows us another child in peril as it looks like a counter-terrorist attack by the Israelis won't only take out the mastermind they seek to kill but also his daughter. When a bomb explodes in a hotel it is Spielberg's skill with shock and surprise that works well as a benign moment on a balcony gets incorporated into a horrible moment of terror.
These two scenes in Munich show Spielberg at his best even if it shows politics at its most simplified. He returns in the former instance to exquisitely controlled Hitchockian suspense, and in the latter, to show that he can offer impact aesthetics (Speed, Armageddon, Independence Day) better than anyone. It might appear a derelict argument to insist that Spielberg is better eschewing the political intricacies for action exigencies, but if a filmmaker doesn't quite have the sensibility to generate a form that is equal to the debate, then best to eschew the intricacies altogether. If Jaws remains Spielberg's finest film it rests on the form never feeling at all obliged to the content. His comment about Black Sunday is apposite to his own work a couple of years earlier and to his own film on Black September many years later.
Our point thus far has been to say that Spielberg as readily as Altman absorbed some of the technological developments that Apollo 11 reveals so well, the degree to which films had evolved to give us vivid images of the moon landing and no less vivid images of the various actions of man on earth. But they did so for quite different ends. Here it might be useful to mention that most ubiquitous of theoretical figures in seventies culture the Canadian cultural theorist Marshall MacLuhan who shows up as himself in Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar-winning comedy Annie Hall. MacLuhan famously differentiated between hot and cool mediums, with cinema an example of the former and radio and television the latter. Hot mediums have a density of information and demand a much more concentrated perspective, partly why radio and TV are great mediums for half-occupying our attention while we busy ourselves doing other things. Seventies cinema allowed the medium to heat up still further but in different directions. The sequence in Jaws demands our attention as completely as our example from Nashville but it demands it in a different way. Spielberg creates numerous variables and finds the form in which to register this range but the image is nevertheless very strongly moving towards the dead centre of suspense, and the death of the child. In contrast, Altman remains interested in the peripheral possibilities in the scene as he asks us to muse over the emotional intricacies within it. While Spielberg could say of Jaws, according to Joe McBride in his biography of the director, "I have a four scream movie...I think I can get it up to five scream." (Steven Spielberg), Altman by contrast wasn't interested in manipulation but instead formulation the way a film comes together taking into account numerous contingent yet contrasting and combinatory possibilities. Speaking of the music design for the film he wanted it to be a mixture of good and bad with no intention of creating hit songs that summed up the film in contrast for example to numerous films of the eighties that synonymised the films they were used in: 'What a Feeling' in Flashdance, 'Take my Breath Away' from Top Gun, 'The Time of my Life' in Dirty Dancing. "Most of the songs were not meant to be hits. Actually one of them was a hit 'I'm Easy', though Keith [Carradine] wrote that five years before we did the picture. But I wanted a cross-section of songs, good and bad." (Altman on Altman)
While Spielberg (an enormous influence on numerous eighties filmmakers during a decade in which he continued to succeed while many other seventies filmmakers did not) makes clear his intention; Altman registers his interest in chance or perhaps more especially the reality that chance provides. There might be a contradiction here since Spielberg was happy to give the audience a say in the final product. As McBride notes, there were plenty of preview screenings, including one where an audience member said "this is a great film. Now don't fuck it up by trying to make it better." But Spielberg did want to make it better, making it even more of an entertainment evident when discussing Roy Scheider's line where he says, "we need a bigger boat". Consistently getting big laughs at the previews, though nobody making the film saw it as a humorous line, Spielberg went back and looped it to make it louder. Here was a filmmaker always determined to involve the audience in the film, well aware that the power he would have in the industry resided not only on the power he had over the audience, but also the power the viewer would have over him if they could help him improve the film. Altman, on the other hand, always believed, "my main motivation in making the film is that I want to do it my way", as he made clear "I've never had any of my films cut or edited by anybody." (Altman on Altman) Altman is both much more interested in the ambiguities life allows but also much more determined to hold onto the vision that he creates out of that open approach. Spielberg closes the image down but also expects the viewer to help him determine how locked in it needs to become. As Carradine serenades the various women he has slept with while singing 'I'm Easy', audience members, who might have wished for Altman to make it still clearer that the woman he adores at this given moment is Lily Tomlin, would be unlikely to have been given the sort of power that Spielberg often offered. From one point of view, this makes Spielberg the more modest filmmaker, but it is the modesty of a very fine entertainer who knows that a certain type of film is the sum total of the intelligence put into it rather than the aesthetic singularity that can be extracted from an artist's vision. The sort of 'hot' material Spielberg would add to make the film even tighter than his impressive early instinct for which shots were needed, is emphasised still further by an audience that knows what it wants and who believes the filmmaker's purpose is to provide it. Altman reckoned the director's role was to lead the audience not follow it, as he was always suspicious of the involvement of others, those who seemed to be demanding more conventional material. "I've had lots of complaints from actors...I try to create an atmosphere where these actors can stretch into it. But mostly they're all pretty conservative anyway." (Altman on Altman)
