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Book Review: Charles Taylor’s “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70’s”

June 28, 2017
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Gene Hackman and Lee Marvin in Prime Cut (1972).

As much as I’m a fan of the major acclaimed American movies of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – as well as the foreign language movies that came out during that time – I can understand why some people may roll their eyes at yet another tribute to them. It’s not just the fact this was almost exclusively a province of Great White Males, with not much room for women or minorities (mistreated both in front of and behind the camera). Its also the fact people who sing the praises of these movies can sound as obnoxious about them as baby boomers who claim theirs was the “greatest generation” (as well as theirs being the only one that really protested anything), or as fatuous as the film professor in Andrew Bergman’s great comedy The Freshman (he’s brilliantly played in the movie by Paul Benedict) when he’s lecturing students about The Godfather Part II (which happens to be my favorite movie of all time). Finally, while movies like the first two Godfather films, Nashville and Taxi Driver may have been the ones that had critics then and now wax rhapsodic about the movies, as well as the people who made them (Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, and others) and the actors who appeared in them (Pacino, Nicholson, De Niro and others), with some exceptions (the first Godfather), these weren’t the big hits of the 70’s. Instead, they were blockbusters like Love StoryThe Poseidon AdventureThe Exorcist, and The Towering Inferno.

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Barry Newman in his GTO in Vanishing Point (1971).

But what about the “B” movies, or genre movies, of the time? There have been books written about some of the specific genres of the time – horror movies, blaxploitation movies, westerns, and so on – but what Charles Taylor’s Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70’s aims to do is give an overview of those types of movies, ones that are among his favorites and ones that, for the most part, aren’t as well remembered (and, in some cases, aren’t even available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming). Taylor was a fan of those acclaimed 70’s movies, so he’s not out to debunk those (though he is out to debunk another type of movie; see below), but to illustrate the pleasures these lesser-known films offer.

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Kris Kristofferson and Gene Hackman in Cisco Pike (1972).

Opening Wednesday covers a broad range of genres, including crime movies (Aloha, Bobby and RoseBorn to WinPrime Cut), car movies (Citizens Band, Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point), blaxploitation movies (while the chapter on these is devoted to Coffy and Foxy Brown, Taylor also writes about the genre in general), period dramas (American Hot Wax – which has as much comedy as drama – and Hard Times), westerns (Ulzana’s Raid), horror/thriller (The Eyes of Laura Mars), conspiracy thrillers (Winter Kills), cop movies (Hickey and Boggs), and revenge dramas (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Blaxploitation movies were exclusive to the 70’s (almost all the attempts to revive the genre have been satiric, such as Black Dynamite and I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!), as were conspiracy thrillers for the most part (though there have been occasional attempts to revive it), and car movies, and westerns were starting to wane (until being revived in the 90’s with the one-two punch of Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven; they’ve gone hot and cold since then, on TV (Deadwood) and in movies (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)). The other genres are still around, though only horror/thriller movies seems to be made as much as they were in the 70’s.

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Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974).

 

 

Taylor is also spotlighting lesser-known directors of the time with this book. Robert Aldrich (Ulzana’s Raid) was beloved by auteur critics at the time, but while he had a couple of successes in the 70’s (The Longest Yard), his career was winding down. Likewise, while Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), who was equally loved and reviled in critical services, had success in the late 60’s/early 70’s (The Wild BunchStraw Dogs), alcoholism and too many battles with studio executives had taken their toll. Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) has continued to make movies, but he has remained a cult figure, just as he started out in the 60’s. Though Jack Hill (Coffy and Foxy Brown) has become a cult figure thanks to a revived interest in blaxploitation films (as well as big-name fans like Quentin Tarantino), he made only a couple of more films after those. Both Bill Norton (Cisco Pike) and Floyd Mutrux (Aloha, Bobby and RoseAmerican Hot Wax) moved into television. William Richert (Winter Kills) ultimately has acted in more films than he’s directed, and while he worked somewhat steadily as a director in the 70’s and 80’s (though to decreasing returns), Richard C. Sarafian (Vanishing Point) became known more for his acting as well. Hickey & Boggs remains the only film actor Robert Culp ever directed. Only Jonathan Demme (Citizens Band), Walter Hill (Hard Times), Irvin Kershner (Eyes of Laura Mars) and Michael Richie (Prime Cut) enjoyed any major success in the 80’s and/or beyond. Though Demme did struggle in the 80’s, he directed cult hits such as Stop Making Sense and Something Wild, and made the Oscar-winning film The Silence of the Lambs, Hill has worked steadily and made such hits as The Warriors and 48 Hours, though Kershner, who started out in the 60’s, only made a few films in the 80’s, one was Sean Connery’s last James Bond film (Never Say Never Again, and one was a little film called The Empire Strikes Back, and Richie made The Bad News Bears and Fletch, among other films.

