It’s the grand cliché of cinematic scholarship. Over the entire 100 years plus of the moving picture, the 1970s are consistently labeled as the most important, most creative and most celebrated phase in film’s development. Label it post-modern or art for art’s sake, but the stereotyping does bare some devastating truth. This list could easily contain 100 films from the era that struck a chord, either socially, culturally, or economically with the heretofore stuffy strategies associated with big screen entertainment. From the invention of the blockbuster (Trial of Billy Jack vs. Jaws—take your pick) to the creation of the definitive sci-fi franchise (somewhere in a galaxy far, far away), there was as much old school acumen and attention to cinematic standards as there was the desire to break down all inspirational barriers. The result as seen in the 10 films featured here was a reconfiguration of the rules around a brand new set of boundaries. And there’s no denying the works of motion picture mastery that came from such a shockwave. It’s why we argue over and commemorate the era. That’s why they’re known as the stellar ‘70s.
Five Easy Pieces
Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Dec 1970 (General release); 1970)
Five Easy Pieces
MacMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Torrence in The Shining—these aren’t characters from famous movies, they are permanent fixtures of American culture. Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces seldom registers on the short list of all-time great acting performances, at least in part because the character—like the movie—is not easy to admire or understand. The type of role tailor-made for an artist who insists upon working without a net, Bobby Dupea is at once emotional, withdrawn, silent, boisterous, ambitious and lethargic to the point of apathy. Five Easy Pieces is a study of the restless soul of a gifted individual (who could have been, and still could be, an artist) who is too smart for his own good, and has thus far squandered his youth, talent and energy in an ennui-ridden funk where he drifts from job to meaningless job, woman to faceless woman, sensation to numbing sensation.
All of us can discern something of ourselves in the unsatisfied, insatiable drifter; the citizen who is not content to live in a banal, preordained existence even as his every action (and lack of action) further ensnares him in a perpetuation of the life he abhors. In this regard, Five Easy Pieces is not only a commentary on the itinerant American rebel, it also examines the suffocating dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and the paralyzing dilemma of an individual blessed with extraordinary faculties he feels compelled to suppress. Dupea leads a life of not-so-quiet desperation, equally out of place amongst the working class and the class-conscious, condescending academics. And then there is the scene, which is one of the most amusing—and satisfying—in cinema history, when he clashes with the truck-stop waitress and the system she represents. In the disquieting climax, when he unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the first woman who seems perfect for him, she poses a rhetorical question that underscores the tragic paradox his muted antipathy: “How can a man who has no love of himself ask for love in return?” His inability to answer her, and his unwillingness to change himself, creates the taciturn resolution which leaves the viewer both saddened, and exasperated.
This DVD is an essential addition for any collection, and can be returned to over time: the nuances of the story and the subtle mastery of Rafelson’s direction are to be savored. All the performances are stellar, yet special kudos are warranted for Karen Black, the patient yet pathetic girlfriend and Helena Kallianiotes, the furious yet refreshing hitchhiker. The currently available DVD offers no extra material, but if any movie warrants the critical reissue with commentary, interviews and (if available) deleted scenes, Five Easy Pieces begs for the bonus treatment. This could be Nicholson’s penultimate performance and the reverberations from this urgent yet honest portrayal still linger on the lower frequencies of our collective consciousness.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Simon Chuckster, Melvin Van Peebles, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan
(Yeah; Very limited release: 23 Apr 1971; 1971)
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
As the first filmmaker to eclipse the Hollywood mandate of the role of Blacks in film as noteworthy only in counterpoint to a white narrative, perhaps Melvin Van Peebles was justified in vigorously disassociating his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, from the groundswell of ‘70s movies that later came to populate the genre known as blaxploitation. After all, even as subsequent films of the form possessed the requisite thematic elements—the super bad, ass-kicking black protagonists; “the man,” as principal adversary (an identity stylized by systemic corruption and the marginalization of Black people); violence; copious amounts of misogynistic and objective sexual, and other stereotypes; with best of all, chart-worthy scores—few garnered reviews as implacable as Sweet, or its “X” rating. And even fewer of its glossier, commercially-driven successors (including contemporary reinvention’s from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino) were ever successful in reproducing the biting force of this groundbreaking counter-exploitive Black franchise—written by, produced, directed, and starring Van Peebles and a credited “Black community.”
