The New Hollywood
Symptoms of the Times
"The period from the late 1960s until the mid or late 1970s," Geoff King says in New Hollywood, "has gained almost mythic status in the annals of Hollywood." Studios were running scared while directors were running amok, and the power structure was called into question as the filmmakers were questioning the society of which they were a part. If seventies Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman in The Adventures in the Screen Trade could say of Hollywood that nobody knows nothing, this was perhaps all the more in evidence during this period in American film, and maybe all the better for it. Goldman's remark suggests a basic incompetence at work, but let us tweak it a little and say that in classic Hollywood people did know something; that the combination of generic formulas, formal consistency and societal coherence gave the entertainment industry a feeling that it knew exactly what it was doing. It knew its audience and knew what it wanted in genre expectation, film grammar and moral values. The New Hollywood, from Bonnie and Clyde to Easy Rider, through to Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, onto Heaven's Gate and Raging Bull, was a cinema where it was difficult for people to know anything because many filmmakers were unwilling to work so firmly in a genre, had absorbed many formal innovations out of Europe, and wanted to fight against social assumptions rather than conform to them. This could, of course, lead to everyone running around in an industry trying to make sense of shifts in narrative expectations, film style and slippery ethics, but instead we want to suggest not that nobody knew anything, but that the right people knew something: the new filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn.
Perhaps the best place to start is with Robert Altman and some remarks he makes in Altman on Altman. Talking of his leading actors on M*A*S*H, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, he noticed that "they didn't get the direction at all...They complained I spent all my time with the extras. And it's true...They tried to have me fired." Later he talks about a film he made many years later about ballet called The Company: "When I shot a scene with Neve Campbell and James Franco, I just left out the obligatory dialogue, because the audience knows all that. But I was very worried about it...Most films are concerned with doing what has already been done better rather than doing what may not have been done." Here Altman acknowledges the need for experimentation, and the acceptance that it contains risks. This isn't the filmmaker not knowing anything, but admitting that he doesn't quite know what he is getting at. It isn't the know-nothing insecurity of the studio head who wants to second guess what will work for the punters, but the searching auteur wondering what will help generate a new aesthetic possibility.
Altman's remarks aren't very different from Scorsese's. "Success is a matter of chance. To play it safe, you can take less risks. If I played it safe it wouldn't be hard to stay on top. All I'd have to do would be to direct the best properties of the year - you know, film that book. But that's wrong." (American Cinema/American Culture) Speaking of Taxi Driver, Ryan Gilbey wonders how a film such as this ever got made, how come studios were willing in the mid-seventies to pump money into such wayward projects? "But the enquiry is less pertinent to the early part of the seventies, when studios had cottoned on to the idea of using young talent to make lower-budget movies that would have a greater chance of showing a profit." (It Don't Worry Me) Yet this seems to dodge the question. Such a notion fits a film like Boxcar Bertha, a movie Scorsese made for Roger Corman, and one with clear guidelines on sex and violence: to include as much of it as possible in an inversion of the Hays code. Films from the earlier era had to eschew the sexual and the violent, into the seventies exploitation movies had an obligation to show the flesh was willing to be exposed and punctured. Gilbey talks of "the incongruous inserts of sex and violence that occurred at regular intervals." However, there is a huge difference between the exploitation film often produced by Corman that demanded violence as a new generic expectation, which still, finally conforms to our idea that there were always people in Hollywood and its fringes who knew something (Corman was a canny operator), and the violent bloodletting found in The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. If, as Stephen Prince proposes in Screening Violence, "ultraviolent films since 1967 have utilized these two aesthetic formats - montage slow motion and graphic mutilation to provide very powerful and intense experiences for spectators", then this doesn't mean all the films are doing so for the same reasons. Now obviously one man's exploitation film is another's attempt at societal depiction of the violent, but while there is room for error that doesn't mean there is no room for argument. Some critics initially took Bonnie and Clyde to be a work of exploitativeness, even if most saw in it a new approach to feeling and form. Writing on Bonnie and Clyde, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times believed "by habituating the public to violence and brutality...films of excessive violence only deaden their sensitivities and make slaughter seem a meaningless clich." Crowther asked for moral truth, but for many directors of New Hollywood this meant showing violence not hiding from it, and showing it not simply because you could do so as censorship slackened. If classic Hollywood retreated from the explicit, and Corman and others insisted on taking advantage of slackening censorship, this was still knowingly done.
