That '70S Movie

Near the end of "A Decade Under the Influence," one of two new documentaries celebrating the so-called "golden age" of 1970s Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola likens today's low-risk, corporate Hollywood to a pharmacy that only sells two products, tranquilizers and Viagra.

The great thing about back then, when the likes of Coppola and Scorsese, Altman and Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Mazursky, Polanski, Ashby, Woody Allen and Peckinpah radically altered the American cinematic landscape, was the fact that their movies weren't merely "product." They were rule-breaking personal visions that connected with the audience in ways studio movies had rarely attempted before. Instead of mere escapism, the audience wanted relevance. The culture--battered by Vietnam, drugs, feminism, the civil-rights movement, Watergate--was in a state of convulsion, and the guardians of the studio gates hadn't a clue what the public wanted to see. What moviegoers didn't want were the big-budget turkeys that had brought the studios to the brink of fiscal disaster--"Paint Your Wagon," "Cleopatra," "Hello Dolly," "Darling Lili."

How desperate were the studio guys? I remember being summoned to MGM in 1969 to discuss writing a script for a producer there. Long-haired, fresh out of college, with one screenplay under my belt and a certain generational arrogance that was epidemic in those days, I qualified as a bonafide "Youth." The studio guys sat me down for a grilling, hoping I'd help them decipher this bewildering new world of protest, pot and political upheaval. Not having done my homework, I made the mistake of trashing one of the producer's previous movies ("Harper," which I thought got Ross Macdonald all wrong) but mercifully he was more amused than offended. Then, after picking my brain for what was Hip and Now, they asked if I'd be interested in writing a musical version of "Treasure Island." Huh? (I ended up adapting a violent Freudian Western novel they owned--a script that was universally loathed by all who read it.)

Into this void rode the talented and ambitious Young (and not so young) Turks. As both "A Decade Under the Influence" and "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" note, this new generation looked overseas for their models: to Godard, Truffaut, Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Bunuel and Kurosawa. The notion that movies could be Art was not widely held until the early '60s, when Cinephilia was born. During that heady period, movies supplanted the novel and the theater as the cutting-edge art form and criticism really mattered: The battles between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael were followed as avidly as Ali-Frazier.

How long ago that seems. Nobody talked about box office then. The discussion was about content, style, meaning. Endings didn't have to be happy, heroes didn't have to be heroic, hair didn't have to be in place, ethnicity didn't have to be hidden as it had been until the late '60s. "A Decade Under the Influence," which was produced and directed by the screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, and "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," inspired by the dishy book of the same name by Peter Biskind and directed by Kenneth Bowser, both arise from an acute sense of dissatisfaction with what Hollywood has become in the last 25 years, and a nostalgia for the brief anomalous period in studio history, about 1969 to 1975, when the filmmakers themselves ruled the roost.

Both documentaries tell essentially the same story. Among the interview subjects who appear in both movies: Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, his ex-wife Polly Platt, Paul Schrader, Mike Medavoy and Roger Corman. In both, you will learn of the importance of "Bonnie and Clyde" in heralding the revolution; the role Corman played in fostering talents by giving them their first directing opportunities in American International exploitation movies; the breakthrough commercial hits, each topping the last's records: "The Godfather" followed by "The Exorcist" followed by "Jaws" and ending up with the watershed "Star Wars," at which point the producers and studios regain control, audiences demand uplift and many of the brightest talents stumble, victims of the excesses of the age, or hubris, or the sin of commercial failure.

"A Decade Under the Influence" could serve well as an introductory course--'70s Hollywood 101--which is both its strength and its weakness. Hurling movie posters and snapshots and brief newsreel clips of the political events of the era at us, folding in interviews with 24 big-name participants, it includes so much that it doesn't have the time to explore anything in depth. There are good interviews with Schrader and Bruce Dern and Julie Christie, who gracefully suggests that women's roles left something to be desired in this "revolution" propelled by American male energy. This caveat aside, the film has little but praise for all its subjects. Coming from LaGravenese, one of our best screenwriters ("The Fisher King," "Unstrung Heroes," "Living Out Loud"), I guess I expected a more analytical approach. But no distinction is made between those films that were historically important ("Easy Rider" or "Joe") and those that were actually good ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller" or "Mean Streets"). Some of the clips chosen--such as the scenes from "M*A*S*H" and "The Last Detail" that show their morally superior heroes dressing down the squares and the rednecks--scream out for a deconstruction they don't get. A lot of what now seems off-putting about this period--the smugness of its generational bias--is contained in these clips, but the filmmakers seem oblivious to the subtexts. What is Melvin Frank's Old Hollywood sex comedy "A Touch of Class" doing in here? "Blume in Love" was so much more of its time, and so much better. Why do both films omit Terrence Malick's "Badlands" or "Days of Heaven"? Anticipating these sorts of quibbles, the movie ends with an apology to all those movies and moviemakers left out. Fair enough, but a documentary that spends more time on John Avildson than Roman Polanski is bound to raise eyebrows. Nonetheless, any movie lover will find much to feast on, and perhaps the expanded version of the film, which will be shown in three hourly installments on cable-TV's Independent Film Channel in August, will fill in some of the blanks.

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is less reverential--and more fun. Following Biskind's lead (he also wrote the script) it gives us some of the behind-the-scenes dirt. Bogdanovich and Platt discuss his marriage-ending affair with Cybil Shepherd on the set of "The Last Picture Show." Kris Kristofferson explains the self-destructive rampages of the alcoholic Sam Peckinpah. Karen Black undercuts the hagiography of producer Burt Schneider with her curt assessment that "I always thought he was kind of mean." Many critics (and diehard auteurists) strongly objected to the sex-and-drugs gossip-mongering in Biskind's book, but how can you really understand '70s Hollywood without it? (You'd be amazed how many actors and filmmakers openly ingested illegal substances in front of me in those days, and I was press. Of the two films, "Easy/Raging" does a much better job conveying the manic feel of the times.

There's fascinating home-movie footage of producer Julia Phillip's Malibu pad, where the likes of Scorsese, Schrader, John Milius and the young Spielberg convened. As actress Jennifer Salt observes, these were basically "nerdy guys who wanted to hang out with each other and talk movies" rather than mingle with the many available women partying beside them. Richard Dreyfuss recalls his fury when Phillips later published her tell-all account of those cocaine-infused days, "You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again." But he stopped himself from berating her when "a little voice inside my head said 'Richard, Richard, the truth was so much worse'."

This new generation brought young people back to the movies, but in the process planted the seeds of its own destruction. It's hard now to imagine that when Universal Pictures was told that kids would love "American Graffiti"--a movie the studio had no faith in--their response was "Kids? They don't go to the movies." By the end of the '70s, after "Jaws" and "Star Wars" forever redefined the marketing, exhibition and merchandizing of movies, "the kids" were all that mattered, and Hollywood was set on the path that lead us to "X2," a movie that grossed $115 million worldwide in its opening weekend. With profits like that, why would the corporations that control Hollywood want to go back to the days when the filmmakers called the shots? After Watergate, and the end of the Vietnam War, audiences turned their back on the dark, the gritty, the cynical and eagerly embraced the good versus evil feel-good fantasies that still reign supreme. The paradox is that it's the dark, often pessimistic '70s movies that now look innocent, idealistic and full of hope, while the comic-book heroism and special-effects extravaganzas we're force-fed every summer (and spring and fall) betray a cynicism so deeply ingrained its almost invisible to the eye. We're being entertained out of our minds.