One way of looking at the reason why actors might be wary of Altman rests on his interest in behaviour over performance. While nobody went further than Altman in this direction, many of the most intriguing directors of the seventies at least acknowledged this aspect of creativity. While actors were traditionally there to read their lines and avoid bumping into the furniture, Altman was interested in dissolving the importance of the exposition. He was happy having actors who looked like they were fumbling around, clumsily clueless in their environment evident in the main characters in McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, characters who weren't astute Western heroes or noir deductionists, but people just figuring out the world they were in. Other directors of the time who absorbed elements of Altman's style, who saw cinema as a medium of observation rather than control, included Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Michael Ritchie, Barbara Loden, Charles Burnett, Jerry Schatzenberg and in his own distinctive way John Cassavetes, who of course had already made a couple of important films before Altman's success with M*A*S*H. Nevertheless, Altman was the strong influence. Scorsese may have said that Cassavetes had used a lightweight 16mm camera for Shadows in 1959, so there were no more excuses. If he could do it, so could we!" (Scorsese on Scorsese), but it was Altman who had a hit with M*A*S*H that allowed for such behavioural specificity to become commonplace. The film was the third top-grossing film of 1970, according to Box-Office Mojo and was the only film in the top five (Love Story, Airport, Patten and The Aristocats) that could have lead others to innovate aware that this needn't lead necessarily to poor returns.
A lot of the finest filmmakers of the decade nevertheless balanced out their own creative needs with a more general acceptance of commercial imperatives. If we believe that Altman, Scorsese, Malick, Kubrick and Ashby were the unequivocal artist of their generation, then Arthur Penn, Francis Coppola, William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah were given to balancing their creative freedoms with an audience's imperative. Films like Days of Heaven, Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon and McCabe and Mrs Miller could fail financially and still recuperate their losses in acknowledgement of innovation. The French Connection, The Godfather and The Wild Bunch were films looking for big returns within their originality. We make no great claims for Malick over Coppola during this period, Scorsese over Peckinpah. That is not our point, and if it were then Altman and Scorsese could look pretty commercial next to Cassavetes. What made New Hollywood so interesting wasn't someone like Cassavetes (who worked brilliantly and independently), but how many others managed to work within commercial constraints while producing significant cinema, and the degree to which the filmmaker was concerned with personal expression over commercial expectation, aware of the tension between the two places. As Arthur Penn said when asked about the favourite film he had made. "I'd say Bonnie and Clyde. Financially too. I own ten per cent of the film after it recoups about $8 million. It's expected to gross about $28,000,000." (The Film Director as Superstar)
Some of the entertainers had no specific vision and it wouldn't be easy to distinguish one film from another. Arthur Hiller directed Love Story and George Seaton Airport, but they were just really journeymen who made money. The New Hollywood entertainers like Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma wanted more than to make cash; they wanted to master manipulation and control. As David Thomson says, harshly appraising De Palma: "There is self-conscious cunning in De Palma work, ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference. He is the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character." (A Biographical Dictionary of Film) De Palma may have in some ways been an empty entertainer but it was as though the emptiness was the point to make films that could generate immense anxiety and tension without the filmmaker doing so with any particular aim. Taking a look at the famous set-piece sequence in Carrie we can see how this combination of brilliance and emptiness works manipulatively so well. Using slow-motion and a rich piano, strings and flute score, De Palma shows Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and her partner for the night, Tommy (William Katt), get ready to go up on stage. Suddenly the film cuts to Nancy Allen hiding under it as the music turns tense and potentially menacing. De Palma then cuts back to Allen and we watch Katt taking to the stage. The director also offers us cutaways in slow motion to Amy Irving hoping for the best, and John Travolta, planning for the worst. This is manipulation not at its worst but at its most accomplished; few can deny that De Palma has worked the audience in a very precise way. But to admire the craft needn't mean we cannot question the effect. Manuela Lazi and Matthew Thrift may note that "De Palma depicts the rising tension and the intertwining of their intentions with tact, vividness and suspense via slow-motion, cross-cutting and close-ups on faces traversed by emotions. But, placed in his hands, this story of a girl's desperate attempt to come of age from an oppressive upbringing into a cruel world could only lead to an emotionally and formally explosive ending." (BFI) But the sequence, like the film, takes place in an ethical bubble; it hardly cares to refer outside itself or beyond itself. it imagines the worst of humiliations within the context of a telekinetic narrative (Carrie has special powers).