It’s through a series of documentary-fashioned sequences and the synchronized and uncensored cinematic view into a Black urban landscape, (previously largely ignored) that Van Peebles recounts Sweetback’s story. At once a friend to the police, Sweetback is also a politically neutral hyper-stud/bouncer, raised in a whorehouse (a fact disquietingly illustrated by Van Peebles‘ then post-adolescent son, Mario), when in defense of an imperiled Black activist, he accidentally ends up beating two cops to death—in a post Watts/pre-Rodney King riot(s) L.A., of all places. Suddenly the focus of a massive police manhunt, Sweetback is forced into both running for his survival and into a newfound socio-political awareness.
Absent the didactic dialogue of some of its successors, the film rightly relies on its abstractly raw interpretive value and meteoric cadence—initially designed, one suspects, to echo the fervor and political tone of its period. Although the DVD package provides exciting bonus features such as the original trailer and a “Making Of,“ featurette, it is inarguably, the film itself—punctuated by old school indie-style techniques like, freeze frames, merging images and wildly imprecise color schematics, set against the backdrop of the starkly realistic street scenes through which Sweetback on his errant flight to Mexico runs, that resolves why it this among one of the most consequential, if not controversial films ever produced.
Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey
(Dreamland Studios; US theatrical: 4 Oct 1974 (General release); 1974)
While it’s typically overshadowed by its far more famous cinematic sibling (1971’s equally masterful Pink Flamingos), John Waters’ Female Trouble stands today as his most unabashedly brilliant work. Instead of the vignette-oriented approach of the aforementioned exercise in bad taste, the Baltimore bad boy here riffs on King Vidor and Douglas Sirk, delivering a delightfully deranged take on the old school Hollywood kitchen sink sudser. Poor Dawn Davenport is a rebellious teen, eager to escape her stifling home life and see the world. Unfortunately, she ends up raped in a city dump and goes on to give birth to the world’s wickedest Greek Chorus, a demanding daughter named Taffy. Hoping to break free of the bonds of single parenthood, she marries a hairdresser and pursues a career in modeling. There she meets Donald and Donna Dasher, a craven couple whose “crime is beauty” mantra is destined to lead Dawn down a felonious—and fatal—garden path. Featuring many of Waters’ stalwart Dreamland acting company (Mink Stole as Taffy, David Lochary as Donald), this is drag queen Divine’s tour de force. Playing both Dawn and the miscreant who defiled her (the transvestite’s first onscreen male character), he/she delivers the kind of satiric slamdunk the material must have to succeed.
As with all DVD versions of Waters’ work, the filmmaker himself is on hand to deliver a wonderfully insightful commentary track. Thanks to the success—or perhaps a better way to put it is the “notoriety”—that arrived with Flamingos, ambition drove this cracked comedy. Realizing he could never top the ‘dog shit’ scene that defined his oeuvre, Waters went in a completely different direction, using social standards of fashion and individual glamour as his cutting critical source material. He also wanted to find a way of working in Divine’s then popular nightclub act—a ranting and raving revue in which the obese spectacle did trampoline stunts, threw dead fish into the audience, and took credit for being the mastermind behind the Manson murders. Unlike Flamingos, which specifically flaunted scandal for the sake of outrageousness, Female Trouble wanted to incorporate its shock value into a passable potboiler. Thanks to the pitch perfect performances and imminently quotable dialogue, Waters certainly succeeded.
Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 20 Jun 1974 (General release); 1974)
Chinatown is a film whose brilliance is steeped in the words of Robert Towne’s Academy Award-winning screenplay and the nuanced performances of its principal actors under Roman Polanski’s direction. Jack Nicholson inhabits the cunning Jake Gittes with a mischievous smile and droll sense of humor while Faye Dunaway dresses Evelyn Mulwray—the socialite widow with a disturbing past—in an icy glamour. John Huston’s memorable turn as Noah Cross, keeper of Los Angeles’ water supply, drips with shameless iniquity. Legendary Paramount Studios producer Robert Evans sought a “European” perspective of ‘30s Los Angeles and so Polanski was hired for directorial duties. His decision to shoot the mystery about Los Angeles’ erratic water supply (and the shady characters controlling it) from Gitte’s subjective point of view allowed the audience to untangle each thread of the mystery right along with the detective. As such, Chinatown merits multiple viewings. Once you learn Evelyn Mulwray’s secret, for example, the tension enveloping Faye Dunaway’s character from the moment she appears on the screen is even more palpable.
Fortunately, the 1999 DVD edition of Chinatown is presented in widescreen format with the oranges, blues, greens, and yellows of the California landscape appearing as rich and vibrant as ever. As an extra, Roman Polanski, Robert Towne, and Robert Evans share some insight about the conception of the film and its production. But even after all the mysteries unfurl—and the memorable confrontation between Nicholson and Dunaway’s characters is emblazoned in the viewer’s mind—the mysterious charm of Chinatown lingers long in the mind.
Rudy Ray Moore, D’Urville Martin, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed
(Comedian Intl Enterprise Productions (C.I.E.); US theatrical: 1 Jul 1975 (General release); 1975)
In the genre of blaxploitation, there are two main heroes. The first—and perhaps most important—remains Melvin Van Peebles iconic Sweetback, a citizen turned outlaw at the hands of White America. But for many, Rudy Ray Moore’s rhyme spewing Dolemite character stands as the genre’s defining display. A popular nightclub comedian famous for his wonderfully vulgar “party records” (albums loaded with raw language and silly sexual boasts), Moore was looking for a way of increasing his already ample fanbase. When the urban action film took off in the ‘70s, he decided to finance his own film. He used a character from one of his inventive ‘raps’ and followed the standard urban revenge formulas. Always the innovator, however, Moore came up with some unusual takes on the material. Instead of a gang of heavy duty henchmen, Dolemite had a well trained clan of black belt wearing, butt kicking hookers. Instead of taking on the police, Moore’s maverick attacked all elements of ‘The Man’s Establishment’, from mayor to local minister. With frequent forays into stage show bits (like the infamous “Signifying Monkey” routine) and labored love scenes, Dolemite became an instant cult sensation. It was so popular that Moore made three more equally outlandish films before finally fading back into stand-up.
Issued separately, or as part of a near mandatory Rudy Ray Moore/Dolemite Collection box set, the DVD accurately reflects the low budget approach to the era’s independent filmmaking. Actor D’Urville Martin, best known for a considered career in front of the camera, uses a no-nonsense style to realize Moore’s overly ambitious aims, and the results speak for their DIY selves. Boom mics are clearly visible, with set walls shimmying whenever actors enter and exit. In interviews included as part of the packaging, Moore laments the fact that he is considered the jester of the genre, arguing that his films are far more indicative of the movement than the more “highfalutin’” features of the era. It’s clear the impact Moore has had on black culture. From an initial shout out in the Hudlin Brothers comedy House Party, to a direct homage from the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dolemite and Rudy Ray Moore definitely left their mark on modern African America. It’s an enlightened ideal that endures to this day.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke
(Maysles Films Inc.; 1968; The Criterion Collection, 2001)
“Do you think my costume looked all right for Brooks? I think he was a little amazed”, Little Edie whispers to the camera. Instantly quotable dialogue abounds in Grey Gardens, the 1975 cinéma vérité feature by Albert and David Maysales that documents the lives of “Big” Edie Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale—estranged aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. By simply letting the cameras roll, the Maysales captured a wrenching yet poignant look at the under side of American aristocracy: a former debutante and her reclusive mother, saddled with a house of regrets, resentments, and hungry raccoons. Big Edie and Little Edie straddled the line of eccentric and delusional, calling the raid on their East Hampton house, “The most disgusting, atrocious thing to happen in America”. One is alternately entertained and perplexed by the Beales’ myopic sense of the world. To the Maysales’ credit, Grey Gardens doesn’t indict the Beales for living in nearly inhabitable conditions nor does it offer a conclusive explanation for any of the Beales’ behavior. It simply presents Big Edie and Little Edie’s truth without judgment.