But what about doing it questioningly, making the violence questionable? Who could pretend after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy that the USA wasn't awash with violence? If so many people had access to guns as part of the constitutional right to bear arms, Scorsese, Altman, Penn and others felt a certain obligation to show what these weapons could do. It isn't that film generates violence, but that film is duty bound to express and explore the problem in film form. As Penn would say: "It's absurd to suggest that film is the central issue in violence in a violent society which has been repressing the black race for two hundred years and which has been ridden with prejudice and violence of the most flagrant character through all its history..." (The Film Director as Superstar)
Roger Corman's low-budget exploitation films are not without interest, but they were usually looking for a formula: a quota of sex and violence to keep the viewer engaged. This is what we could call receptive representation: the strong imagery that can keep an audience in its seat as it waits for the next breast to appear or head to be blown away. It is exactly the formula of the slasher films of the late seventies, with Agatha Christie meeting splatter. As you work out who might be murdering the various youthful characters, you also idly await the next scene that will provide a frisson of gore or smut. But we might also feel that the best American films of the period were more interested in symptomatic representation, as if determined to draw out of the society from where the films came an aggression that cinema had to represent if it wanted to try and understand that violence. If the classic western generically wished for the shoot-out between hero and villain in the town square, New Hollywood is a rash of assassinations, of the unfair fight between hidden forces and faces, and the central characters at the mercy of them. Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Parallax View, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Nashville are films where the western notion of violence is turned around. Where in the classic western it is bad form to shoot a man in the back, in New Hollywood it is almost de rigueur to shoot a man wherever you like and out of plain sight. Surely this approach to violence is much more symptomatically representative of the culture out of which the films were coming? They take the assassinations prevalent throughout the sixties and find a film form with which to replay the anxieties to those interested in understanding, as Penn suggests, the society out of which the audience has come.
What is important to remember when discussing New Hollywood is that it was not only a social phenomenon: it was a narrative and formal one too, and we will talk more about these aspects later. Of course, many of the films were questioning society; as we have noted, the emphasis on unclean deaths in many a great film of the period indicates an acknowledgement of societal catastrophe played out in contemporary history. Equally, the western became an allegorical genre rather than a symbolic one. While the classic western played on dichotomies of good and bad, with Andre Bazin noting in 'The Western' the "great epic Manicheism which sets the forces of evil against the knights of the true cause", and thus indicated a symbolic struggle, the New Hollywood westerns became about an event at one remove. They were often read as allegories of Vietnam: Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Ulzana's Raid to name three. The Aurum Encyclopedia of Western Movies describes Soldier Blue as "a displaced reaction to the revelations of American atrocities in Vietnam." Emmanuel Levy sees both Soldier Blue and Little Big Man as offering "parallels with Vietnam in their deliberate policy of exterminating Indians." (E.L.)
But the best American films were less symbolic or allegorical, than symptomatic: they insisted through narrative reconfiguration, formal innovation and ethical enquiry on transforming the art of film within the parameters of the American consciousness. Taxi Driver, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nashville, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and The Deer Hunter, might have all been influenced by European cinema (and on occasion directed by Europeans) but the sensibility was American, or rather the worlds explored could have only been enquiries about the US.