In contrast, when Travis Bickle goes on a rampage in Taxi Driver, Scorsese captures the mad rage of seventies New York, constantly finding ways to deviate from the story to indicate this isn't about one man in Manhattan but a city overheating. Celebrating the activities of this lone vigilante would be less to rid the world of its worst elements, than turn a person with a horribly contradictory set of values (kind yet resentful; lonely but selfish; determined yet dangerous; charming yet repellent) into another person crazy in the Big Apple, someone to put alongside the figure we see walking along the street yelling halfway through the film, and the character in the back seat (played by Scorsese) telling Bickle what a Magnum gun can do to a woman's privates. Scorsese's set-piece sequence in the brothel churns up complex and troublesome thoughts in the viewer; De Palma's wants to show, as if a variation of Scorsese's character talking about the Magnum, what a camera can do as he gleefully indicates his directorial control. De Palma is a sadist to Spielberg's sentimentalist, but they are both directors who understand cinema as a bottom dollar medium, what philosopher Alan Badiou sees as an inevitably popular art form it occasionally escapes. "This is what makes cinema, intrinsically and not empirically, into a mass art: its internal referent is not the artistic past of forms, which would suppose an educated spectator, but a common imagery whose filtering and distancing treatment is guaranteed by potential artistic operations." (Infinite Thought)
Badiou might be exaggerating his case if we take De Palma as an example: a director versed enough in the past to draw frequently on Hitchcock as an influence. Whether it is Dressed to Kill borrowing from the shower sequence in Psycho, to the voyeur theme from Rear Window for Body Double, or the fixated figure in Vertigo becoming another fixated figure in Obsession, De Palma knows the Hitchcock canon better than anyone. However, what interests De Palma more than homage is the means. He isn't so much interested in Hitchcock; more in the Hitchcockian, seeing in the English director a mastery of manipulation that he can take further with the developments of technology available to him. No one, for example, has made greater use of the diopter lens, well-explored by Paul Raemakers in 'Notes on the Split Screen Diopter', though other directors adopted it too as a means by which to trick the audience's eye. Raemakers sees such a device as very rare in European cinema, perhaps because he sees European film as more realistically oriented. As opposed to many "Hollywood film in the 1970s, European art cinema was characterized to varying degrees by realism and authorial expressivity. In Hollywood, the latter would far outlive the form." Though he sees Alan J. Pakula utilising the diopter for realist means in All the President's Men, "De Palma's [methods] emerge from an equally prevalent aesthetic consideration, manifest in virtuosic displays of authorial motivated visual stylization." De Palma wants to announce his own dexterity and show just how well film can control our emotions.