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Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)

A devotee of Pauline Kael (he thanks her in the acknowledgments at the end, calling her the reason he wanted to become a critic), Taylor does analyze the films he reviews, but like Kael, he primarily wants to communicate the visceral part of the movie, to make you understand how it *feels*. This, for example, is from the opening paragraph of his essay on Two-Lane Blacktop:

…we’re in a small-town service station North Carolina service station at what appears to be about six A.M. on a rainy Sunday morning. Maybe it’s Saturday. The characters themselves aren’t sure. These hot-rodders have pulled into the station to attend to a busted carburetor and it’s just as well the place is closed. The mood of this drizzling dawn seeps into everything. Pretty soon they’ve drifted away from the task at hand to nip at a bottle, doze, wander the town. One or two people are visible on the street but something in the still, quiet air makes it feel like nothing’s about to change. Saturday mornings in town give the promise of the bustle to come. Sunday never shakes off its sleepiness.”

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Warren Oates and Laurie Bird in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).

As you might be able to guess from that excerpt, Taylor is also trying to stress the fact these movies are also showing a corner of the U.S. that doesn’t often get shown; not just the North Carolina as described above, but the Kansas City of Prime Cut, the Depression-era New Orleans of Hard Times, and the small Southern town of Citizens Band (though he does look at movies that take place in familiar cities, like the New York City of Eyes of Laura Mars, and movies that travel to multiple places, like Winter Kills). He also explores how many of these films communicate with film history, or their context in it, particularly in the works of three filmmakers he singles out: Preston Sturges (whom Taylor calls “the greatest American comic filmmaker of the sound era”), Howard Hawks (the “great modernist” whose films were about “communities of…drifters who coalesce around some task or purpose”), and John Ford (whose classic Stagecoach is about “the essential tension of American life, the desire to belong and the desire to light out for the territories”).

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Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

Taylor sees, for example, the comic sensibility of Sturges in Citizens Band – particularly in the subplot of a trucker (Charles Napier, a Demme regular) who happens to be married to two different women (Marcia Rodd and Ann Wedgeworth), and who both come into town (unaware of the other) to check up on him after he gets into an accident. But there’s also a Hawks-like spirit to the movie as well, particularly when the hero, Spider (Paul Le Mat, who also plays the lead in Aloha, Bobby and Rose) organizes other CB enthusiasts to help look for his missing father (Roberts Blossom). And you can see Ford in Hard Times (Hill, a classicist director, is a devotee of Ford and Hawks) in how people on the dregs, like the hero (Charles Bronson), an aging boxer, and his loudmouthed manager (James Coburn), look out for each other (even if Coburn inadvertently gets over his head). And while Sturges may not have gone as far as Winter Kills (based on the novel by Richard Condon) – in which the conspiracy theories of John F. Kennedy’s assassination get dropped through the proverbial rabbit hole to create a warped black comedy – he certainly would have recognized its comic spirit. Taylor also shows how some filmmakers have quoted from those movies, Quentin Tarantino in particular (Jackie Brown is one long love letter to the Pam Grier of Coffy and Foxy Brown, and the second half of Death Proof references Vanishing Point).

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A doo-wop group rehearsing in American Hot Wax (1978).

Taylor’s primary purpose for the book, however, is to demonstrate how these movies, according to him, differ from the genre movies made today. Not only does he argue their stories are told more coherently than today’s blockbusters – even stories as outlandish as Eyes of Laura Mars (a serial killer movie where fashion photographer Faye Dunaway somehow sees through the eyes of the killer when he’s committing his murders), Winter Kills (see above) or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (a revenge tale the way only Peckinpah could have made it) – but more importantly, that they stay connected to the world we live in more than the blockbusters and genre movies of today. The first example comes in the introduction with a movie that isn’t covered in the book, but was one of the inspirations for it; Jonathan Kaplan’s White Line Fever, about a Vietnam vet (Jan-Michael Vincent) who battles corruption in the trucking industry. I’ve not seen the film (though, like Taylor, I’ve enjoyed some of Kaplan’s other movies, like Over the Edge – still one of the best teen movies ever made – and The Accused), but apparently, it has things like Vincent and his wife (Kay Lenz) eating spaghetti for days on end because they can’t afford anything else, or Lenz wearing the only expensive dress she owns to court when she wants to help Vincent out of trouble, or Lenz confessing to her brother she might have to get an abortion. Taylor brings up other movies in the book with details like that, such as a waitress telling Charles Bronson in Hard Times that he only gets one refill for a nickel cup of coffee, or the sadness in Roscoe Lee Browne’s eyes in Cisco Pike when he refuses to buy Kris Kristofferson’s guitar (Browne owns a music shop), even though he knows Kristofferson’s claims he’s going back into the music business aren’t going to amount to anything, or how, in American Hot Wax, Alan Freed’s (Tim McIntire) days when he’s not being a DJ are basically meetings, meetings and more meetings.