This is a baggy generalisation that needs to be winnowed down, but three aspects that might help us here would be to think of the culture of violence, of geographical magnitude, and of manifest destiny. These needn't be exclusively American issues, but they were central to the culture of the time. Many American films of New Hollywood were violent: Bonnie and Clyde, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Little Big Man and Chinatown. But they also possessed what Vivian Sobchack has called mortal twitching: violence that acknowledges the damage done to the body; the pain received. Comparing more recent films utilising aggression with earlier works from New Hollywood, she says in 'The Violent Dance': "[in the recent films of the nineties] pain, too drops out of the picture, The spasmodic twitching that ends Bonnie and Clyde has become truly lifeless [in the nineties]. The bodies now subjected to violence are just "dummies"." (Screening Violence) Though in another essay in the same book Stephen Prince talks up the stylistics involved in New Hollywood, saying that "Peckinpah used the montage aesthetic to break with realism in order to substitute a stylized rendition of violence", even Prince admits to a realist ethos behind Peckinpah's approach. "It seems...likely that Peckinpah was struck by the stylistic manipulations of Kurosawa and Penn, began trying them himself, and subsequently projected his World War II memory onto the results." ('The Aesthetics of Slow Motion') Violence becomes cinematically aesthetic, but it isn't unwedded to reality; more an extension of its possibilities in film form. It is as though all the assassinations in the sixties, the Vietnam war, the Chicago riots and so on, needed to find their way into New Hollywood as violent manifestation.
Yet for all the intensity of violence, for all the paranoid feeling that freedoms were being curtailed, that governments were enemies of the people, many films of the period also recognised the geographical freedom the country provided. The road movie became a central genre: Easy Rider, Scarecrow, Five Easy Pieces, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Vanishing Point, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Two Lane Blacktop. If 'let's get out of here' is one of the most hackneyed lines in Hollywood, American films of the period used it not only as a line about getting out of a tight spot, but as a phrase indicating the nation's enormity. It also gave film the opportunity to be more desultory in its plotting. Merely going from one place to another indicated movement, if not quite plot or action. Of course the films would usually have plot and purpose, a car chase or race, a job opportunity somewhere else, but the road movie at its best could be encapsulated by Jack Nicholson's dissatisfied character in Five Easy Pieces. Here he talks about things turning bad if he hangs around anywhere for too long.
In manifest destiny resides the assumptions of a culture that can grow, a term adopted in the nineteenth century to justify American expansionism throughout the north American continent, it was in American seventies cinema an expansionism that also incorporated American empire building, as it meddled in Latin America, the middle east and especially South East Asia. Numerous films explored this problematic mind set, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Apocalypse Now, from Chinatown to McCabe and Mrs Miller. It might have been in the eighties that many films investigated this expansionism more specifically, from both left and the right (The War Zone, Under Fire,Missing, Rambo: First Blood Part Two, Delta Force, Salvador), but it was in the seventies works where one sensed films that were trying to understand the problem not as an issue or as propaganda (as we often found in the eighties works), but as a question of principles and first principles. In American Film Now, James Monaco talks interestingly of mythos and ethos. "The relationship between fiction and myth is so intimate in fact that most films that are generally considered important, from Citizen Kane to 2001: A Space Odyssey, from Gone with the Wind to The Godfather, are obviously and strongly mythopoeic." But he also adds: "myth grows naturally out of close observation: if you've an interesting story to tell, with interesting people, and absorbing thematic material, myth will take care of itself."
The eighties films might have been ostensibly more politically focused than many seventies works, but this would be to miss the point. Whether it happened to the left-leaning Salvador and Missing, or the right-wing Rambo: First Blood Part Two and Delta Force, the films by focusing on issues or concentrating on pushing propaganda, lacked principles: first principles. A superficial ethos got in the way of exploring an underlying mythos. If we might have a problem with a film like the early seventies Soldier Bluebecause it too obviously allegorizes the old west, then even more might we have a problem with films that are journalistic or propagandistic: there is little space for the art of the mythos meeting the ethos, and the symptomatic as we are trying to define it, to come through.