It is this questioning of that control: the need to push the aesthetic properties of film, while at the same time wondering what might be the consequences of this virtuosity, that seems to us the residing preoccupation of the artists of New Hollywood. The difference between a De Palma film such as Blow Out and All the President's Men, rests on De Palma utilising an aspect of a political situation (the Chappaquiddick incident involving Ted Kennedy) for his own virtuosic ends, and Pakula making a film about Watergate and determined to play fair to the complexity of the given situation. We needn't see this as realism versus auteurism; more that a filmmaker attends to the variables involved in the world that find themselves in the artwork. It isn't that the filmmaker mimics the world merely pointing a camera can do that. What they do is take from the world its manifold aspect and accept that the artwork too contains a manifold of its own. In Lucas, Spielberg and De Palma's work that manifold is missing, replaced by an undeniable skill and an entertainer's respect for the audience, but the sinews seem less firm than in Scorsese, Altman, Pakula or Coppola. Speaking of making The Godfather Part II, Coppola said, according to Peter Cowie, he wanted to create echoes in the second film of the first. "It's something in the direction, or in the dialogue, or in the mood of each scene...it's like harmony where one note echoes another." (Coppola) He doesn't just want to involve the viewer in the characters and situations all over again but to create a sinuously subtle experience. Equally, Scorsese could say about the scene at the end of Raging Bull: I pointed out that this would mean De Niro playing Jake La Motta playing Marlon Brando playing Terry Malone!" Yet this wasn't for a cool and detached self-reflexive irony, but to try and understand the layers to La Motta's messy, troublesome being. "And that's the way we did it, in nineteen takes. Sometimes Jake himself would really act it out in a very strong way which was quite heartbreaking, and Bobby did it that way three times." The whole experience he describes as "very disturbing for me." (Scorsese on Scorsese)
What makes The Godfather and Raging Bull much greater films than Carrie and Jaws, though the latter pair and especially Jaws are as good as entertainment gets, is that though the latter pair are manifoldly much richer than Armaggedon, Independence Day or Spiderman, they wonder less about how to say something than how to do something. Many an aesthetic argument might rest on the how rather than on the why and anyone from Hitchcock to Susan Sontag might be good examples of this response. As Hitchcock would say in Cinema magazine: "I only interest myself in the manner and style of telling the story. But as for the story itself, I don't care whether it's good or bad, you know. If it serves my purpose." ('Hitchcock on Style: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock') Even though there was more to Sontag's idea 'Against Interpretation' than immediately apparent, nevertheless she did insist that "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art" and that "our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all." We could see De Palma rigorously nodding at the first remark, while in the context of the latter, would Spielberg and De Palma not be more inclined to cut back content rather than Coppola and Scorsese? We don't want to turn Sontag into the populist she so obviously wasn't but both De Palma and Spielberg were interested less in what to say than how to say it, so much so that when they did have something to say, from Casualties of War to Redacted, from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler's List, they haven't found it easy to do so without arriving at sentiment and platitude, evidenced in the little the girl in red in Schindler's List. In this, De Palma's Redacted, however, is interesting: rather than heating the medium up, in McLuhan's terms, rather than utilising the density cinema was capable of, De Palma chose to film in documentary style, limiting his mastery to the basic competence of someone filming the event. The film was hammered by many critics but it is an intriguing example of a filmmaker aware that when trying to find the socio-politically manifold he or she might not be able to hold onto the virtuosic. Spielberg in Schindler's List adopted mainly black and white as a means to temper his style, but one may sense that in both instances we have directors who have not worked consistently with the manifold; they have usually offered in the best sense of the term 'entertainments', and shown their brilliance, and can seem like novices when faced with dilemmas that demand a reassessment of the form. Others seemed to deliberately eschew the manifold even if they seemed to have been mastering the complexities of it Coppola's eighties films like One From the Heart and The Outsiders appeared like escapes from the hellish attempt to work with the real while trying to extract from it a myth (Apocalypse Now). Even Altman tried to make popular a comic strip adaptation (Popeye), however Altmanesque, before settling in the eighties for small-scale theatre adaptations like Streamers and Fool for Love.
What is our point? A potential danger of arriving at one too hastily is that the nuances get lost. There is no clear line dividing the entertainers from the artists and the blurriness of that line needs to be acknowledged. Nevertheless, it seems clear to us that when watching Taxi Driver, Nashville, The Godfather and All the President's Men, our responses are different from those when watching Jaws, Carrie, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We needn't see this as a question of craft if we accept that the filmmaker all very clearly insisted in working in a hot medium: in making the complexity of their mise-en-scene, the quality of their editing, the range of their sound design cinematic. It rests on whether they seek a hot manifold method that incorporates the complexity of our being as well as that of cinema, or wants to use that complexity of the medium to indicate that our being really isn't very complex at all.
