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A Decade Under the Influence

Director: Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme

(Independent Film Channel; US DVD: 30 Sep 2003)

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My feeling was there was nothing we couldn’t do. There was nothing we couldn’t try.
—Paul Mazursky


A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary produced by the Independent Film Channel, seeks to convince us that the groundbreaking days of American cinema are long gone. To that end, a roster of cinematic giants, from Robert Altman to Martin Scorsese, was recruited to comment upon that passing. Unfortunately, the documentary, produced and directed by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and the late director Ted Demme, often has the feel of a bunch of Hall of Famers bitching about baseball’s good old days, when the sun was shining and the grass was real. The films of the 1970s were great. Take their word for it.


Decade is a hermetically sealed valentine. The film is an oral history, one narrated solely by its subjects. As a result, perspective and objectivity are shut out. Even the viewpoints of documentarians Demme and LaGravenese remain largely untold. They provide no global commentary on the state of cinema, then or now. Instead, they’re seen only in the cutouts displayed alongside the credits, gathering autographs from their idols.


So, one must approach Decade already knowing the score, buying the premise, because nothing will be explained or challenged. At some point, the filmmakers made the decision that those interested in the subject would already be so intimately familiar with the legendary films referenced therein—movies like M*A*S*H* (1970), Mean Streets (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975)—that no justification for their place in the cultural pantheon is necessary.


Those interested in the play-by-play of how these films were made need to look elsewhere. This, rather, is the story of a group of precocious young directors such as Altman, Ashby, Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Terrence Malick, Paul Mazursky, and Sydney Pollack, who offered Hollywood a new alternative to the old-line studio system that fell apart in the 1960s.


Heavily influenced by titans of European and Japanese cinema such as Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Akira Kurosawa, the directors set to breaking rules anywhere and everywhere, both in terms of style and subject. Previously unassailable social institutions were attacked. Sexually provocative pictures such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Carnal Knowledge (1970), and Last Tango in Paris (1973) became sensations. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) made heroes out of gangsters and portrayed violence “realistically.” Altman’s M*A*S*H* tore down the wall between the military and the common man, using an episodic, almost plotless, narrative structure. Taxi Driver (1976) explored themes of urban isolation and alienation, with the story told by an unreliable and psychotic narrator.


Today, the ‘70s seem sometimes to exist only as a bit of nostalgia as relevant as Fonzie’s leather jacket, a chunk of cultural candy to be mocked in sitcoms and send-ups. But it truly was a singular moment of newly established freedoms. Sex and gender barriers toppled. Multiculturalism arrived. Drug use was prevalent and accepted, something actor Julie Christie notes in Decade was a crucial part of the artistic mindset of the era. Vietnam changed the way Americans felt about war, and Watergate altered the way they viewed government. The time was ripe for cinematic upheaval.


Serving as both celebrant and eulogist, Decade tracks the period, with the film’s A-list of narrators happily recounting their collective genius. But while there is ovation after ovation for courageous artistic decisions (Coppola using Shakespeare as a template for The Godfather [1972], Friedkin battling the studio over the marketing of The Exorcist [1973], Lumet driving Al Pacino to the point of exhaustion in Dog Day Afternoon [1975]), there’s precious little in terms of self-examination. This “Golden Age” of American film thrived for a relatively short period and expired sometime in the late ‘70s. While Decade at least has the honesty to press its luminaries to speculate on the reasons for their own lessened influence today, it lacks the guts to go further and force them to address their own role in the general decline of American cinema.


That role was significant. The documentary fails to consider the downside to the auteur theory. Namely, artists have egos—and nothing strokes an ego like success. Long-time Hollywood production designer Polly Platt comes closest to getting it right in the waning moments of the film, saying that these enfants terrible “moved to Bel Air and… forgot about regular people and how regular people live.” (Platt doesn’t come at this from an entirely unbiased angle, as she was famously dumped by then-husband Bogdanovich in favor of Cybill Shepherd on the set of The Last Picture Show [1971], a very public drama not relayed in Decade, perhaps for fear of embarrassing Bogdanovich.)


The directors became what they once mocked—ridiculous Hollywood moguls. Coppola spent three years and $40 million recreating Vietnam in the Philippines. Bogdanovich and Scorsese made musicals. Friedkin dragged a film crew to the Dominican Republic, spending millions remaking the French film Wages of Fear (1953). In the most famous example, director Michael Cimino broke the bank filming his epic western, Heaven’s Gate (1980), a film that became a symbol of the New Hollywood’s excess. The self-immolation was so total that only a handful of survivors, Lumet, Pollack, and Scorsese, continued to thrive in the 1980s and 1990s.


You won’t get this from Decade. A better source is the Peter Biskind book on the same subject, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls , as well as the BBC documentary of the same name. Demme and LaGravenese hold too much affection for their subjects to make them squirm. When the subject is mentioned at all, it comes with a spirited and curiously personal defense of Heaven’s Gate by Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, all of whom blame the film’s celebrated belly-flop on critics. Cimino (noticeably absent from the interviews) is given a pass.


Instead, in its attempt to explain how the large studios became almost entirely focused on finding that next blockbuster popcorn flick, Decade fingers only the usual suspects: the big-money success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), movies that altered the approach studios took toward marketing their product. And certainly, much of the blame for the end of this era lies there. When Schrader complains that because of the media’s incessant reporting of box office grosses, audiences “became educated to believe good films made money,” he’s dead on target. In the 1980s, artistry unquestionably took a permanent back seat to commerce in the eyes of the large studios, which began placing shareholders before discerning moviegoers.


This environment spurred the rise of independent American cinema in the 1990s, which created films that were similar in sensibility, if not budget, to their ‘70s counterparts. Decade mentions this development almost cursorily, as if delving too much into the wealth of splendid recent independent films would somehow dilute its thesis that the ‘70s were the unique moment in American film. While the decade may have been pivotal one, it’s one that should be best be viewed in the context of a history of progressive cinema. There were envelope-pushing American films before—like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Their Lives (1946) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)—and there have been plenty afterward.


Decade does succeed in some respects. Its access to these cinematic legends (something that the competing Easy Riders by the BBC couldn’t match) is unparalleled. In the series of interviews, the stars engage us, either through their intellect or candor. Of particular note is the luminous Christie, who analyzes the beginning and end of this period so adroitly and with such passion, you wonder why she isn’t running a studio. (Answer: Because she’s far too intelligent.) Another is the bombastic Friedkin, who resembles nothing less than a film professor so cocksure of his opinions that follow-up questions aren’t necessary.


Most of all, it’s rewarding to witness a group of talented artists rediscover the enthusiasm that led them to their creative peaks. As a group, save for perhaps Scorsese, who is still making critical and commercially viable films, these directors’ best work lies deep in the rearview mirror. Because of that, a veil of tragedy hangs over the three-hour tale. These guys reside in artistic limbo. Studios don’t make their kinds of films any longer—and they’re living far too comfortably to take a hand-held camera to the streets and become guerrilla filmmakers. Their day is done. There’s only one contribution left for them to make. “Steal from us,” Coppola tells today’s young directors. It’s more than a shame that this is all that’s left for anyone to do.

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