Indeed many of the disputes around The Deer Hunter can be seen through the ethos and the mythos. John Pilger says on his blog: "The Deer Hunter lauded those who had caused the deaths of more than three million Vietnamese, while reducing those who resisted to barbaric commie stick figures." "Try and imagine a boneless elephant sitting in your lap for three hours while you're trying to think", Jonathan Rosenbuam said of the film in Take One. "It's flabby beyond belief, convinced not only of its importance but its relevance to Americans (i.e., human beings) everywhere, and even winds up bleating a mournful rendition of "God Bless America" in your ear, hoping that you'll join in or at least have sympathy for its plight." Many of the attacks on Michael Cimino's 1978 film focused on the director telling fibs. He was reinventing history as he included scenes of Russian Roulette when there were no known instances of this game being played during the war. "The central metaphor of the fim was simply a bloody lie" Vietnam war reporter Peter Arnett insisted: "What disturbs me is that audiences and critics seem to have found much more historical truth and significance than there really is in the saga." (Los Angeles Times.) "I have found that enthusiasts are genuinely hurt when I tell them that while Vietnam had all manners of violence, including self-immolating Buddhist monks, fire-bombings, rape, deception, and massacres like My Lai in its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, or in my experience either." The Deer Hunter, he insists, is no more a historically valid comment on the American experience in Vietnam than was "The Godfather" an accurate history of the typical Italian immigrant family."
There is a very justifiable argument to be made about Hollywood reconfigurating history for its own narrative ends, but within it there should also be space for deciding whether the changes contribute to mythos and ethos, or whether they are short-hand devices utilised for easy audience indignation. Is there a difference between The Deer Hunter and The Patriot, with the latter using a Nazi atrocity during WWII where the Nazis burned innocents in a barn and allowing it to take place during the American war of Independence? In desecration of fact, no; in searching out mythos and ethos perhaps. The Patriot settles for unequivocal indignation; The Deer Hunter desires ethical equivocation. As The Deer Hunter ends with the surviving characters singing God Bless America, the film could only have been called The Patriot ironically. Where the patriot is Mel Gibson's title character and patriotism vital to his self-determination, De Niro's Michael is the deer hunter: someone who can assert himself in nature but cannot expect the same point and purpose fighting a dubious war. The fictionalising gives a mythical underpinning to a complex ethos: war doesn't turn one into a hero; it turns a man into someone who can see there is a world of a difference between going on a hunt and going to war. Whatever the problem we might have with hunting as an activity, The Deer Hunter presents it as a question of man and beast; war involves rather more complications, and if Michael is equal to them it rests in a value system so in need of reassessment that when he goes hunting alone after returning from Vietnam he can no longer so easily shoot the deer. The film finds a mythical underpinning in the deer hunt, and Russian roulette, and searches out a complex ethos as it absorbs these two examples of very different moments of defencelessness and chance (for the deer and for Michael and his friends in Vietnam) and arrives at aesthetic complexity.
This is evident in many of the most important American films of the decade.Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, Bonnnie and Clyde, Days of Heaven, The Godfather, Raging Bull and Nashville all possess mythic force. For Monaco someone like Arthur Penn is "not a filmmaker who is interested in simply capturing reality. He wants to make myths..." Monaco quotes C. M. Bowra's claim that: "myths bring the unknown into relation with the known." It is this question of bringing the known and the unknown together that haunts many fine seventies films, as if determined to find in mythical structures a truth that needn't rely on conventions, but that could still find a principle that would give the films texture and meaning. The Godfather I and II can be seen as an exploration of hubris, with Michael Corleone puppeteering the lives of those around him and deciding who should live and die, who can possess honour, who can't. It has elements of Antigone: a family drama with warring factions. Taxi Driver invokes the avenging angel: "God's lonely child", as scriptwriter Paul Schrader called the central character, slays pimps in modern Manhattan. Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne actively invoked Oedipus Rex, while Apocalypse Now more contemporaneously drew onHeart of Darkness. If Goldman insisted that nobody knew anything, then figures in the seventies knew enough to draw upon culture to give texture to their work: they found a way of making films that could tap into cultural roots much deeper often than classic Hollywood.