Before its generous treatment by the Criterion Collection, Grey Gardens was scarcely available on videocassette. Often, viewers made due with a second-generation bootleg that rendered the Beale’s East Hampton residence even more decrepit than it really was. On the 2001 DVD edition, the film (and filth) is clearer than ever. In typical fashion, Criterion has added a treasure chest’s worth of extras including a revealing audio interview with Little Edie, rare photographs, feature-length director and producer commentaries, film clips about Little Edie’s influence on fashion, and rare TV advertisements. Currently a Broadway musical and soon to be a feature film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens remains a fascinating portrait of two “S-T-A-U-N-C-H” characters whose refusal to adhere to the norms of their class is as gripping today as 30 years ago.
Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine,Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 11 Jun 1975 (General release); 1975)
A traffic jam was never as intriguing as in Nashville. Neither were yellow school buses, Julie Christie’s hair, or the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” (which are bluntly dissected by the film’s unseen political candidate). Leave it to Robert Altman to makes such details riveting. In Nashville, the director presents a panoramic view on the murky intersection of politics and music. The stories of more than two-dozen characters intertwine, setting the gold standard for Altman’s trademark ensemble casts. The late auteur’s signature style is full-fledged here with overlapping conversations, multiple subplots, and improvised dialogue shaping the biting screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury. Its cultural impact reached far beyond the epicenter of the music scene it documented, even becoming fatuously linked to the murder of John Lennon.
Nashville is also a film marked by one breakout performance after another: from Lily Tomlin’s sensitive portrayal of a gospel-singing mother of deaf children to Ronee Blakely’s tragic role as Barbara Jean, the Queen of Nashville (Both actresses were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars).
What Paramount’s 2000 DVD edition makes available that videocassette releases never did (or could) is a full-length commentary by Robert Altman. Fortunately, the man sat for an interview six years before his death to offer insight about a film that grows more meaningful and entertaining with each viewing. The ‘70s are often regarded as the vanguard of modern filmmaking—Nashville does much to uphold that notion.
Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Laurel Near
It’s either the blackest comedy ever created about the unreal rigors of new parenthood, or the most horrifying cautionary tale about reproduction ever conceived, but there’s no denying the visual intensity of auteur David Lynch’s first film. Set in a monochrome universe of smoke-belching factories, steam-filled alleyways and dead-eyed individuals, Eraserhead is an allegory without precedent, a metaphor with too many meanings. While any new father can sympathize with lead loser Harry Spencer, we’re never given enough information to completely comprehend how he ended up dad. Certainly, the monstrous thing that passes for a baby isn’t the byproduct of some holy union. Indeed, Lynch often suggests that biology is Hell, and offers up visually vile reminders of the protoplasmic realities of same. But in the end, this sly and symbolic film seems to be suggesting that, unless you want to stay forever in a state of stunted adolescence, left to daydream about a world beyond your own, one needs to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater good. Many will marvel at Harry’s final choice.
Such an idiosyncratic filmmaker and equally eccentric film deserve a kind of coffee table book presentation on DVD, and before Subversive Cinema picked up the distribution rights in 2006, the only way to obtain this fascinating film was to join Lynch’s pay website and order it. When it arrived at your doorstep, it was wrapped in a kind of black butcher’s paper (with appropriate logo) and presented in a striking square cardboard box. Inside, Lynch provided a booklet containing images from the film, while on the disc itself, a full length documentary found the director discussing the movie’s mythic making. Conceived and created over many years while he was a boarder at the American Film Institute, the innovations incorporated into this substantive student film have stayed a part of the director’s creative canon to this day (see Inland Empire). It’s a fascinating frame for what is surely one of cinema’s most mindblowing masterpieces.
Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé
(Seda Spettacoli; US theatrical: 12 Aug 1977 (Limited release); 1977)
Italian director Dario Argento is one of the undisputable masters of horror, and Suspiria may well be the highlight of his entire career. Indeed, no other movie represents better the frantic pace and brutal sense of aesthetics that characterizes Argento’s oeuvre. In Suspiria, Jessica Parker plays Suzy Banyon, an American ballet dancer who arrives at a mysterious European academy which is run by a malevolent coven. Elegantly combining the uncanny elements of a supernatural story of witchcraft with the gory details of a slasher flick, this film not only has plenty of blood and guts to offer, but also exceptional cinematic artistry. Thanks to the masterful editing by Franco Fraticelli, Suspiria swiftly delivers shock after shock, as people are stalked and murdered in truly vicious ways. Featuring an outstanding cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, the movie has dramatic color contrasts made almost exclusively of shades of red, blue, and yellow. And the music by Goblin, a combination of avant-garde rock and satanic chants, is loud, terrifying, and disturbing. A true horror rollercoaster, Suspiria is a frightening movie of tremendous visual impact which grants an unforgettable, visceral viewing experience.
Long unavailable on a decent home video presentation, Anchor Bay finally delivered a superb three-disc set in 2001 which is a dream come true for fans. The first disc presents an uncut, pristine new widescreen transfer of the film. The color palette and complex use of shadows are faithfully represented in this video presentation. The acoustic landscape has also been revamped, allowing the wacky soundtrack by Goblin to take a life of its own. And purists can finally rejoice, as this DVD has the original Italian language track. The second disc includes a comprehensive and insightful documentary that features interviews with Argento, Harper, Tovoli, and the members of Goblin. Finally the third disc is a CD with the soundtrack composed by Goblin. The set is nicely rounded up with an informative booklet and a set of poster reproductions. It is beyond doubt that Anchor Bay has produced an exceptional DVD set to honor a true masterwork of horror culture.
Dawn of the Dead
David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
(Laurel Productions; 1979)
Dawn of the Dead
Originally released in 1978, Dawn of the Dead is the second in George A. Romero’s ground breaking, apocalyptic zombie saga. Following Night of the Living Dead (1969), and predating Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005), Dawn of the Dead probably is the most complex and influential entry in the series. Arguably, Dawn is the quintessential 1970s American horror flick. Indeed, Romero’s timeless classic embodies all the violence, gore, bleakness, desperation, and political consciousness that characterized the fear flicks of the period. Here Romero presents a chaotic world where authority institutions are unable to control the hordes of reanimated corpses that viciously feed on the living. However, in this nightmarish world the collapse of social structures is mostly due to human arrogance, stubbornness, greed, and selfishness. In Dawn, everybody is willing to kill and die in order to maintain a way of life now rendered meaningless. When a handful of survivors take shelter in a shopping mall, Romero masterfully uses the power of the horror film to present an incisive criticism to consumer society. The zombies of course are portrayed as the ultimate consumers, wandering aimlessly inside the mall, apparently unaware of each other, resembling the crowds of shoppers we see any day at the mall. As one of the survivors observes, “They are us”.
The gruesome aesthetics and complex narrative structure of Dawn of the Dead are perfectly underlined in the Anchor Bay, 4 DVD Ultimate Edition. This set includes pristine new transfers of three versions of the film: the original theatrical version, a director’s approved extended edition, and the European version. Quite amazingly, by adding or removing a few scenes, changing the pace of the narrative, and modifying the soundtrack, these three versions offer completely different viewing experiences. The result is a set that perfectly showcases the often underestimated power of movie editing. Indeed, the extended edition is somber and terrifying, while the European version is rousing on its violence and action. Among a myriad of extra features, each version of the film offers its unique audio commentary provided by Romero and crew. The set also includes two insightful documentaries, the all new The Dead Will Walk, and the classic Document of the Dead. The Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition offers an undisputed classic of horror cinema in an elegant and comprehensive DVD presentation that is so amazing, that it is guaranteed to raise the dead