This column started with a quote-tweet, or whatever we call them now. Earlier this week, film critic Sean Burns posted a review of X after watching a screening of “Chinatown.” HE Wrote: “I love watching audience members who haven’t seen this before stagger out of the theater,” adding that the woman sitting behind her “looked like she had been attacked.”
I knew this feeling. I watched this movie when I was 13 and had the same reaction to its devastatingly fatalistic ending, which was rewritten by director Roman Polanski, who preferred to put some ashes in his mouth, a far cry from screenwriter Robert Towne’s original ending. Fifty years later we are still debating this.
Another critic, Farran Nehme, republished Burns’ article on another important Jack Nicholson film of the same decade and added his own article. “My college-aged twins watched ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ while on vacation. The end flattened them. They couldn’t believe a movie was even allowed to be this sad. I told them we were in the 70s. You were just expected to cope.”
In just a few words, Nehme, one of the sharpest authorities on 20th-century Hollywood across decades and across many genres, captured the ethos of what some consider the last golden age of idiosyncratic, compelling, moderate-budget studio filmmaking. This was at least not a complete escape or a carefree diversion. This was for adults and their cynical, frustrated children, regardless of whether the rating was R or PG.
When “Star Wars” came along in the summer of 1977 and changed everything, mainstream audiences were ready for a break, a “Flash Gordon” riff with lightsabers. Those who came of age with movies like “Cabaret,” “The Long Goodbye,” “The Last Detail,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather: Part II” and many other vital, disturbing provocations may be ready. , more. And I think we were lucky, even if we romanticized it, the way composer Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting “Chinatown” theme romanticized a movie that signified the death of romance.
Nehme’s writings include: Criterion Collection articles I joined our conversation about getting to know ’70s cinema when it moved to New York, where everything from Orson Welles’ voice to “The Philadelphia Story” was featured. He joined me via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Farran, your tweet about 70s movies that required audiences to deal with a rather bleak vision of America and the world: excellent.
A: I actually feel bad about that tweet. I didn’t want people to think that my children were these delicate young plants on holiday from university. In fact, I can show them anything. But they didn’t see the end of “The Cuckoo’s Nest” coming. They loved Jack Nicholson, they loved the McMurphy character, and they thought they were watching a comedy. And that’s just hit finally them.
Q: You’re a few years younger than me, so I think we came to some of these ’70s movies at different times in our lives.
A: Correct. I grew up in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. My mother is Dr. He had read Spock and had an opinion that children should not be allowed to see violence, realistic violence, on the screen. He was good with Warner Bros. cartoons. Because it was Alabama, sex wasn’t a big deal on TV back then. I watched a lot of old black and white movies as a kid because they had an automatic free pass, even though you and I knew they could be pretty objectionable in their own way! The way they sneak things in. But my mother could handle it.
By the way, my father had a subscription to The New Yorker, and I loved the lists at the front. I read Pauline Kael’s descriptions of all these movies I haven’t seen. So I went to NYU, at the tail end of the great art house and cinema revival era. This was in 1983.
By the time I became a serious moviegoer, we were already well into the Reagan era, and that didn’t mean a sudden shift to every movie having a happy ending. But there was a visible change. That’s when I started looking at ’70s movies and thinking: Wow. They used to be much tougher. That’s how I describe them: challenging.
In my late teens and early 20s, I wasn’t a fan of the big movies everyone was talking about. This was a slightly later era of “Ghostbusters” or “Top Gun”, which to me was just plain propaganda. When you start out as a young moviegoer, there’s a certain arrogance when you think your tastes are different. everything. So I definitely enjoyed the first three “Star Wars” movies. But it was actually about Harrison Ford (laughs).
When I finally caught something like “Taxi Driver” (1976), it was a different experience. This was a movie for adults; Not because he has something to say, more than one thing to say. You can read many things in different ways.
Question: Doesn’t this movie deliver a great performance in terms of how we see the anti-hero played by Robert De Niro? Half the audience reacted to this as if it were another “Death Wish”, as if it were a vigilante revenge action movie. The other half saw it, and still sees it, as a disturbing subversion of that.
A: I’m in the second camp! I came across this thread on (“Taxi Driver” screenwriter) Paul Schrader’s Facebook page, which is dominated by people who actually see it as “Death Wish” and see Travis Bickle as a hero. So I said: Are we going to skip the part where he tries to assassinate the senator? Are we just going to ignore it because (Bickle) ended up killing some criminals and everything’s okay?
Question: Do you think, as some do, that a movie like “Taxi Driver” and that decade in general fostered a kind of national pessimism?
A: Not all movies from the ’70s were like this.
Question: That’s right, “The Sting” and “Rocky” won the Oscar for best picture and were huge hits with the public.
A: And there were many other happy commercials that were successful. But the post-Vietnam and Watergate effects were real. Maybe that’s why “Jaws” had such an impact on everyone (in 1975). “Jaws” is both things; The corrupt mayor refuses to listen to reason because of money, and the men overcome this obstacle and eventually kill the shark. So both. And everyone saw it.
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Q: Today, “Jaws” plays like a character study, with all that time passing between expertly spaced jolts.
A: What I find today in my own children, and in young audiences in general, is that they need to be ready for the rhythms of old movies. The pacing of the scenarios has changed. How has regulation changed? How have many ways of presenting and informing audiences changed? What shark movie today would let you sit on the beach with Roy Scheider before someone gets killed?
Around the same time they watched “Cuckoo’s Nest,” my kids also watched “The Conversation” (Francis Ford Coppola’s moody, well-paced surveillance thriller starring Gene Hackman). And it’s a slow movie. But they stuck to it. And the end of it caught up with them. They both really loved “The Godfather.” My daughter is also a big fan of “Mean Streets.” I saw this with him. We saw each other, we went out to dinner, we come back home, we talk about other things, and suddenly he turns to me and says: “Mom? “I don’t think Charlie (Harvey Keitel’s character) is going to buy that restaurant.” He was still thinking about her.
I think you need to prepare (today’s viewers) for the fact that there may be a 10 or 15 minute movie before what they consider “something” (broadcast quotes) starts to happen. Of course, in most good movies, something happens immediately. It’s not what they’re used to.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.