While scriptwriters like Schrader and Towne were literate, a number of the filmmakers were cineliterate. If some of the scriptwriters were capable of drawing upon literary myth, the directors were well-versed in film form. Many were university schooled (Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas) and those who weren't, like Altman and Penn, were quick to learn a different aesthetic than one practised in television from whence they came. Altman, for example, was always looking to muddy sound, create a different soundscape from the clean, smooth Hollywood or television audio. In McCabe and Mrs Miller he put what would usually be back story and made it an ongoing mumbled thought-process as his titular male character wanders around alone talking to himself. "So we set up this whole back story that created the character, that he was never top dog. He had a friend named Frank, and Frank was the sharpy, Frank was the guy that killed Bill Roundtree." (Film Forum)
Penn offers a variation of this when he talks about how to capture contemporary speech in cinematic form. "Film offers the opportunity for constant contradiction between what is said and what is done. It's closer to how we really experience life. I'm saying that, but I'm really feeling this. And these two things are going on at once. Ambivalence is closer to the human feeling than the simple Eugene O'Neill statement: "My father is a bastard." (The Movie Director as Superstar) In the scene where Clyde Barrow and his brother reunite in Bonnie and Clyde the brothers go into the house and start chatting one on one as Clyde asks Buck what he makes of Bonnie. Buck asks is she is as good as she looks, and Clyde says yes as he goes a bit coy: we know that in the previous scene with Bonnie he's revealed himself to be impotent. In that scene he tells Bonnie: "I told you I wasn't no lover boy" as he insists "at least I ain't a liar." We could say the scene with his brother is doubly ironic: there Clyde is talking to his brother about his conquest and we know he hasn't slept with Bonnie at all, and there he is lying to Buck after telling Bonnie that at least he tells the truth. But this is where ambivalence comes in and avoids the easy spectatorship that leaves us knowing exactly what to think. He isn't a liar when he talks to Bonnie and this is part of their intimacy and complicity, which eventually leads to a sexual relationship. When he lies to his brother he is telling Buck what he needs to know for the brothers to sustain that particular relationship. If Altman insists on creating a new relationship with back story; Penn does so by refusing the simplicity of text (the stated as text or the understated as sub-text) for the more complex notion of ambivalence. It is as if both directors know that standard approaches to character are no longer valid: they want to absorb much more of life into the work.
Now obviously some might insist that a filmmaker's desire to capture life within the frame is detrimental to form: aren't the formal properties of film those that shape the material, taking from raw reality what is required to make a work of art? Yes and no. What we notice in many films of New Hollywood is the use of form to search out the real, to find means and methods to escape from the clean aloofness of the classic studio Hollywood film and arrive at a cinema that explores American locale. Yet at the same time, many of the films involve formal innovations and self-reflexive elements that make us aware we are watching neither quite the piece of cake or the slice of life that Hitchcock talked about, but life with the worst bits left in, and the filmmaker making us aware of the choices being made. In Taxi Driver early on as Travis Bickle walks along the street, Scorsese offers a series of lap dissolves that would usually indicate a passage of time, but with each dissolve showing him just a few yards further along that road. When Bickle talks on the phone to the woman he is besotted by, Betsy, the camera leaves him behind and stares down an empty corridor. Near the end of the film, after the bloody shoot out, the camera offers a disorienting overhead shot as it retreats out of the room. This latter shot is a perfect example of the worst bits left in, and a self-conscious awareness of the fact. There seems something especially bloody about watching the carnage from above: it is like a God's eye view but within a godless universe.