We can notice this in three aspects: the use of reaction shots, the movement of the camera and the nature of the cutting. In the scene where Bickle sits in the cafe listening to another taxi driver tell a story, the film cuts back several times to Bickle listening, but he isn't there to augment the excitement in the story but instead to indicate he might not believe what he is hearing or that he might not be listening as intently as the others since he seems to have other things on his mind. It is far away from the standard reaction shot that confirms what we are already seeing in the 'action'. That is exactly what De Palma offers in Carrie as we see the looks on Allen, Irving and Travolta's face. They might not all want the same result: Irving is happy for Carrie; Travolta and Allen maliciously await the worst, but their reactions are single-minded. The same is true in Close Encounters as Spielberg creates numerous similar reaction shots as he cuts away to Francois Truffaut, Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and numerous others to underscore the stupendous nature of an alien landing. In Nashville, the reaction shot in the scene we have quoted moves between Carradine's various lovers until the other three realise he is singing for the fourth figure Lily Tomlin's character. Here the other lovers are shown in medium close up while Tomlin initially gets viewed in medium long shot as Altman shows the bewitched bewilderment on Tomlin's visage and the slow realisation on the face of the others that Carradine isn't singing for them. It is a marvellous example of the reaction shot seen for what it can be and not for what is so often used as: it complicates the action rather than confirms it.
In some of the most interesting New Hollywood films, the camera didn't so much follow action as observe it or retreat from it. Altman's camera could on occasion seem close to a lack of concern, evident frequently in Nashville, and a scene where the patriot Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) sings will serve as well as any other. Altman doesn't want to suggest ridicule as people walk out of the show, or walk into it, though people do, nor does he want to indicate irritation on the part of those leaving the premises or arriving late. He just captures a documentative indifference indicating that people have a variety of responses to Haven's very average singing and homespun family wisdom. At one moment we see a man who looks like he is searching for his seat; after the song is finished, Atlman cuts to a campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) making a derogatory remark. When the audience claps, Altman doesn't show us the audience face on but from behind Haven. The audience is responsive but Altman films that response from a place of something close to uninterest. The director wouldn't deny there are many who like country and western music, he just has little interest in promoting it when he can observe that world. He takes the musical genre and instead of infusing it with the usual enthusiasm, he extracts from it the maximum amount of observation. In McCabe and Mrs Miller, he does something similar to the Western, taking a genre exemplary in its binary aspects (hero/villain; desert/frontier town; family; individuality and so on) and muddies them by setting the film in the frozen north-west, generating a makeshift family of brothel dwellers and workers, and having as our hero a bumbling wreck (Warren's Beatty's McCabe) who doesn't know what he is doing from one minute to the next. Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture this well in a scene where Beatty is heroic but in the most appalling of circumstances. One of the prostitutes is hacking away at a client in the middle of an expanse of mud (while Leonard Cohen's anachronistic music plays over the images) and Beatty comes to the rescue. Altman films mainly in telephoto long shot as McCabe wrestles the knife from her but the scene itself contains the inexplicable and the interruptive. We don't know exactly what has happened, and McCabe was in the middle of a meeting with a fellow businessman about making money in the town and keeping outsiders out. Equally, when the businessman and McCabe talk, the other man says to McCabe, "the minute I seen you ride into town I knew you was a man to be reckoned with", Beatty tells him to cut out the nonsense and get to the point, well aware that he isn't a gunslinger even if we know that is exactly what the western hero is supposed to be. Altman in both Nashville and McCabe and Mrs Miller moves the camera less to tell the story than to find the means by which to observe a milieu and generate characterisation rather than characters: to see people's foibles and idiosyncrasies rather than the assertiveness of their actions. Throughout the latter, McCabe is hesitant, mumbling and clumsy. In the former, the film emphasises not so much the musical ambition of the characters than the hope and despair in their dreams, if they aren't successful, and the fears of harassment and intrusion if they are. The American hero and the American dream dissolve in Altman's work into the nature of a telephoto observation, one which demands things aren't glorified but instead scrutinized.