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Faye Dunaway in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

In trying to make his case, Taylor does fall into the trap that has befallen a certain strain of critics, who lay the blame of the blockbuster era on Star Wars. I have never been the fan of George Lucas’ saga that friends and family have, and I certainly agree with the criticism that Lucas seems to feel any indication, or mention, of sex would complicate his characters, and his stories, too much for him and for much of its audience. That said, blaming everything on Star Wars (as well as on Spielberg, another frequent target of the “Yesterday Was Better” club) is, I feel, pretty short-sighted. First of all, not to put a fine point on it, but Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho did what Lucas and Spielberg have long been accused of – dressing up a B-movie plot with A-movie actors and storytelling – and has inspired more rip-offs than Lucas and Spielberg have, yet you don’t get a million think-pieces saying how Hitchcock and Psycho ruined movies. Secondly, as I pointed out before, this ignores the fact blockbusters were still making much more money than the critical faves of the 70’s, and Lucas’ (and Spielberg’s) films were better than most of those films (I’d rather watch Star Wars again than sit through one minute of The Towering Inferno, or The Exorcist, again).

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John Huston (foreground) and Jeff Bridges in Winter Kills (1979).

That’s not the only flaw of the book. Like Kael at the time, Taylor sometimes seems to think outrage, anger, and cynicism automatically equals self-loathing (even, at the same time, he champions the films in the book, as well as the critical favorites of the decade, for not providing happy endings or easy answers). In an offhand dismissal of Chinatown (which I, and many others, consider one of the best movies of the decade), which he thinks is full of “cheap and easy despair”, Taylor writes, “Seeing (Chinatown), you could forget that America had just toppled a corrupt presidency”, without mentioning (a) that corrupt president was pardoned and did no time for his crimes, and (b) as Chinatown predicted, power mongers continue to get away with their rape of the land and the people.* And while there’s a lot of nuanced discussion, for example, of blaxploitation movies – Taylor acknowledges their paint-by-numbers plots and dialogue, their sexism, and their crude and cheap cynical nature, yet also does get at the reasons why they resonated with African-American audiences at the time (as well as being in line with the B-movies white audiences embraced at the time – yet when it comes down to defending Peckinpah from charges of sexism, while he acknowledge the misogyny in movies like The Getaway and Straw Dogs, only seems to deliver a half-hearted defense (pointing out the comeuppance a misogynist receives in Cross of Iron, as well as the way the hero in Ride the High Country gets himself killed to protect women from being raped) before dismissing any critic of Peckinpah’s ugly side as people “turning an artist’s output into a balance sheet of correct and incorrect attitudes” (I agree somewhat with this sentiment, but it’s done in a rather dismissive manner).` Finally, he takes what I think are some cheap shots at, among others, Joni Mitchell (when discussing Cisco Pike).

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Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

Still, for all of its problems, the book is finally worth tackling. Except for Two-Lane Blacktop, a film I admire more than I like (except for Warren Oates’ performance, which I flat-out love), all of the movies under discussion are well worth watching (two of them – Citizens Band and Winter Kills – made my top 10 lists for the year of their respective U.S. release dates, while two more – Vanishing Point and American Hot Wax – made my honorable mention lists for the year of their respective U.S. release dates), and Taylor does a good job of distilling what works about them (his description of Vanishing Point – “hot rod movie as tone poem” – cuts to the quick), even while acknowledging some of their flaws. Like my other favorite critical study of 70’s films – British critic Ryan Gilbey’s It Don’t Worry Me, about who Gilbey thought were the 10 major American directors of the 70’s (including Demme) – Taylor honors the complexity of the films by not putting them into a nostalgia box (even if he does belong to the “Yesterday was better” club when it comes to these movies), and at his best, writes about them with clarity and obvious passion. That makes Opening Wednesday at a Theater or a Drive-In Near You, for all of its faults, something to savor rather than to roll your eyes over.

*-Taylor, like Kael before him, also dismisses Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (from the Thomas Berger novel), a revisionist western, in the same way. I confess I haven’t seen it in a long time, so I can’t make any judgments on that, though I do like other Penn films such as Bonnie & ClydeAlice’s Restaurant (both of which Taylor praised), and Night Moves.

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Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in Hickey & Boggs (1972).

`-Taylor’s essay on Hickey & Boggs was written before the rape allegations against Bill Cosby started coming to light. I can’t imagine what Taylor, who spends a lot of time in the essay talking about the appeal of Cosby in general and on I Spy and in the movie in particular, would make of that.

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From → Books, Movies

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