In Woody Allen's most visually innovative film, Manhattan, cameraman Gordon Willis utilises careful light distribution or walls to create unexpected screen spaces. In an early scene, Allen and Mariel Hemingway's character are talking on the couch and the film holds to an establishing shot of the room. Instead of moving to the close-up as they talk, Allen and Willis rely on a pool of light around the couple next to the generally dark interiors elsewhere. Shortly afterwards at a gallery, they say hello to a friend, but he remains initially offscreen as we wonder who they are saying hi to, and then a moment later the woman he is with enters the frame: a woman who isn't his wife. Through the very form we might feel that the friend has something to hide as he appears reluctant to enter the frame, and the woman likewise. In each instance, the film insists on rejecting the convention and makes us aware of the frame as a shot choice. In Klute, a film Willis shot for Alan J. Pakula, we see Jane Fonda going for a job interview as a fashion model and the film shoots the girls' faces while they sit and wait. As the camera moves along the line the person interviewing them remains a midriff body, faceless but powerful, exemplifying a theme of the film. In The Long Goodbye Altman worked with Vilmos Zsigmond, a cameraman as interested in movement as in composition. As Altman would say: "The camera would never stop moving. It was arbitrary." (Altman on Altman) Sometimes the innovation of form paradoxically comes out of learning from the past. When Zsigmond said that Heaven's Gate would look better in the future than it did on its release, it lay partly in the attention to detail to the detriment of plot because Michael Cimino's film wanted to capture the past. As he says: "I got to do things I always wanted to do, like creating old images by using smoke in the interiors. The stoves really smoked in those days." (Masters of Light)
In Bonnie and Clyde, it is the editing that becomes especially pronounced as Dede Allen uses what she called a power cut to compress the action into a sharper, tenser form. At the end of the film just before the title characters are killed, the tight editing warns us of trouble to come as the cuts speed up before the characters are mown down. There is trouble afoot, and Penn and Allen capture it in the editing syntax, not only in the story. In The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull, all three films use an approach to editing that emphasises the violent interruption. In The Deer Hunter it comes when the characters are suddenly thrown into Vietnam. In Apocalypse Now the film crosscuts between quiet Vietnamese village life, and the troops in the helicopters playing Wagner and about to bomb the village. In Raging Bull, the film abruptly cuts from Jake La Motta whispering to his wife about her remark that the boxer he will be fighting is good-looking, to the fight itself.
Some of the seventies films' innovations came from cinema of the past, hence the cineliteracy, and especially European films of the fifties and sixties. King and others very astutely note how New Hollywood found variations on Godard and Truffaut, Kurosawa and Resnais. "Other Truffaut films have been credited with influencing the use of a number of techniques in Hollywood renaissance films. The lyrical bicycling interlude and freeze-frame editing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) bear the mark, respectively, of Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1961) and Les Quatre Cents Coups (400 Blows, 1959)." King sees that 360 degree shots from Breathless and Weekend have influenced Five Easy Pieces, and we can note a moment where we first witness Bickle in his room in Taxi Driver echoing the circular panning shots of Godard, just as we have the scene in the same film with the Alka Seltzer that resembles a coffee cup moment inTwo or Three Things I Know About Her.
But we might notice that the scene of Bickle in his room resembles also the early sequence in Hitchcock's Rear Window, just as Scorsese and Brian De Palma would often show the influence of both Hitchcock and Orson Welles in their use of virtuoso long takes. The point and purpose wasn't to borrow from European cinema as if in acknowledgement of the impoverished nature of their own; more to say that they were filmmakers capable of using moments from cinema's past, wherever they found it, to generate a new film vocabulary. As Scorsese says: "I was a film student from 1960 to 1965, during the height of the French New Wave, the international success of the Italian art cinema, and the discovery of the new Eastern European cinema. What these movies gave us film students was a sense of freedom, of being able to do anything." (Scorsese on Scorsese)
We can see clearly then that Goldman's notion that nobody knew anything is a nice line but a dubious claim. Few would deny that classic Hollywood often knew what it was doing when we look at the tight scripting, careful diction and appropriate camera placements that focus very much on the story. They knew what they were doing as they established formulas that became very established indeed: genres were quite coherent; star images consistent, and the visual style appropriate to the material to hand. If these elements were no longer so evident it might have appeared that the younger generation were clueless. Yet the searching, exploratory dimension of New Hollywood, the feeling that filmmakers, actors and the technical crew were trying to find new ways of making films and exploring reality, makes it surely deserving of the mythic status now credited to it.
© Tony McKibbin