Scorsese's approach to the dramatically indifferent is quite dissimilar, even if both Scorsese and Altman's ability to undermine the conventions of drama have many similarities. In Mean Streets, Scorsese allows a fight to take place in the background of the shot while our main characters are in the foreground surprised by what has just kicked off. Scorsese registers the surprise by leaving us none the wiser than the characters, but we cannot deny that this is probably a regular occurrence in the bars of Little Italy where small-time gangsters congregate. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese uses the camera not to suggest the action he shows but the tension central character Travis Bickle contains. Though there are of course moments of horrific violence in the film (including Bickle killing a black youth in a grocery store and the slayings near the conclusion), the film is a work of tension rather than action and all the more terrifying for it. If the purpose of an action film is to indicate the level of violence required given the nature of the situation in which it takes place, Scorsese suggests that the aggression within self and society isn't at all calibrated to big events which 'justify' it, but often manifests itself in ways that are all the more troublesome because they can take place, any time, anywhere. Scorsese may say when asked about violence "I hate violence, I know that it's in me, it's in you, in everyone and I want to explore it. That means the small violences, too." (Scorsese: A Journey Through The American Psyche) But violence he shows us nevertheless, and few directors are better on the small violences which needn't always be activated but can often just be alluded to through camera movement. "Marty loves dollies" his cinematographer on Taxi Driver said. "...It is certainly is a movie full of looks here and there and looks everywhere, like a walker in the city, you just keep wandering and looking." To extend Michael Chapman's remark, we might say someone walking and looking paranoiacally. Think of the moment when Bickle is in his taxi and he almost runs the young prostitute Iris over as she crosses the road. The camera follows them along the street as Bickle follows too in his car as a distraught figure (mentioned earlier) rampages along the pavement saying that he is going to kill someone. The camera movements suggest a hyper-attentive gaze, a sympathetic nervous system as camera eye, alert to danger.
Of course the sequence is enormously aided by Bernard Hermann's jarring, clashing music through the first half of the sequence but it is the camera which captures on its own terms the dangers and frustrations New York offers. In the mid-to-late seventies writer Ann Beattie was living in the city and a character of hers reckoned "life was so difficult that small triumphs began to feel like success." (Love Always) Scorsese captures very well a city that you don't so much live in as remain constantly wary of. The director registers a city of affluence and effluence, the wealthy and the comfortable represented by the politician Travis has in his taxi, the woman Betsy he asks out and her colleague in the office. The effluent include Bickle and others who lack education and opportunity and would be inclined to judge others and turn the feelings against themselves. As Bickle says at one moment: "Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks." Is he speaking literally or metaphorically? Scorsese suggests both while at the same time producing a film that has no interest in condescension or class superiority. The affluent and the effluent represent New York, a city in which rich and poor rub against each other and produce the city's unique tension. Effluence of course means sewage and the director shows a city 'underground' even if it happens to be above. One of the key textual influences on Paul Schrader's script was Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky. "Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I reread Sartre's Nasuea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes from Underground, Nausea...and put him in an American context." (Film Comment)
If Taxi Diver shows the presence of Dostoyevsky, Jaws owes a partial debt to Ibsen, even if it is a sensibility much more hidden in the material than Dostoyevsky's in Taxi Driver. Spielberg is more interested in action than the stage-bound contemplation of Enemy of the People. In Jaws, he and his editor Verna Fields edit masterfully, never more so than when indicating the shark's threat. Right from the opening sequence, Spielberg shows just how in control he happens to be of the audience's responses when he chooses to open with a point of view of the shark, accompanied by menacing music, before cutting to what seems like a benign beach scene where a couple go off to skinny dip. The girl is in the water, the boy is struggling, drunk, to take off his clothes on the sand, and Spielberg cuts again to impending menace: an underwater shot from a low angle of the girl swimming on the surface of the ocean. The cross-cutting sequence comes together with cutting being the operative word as the girl is attacked by the shark's razor-sharp teeth. The film has the audience exactly where it wants it in a state of frightened menace that will continue through to the film's conclusion: a rhyming moment that returns us to the beginning of the film; this time to the beach in daylight.
The Godfather also insistently cross cuts but usually not because it wants to tantalise the viewer with suspense but to draw out the implications of the violence. In the sequence where Michael christens his son while at the same time a series of hits are taking place across the city, Coppola emphasises the hypocrisy of Michael's position without quite falling into an ironic assertiveness. Initial rites contrast with last rites, as Michael christens his son in the face of the Lord and allowing others to do his dirty work taking out his opponents in his absence. He has indeed become his father's son an Ivy league educated man who certainly knows how to take care of business, but Coppola is very good on the ambivalences of such a position. Everything is for family and at the same time alienates him from the members of it whether it happens to be taking care of his brother in a way that has nothing to do with his wellbeing, or keeping his wife at a distance, Michael is a conflicted man. Coppola must have always understood an aspect of this tension. He might have come from a creative family (his father Carmine was a well-known musician) and his daughter and nephew too became an established director and actor: Sofia Coppola and Nicolas Cage. But he was also often enough close to destroying the family. As his wife Eleanor says, Apocalypse Now "is $3m over budget, which United Artists has now put up, but Francis has to personally pay it back if the film doesn't make $40m or more." (Hearts of Darkness) It might have been Apocalypse Now that was in danger of destroying the family finances, just as The Godfather helped make that fortune, but it is the latter film which analyses so well the nature of what one does for the family and in the name of it. The christening/killing crosscut captures this perfectly.
Opening on the significance of the Apollo 11 space mission, we noted the importance of the shot/counter shot, reversing the angle from the earth to the moon, to the moon to the earth. But Apollo 11 also shows the immensity of cross-cutting. Usually a cross-cut indicates two different spatial areas that are conjoined: a chase sequence for example that shows two cars, one in pursuit of the other. They are in strictly different spaces (hence the crosscut) but still in close proximity. We wouldn't be inclined to suggest a scene that cuts back and forth between two people fighting a cross-cut. But the moon landing allowed us to see just what a cross-cut was capable of: the 384 million miles between one planet and another. The cross-cutting we see in The Godfather, indeed the brilliant cross-cutting we find in The French Connection as William Friedkin complicates the car chase as he moves between a car and a subway train, can seem insignificant next to the gap between the earth and the moon. Our point isn't to belittle Coppola and Friedkin's achievements, but to indicate their ambition within a broader one that happened to the space programme and its potential for human perception. For all the fascination with space that Star Wars and Close Encounters opened up, two huge box-office hits that helped define the retreat into commercial filmmaking in the eighties, we might argue that the proper presence of space as a possibility, can be found far more often in the films of Altman, Coppola and others. It's as if they're interested less in the gadgetry of outer space than the horizon of possibilities it invited. Part of this horizon of possibility was acknowledging the reality of their times without retreating from them. If Star Wars sought outer space as if an escape from the historical moment from the end of the Vietnam war, the impeachment of a president and an oil crisis that started to undermine the American standard of living then numerous others used technological developments, of which the tech used in the space mission was its apotheosis, as a means by which to examine that society. Whether it was Coppola (and sound designer Walter Murch) using developments in sound design and long lens technology in The Conversation, or Pakula (with cinematographer Gordon Willis) creating a shadowy corporate world in Klute and The Parallax View (whose opening scene is on the Seattle Space needle), filmmakers worked within the shadow of the space programme's images while at the same time commenting on the here and now of their political situation. It was as though many of these fine films understood the sense in which space dwarfed them while Lucas and others would insist that this dwarfing had to stop that America had to take advantage of its moon landing as an issue no longer of perceptual magnitude, and turn it into a triumphal simplification. It is easy enough to find plenty directors of the seventies talking about the politics of their time; even when they weren't making films directly about a given political situation, they were very aware of the analogies. Speaking of Little Big Man, Arthur Penn said: "I was really, in my mind, carrying the Holocaust. You know? Because it was such indiscriminate killing, based on some-some kind of societal definition of a human who can be dispensed with. And that impulse, it's happening today. It's happened in the Second World War, it happened in Vietnam, it's happening in Iraq..." (Bright Lights Film Journal) Numerous articles note that M*A*S*H was set in Korea was also commenting on Vietnam, while Penn invoked Watergate in the context of Night Moves, and Scorsese indicated the failure of the presidential in the line "all the king's men couldn't put it back together again" in Taxi Driver.
Now of course as we have noted numerous claims have been made about the moon landing as faked, and alongside such claims comes speculation over who directed it, with Kubrick usually the name most bandied around but Coppola and even Scorsese on occasion mentioned. These rumours are not our concern. What happens to be isn't so much who directed the moon landing as a fiction, but its consequent influence on filmmakers who would direct under its shadow, and bring that influence to bear to examine the society of which they were a part. To claim when watching Apollo 11 that we can see far more of Altman, Pakula, Penn, Friedkin and others than we can those who would go on to make recuperative science-fiction films (like Spielberg and Lucas), is to offer a provocation. But we hope a useful one in making sense of the perpetual magnitude available to the directors of the period, and how some seized on it and others retreated from it.
© Tony McKibbin