‘Hollywood’s Last Golden Age’ Offers an Academic Love Letter to ’70s Films

Books that actively declare a golden age often reflect an unambiguous disdain for the current era. With Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, Jonathan Kirshner leaves little doubt that he believes that ’70s films represented the last golden age, and that there will likely be no additional golden ages in Hollywood’s future. He ends the book with an epitaph for the ’70 films, “The American film culture had change. It wasn’t about anything anymore.”

Kirshner clearly has great reverence for the gritty, realistic, socially and politically aware films of the ’70s. As I read this book, I thought of Eduoard Manet’s Olympia starring definitely out of his 1863 canvas. Olympia was a statement of the time. She shocked her audience. She was plain, asking for no pity or forgiveness. Olympia represented a place and a time without embellishment. After a long history (nowhere near as long as painting) the shock of realism emerged in film.

Unlike Olympia, which one can view at the Museo de Orsay in Paris for as long or as short a time as one wishes, the films covered in Hollywood’s Last Golden Age require a minimum commitment of a couple of hours each. The viewer needs to be involved, not distracted. No Twitter, no second screens. Perhaps most importantly, the viewer needs to want to experience the film. As accurate as Kirshner’s appraisals may be, Hollywood’s Last Golden Age doesn’t offer a David McCollough-like ride. I gained an appreciation for ’70s film, but the book kindled little desire to see the films it covered.

In declaring a “golden age” Kirshner quickly establishes a temporal separation from the reader. From Five Easy Piece to Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice — from Bonny and Clyde to Serpico, Kirshner revels in the painful genesis of films that bloomed from the waste of the Vietnam War and Watergate, blooms nurtured by the demise of the old studio system with their strict internal censorship and contracted studio players and feed by the counter-culture of the ’60s. By the late ’60s and through the late ’70s, creative artists unleashed a pent up supply of self-reflective social commentary created by cynical filmmakers that had grown disenchanted with the American Dream.

As much as Hollywood’s Last Golden Age praises realism, it does not live in reality itself. Kirshner seems to me a disillusioned version of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender from Woody Allen’s brilliant Midnight in Paris. Kirshner dismisses the end of this “golden age” with the arrival of the Hollywood blockbuster. And I think for readers, they will struggle with the same affinity for time that plagued Pender and his love interest Adriana (Marion Cotillard). She longed for the 1890s while he pined for the 1920s.

Kirshner may find few readers that want to travel to the era of the movie Nashville, a film which critic Tom Wicker says was a “cascade of minutely detailed vulgarity, greed, deceit, cruelty, barely contained hysteria, and the frantic lack of root and grace into which American life has been driven.” Despite living my childhood during the era this book covers, I prefer my memory of Willie Wonka and safe suburban parks, which clearly existed in an alternative reality from Kirshner’s notorious and violent urban inspired cinema.

To draw a deeper parallel to Midnight in Paris, Kirshner explores the connections between the French New Wave of film making and the American films of the ’70s. French cinema influenced the development of American film in much the way that the “symbolists” influenced the development of American poetry in the ’20s, particularly poetry from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Poetry from the ’20s anticipated the ’70s, though its disillusionment sprang from World War I, not the bungles of smaller wars, local economics and political debauchery. Like the ’70s film, the most celebrated of the the ’20s-era poets painted unvarnished verbal images pushed through avant-garde lenses, ultimately deconstructing and reconstructing the craft of poetry.

Kirshner often writes extended prose chronically the context of the ’70s. He summarizes much of this in chapter 8 when he states: “But the seventies brought more than “hard times”; they brought anxious times, an era of uncertainty and instability visited on a public accustomed to the expectations of ever-better things almost as a birthright.” This phrase could be as easily applied to 2012 as to 1973. Over and the over the book seems to disinvite its readers to the ’70s party, now seemingly populated by grumpy old men. Why return to dated films when we can so easily conjure more recent human suffering, political misdeeds and environmental degradation on CNN?

Kirshner offers insight as well as overplay, however. He states in Chapter 2, for example, when reflecting on The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson, that “in seventies film, all characters are flawed.” I’m never one to accept a broad generalization that also fits within a constraint. Films made in the ’70s had no corner on flawed characters, though they did have great models in Nixon, Haldrman and Ehrlichman, a trio of miscreants who, along with Kissinger and other members of the White House staff, Kirshner offers as replay in Chapter 4. Kirshner also sweeps glowingly as in “Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, is a perfect film.” with a footnote reference that offers a source for the hyperbole. His love and reverence for the “’70s film” results in a less critical examination than one would expect in an academic book.

Kirshner sites a few films of greatness following the demise of this dystopian era (films like Manhattan and Raging Bull, but not Gandhi or Amadeus). I don’t mind Kirshner dismissing the ’80s and ’90s Hollywood flick as much as it bothers me that this book offers no insight into the current phenomenon of independent films distributed digitially on websites like snagfilms, Babelgum Film and MoPix. I’m not referring to the quick clips that typify America’s Funniest Home Videos, I mean meaningful, well produced independent shorts and feature-length films that arrived without studios, directly to the masses. The dissolution of the “big Hollywood” that started in the /70s has continued, rather subversively, as technology improved, creating an environment for ever more empowered creative talent.

Film students and cinephiles will find Hollywood’s Last Golden Age a meaningful addition to their knowledge of an era that, for the youngest of them, holds no personal connection. We need books like this to chronicle history.

But for those of us who lived through this time, these films so fondly examined by Kirshner hold only a fascination as historical relics. They may well be masterpieces of cinema, they may well deconstruct and reconstruct the idea of narrative, they may well present characters stripped of artifice and dialog devoid of poetry, but they also remind us of a time when our parents feared nuclear annihilation, lost trust in government and failed to embrace returning soldiers from a war that was never really theirs.

Now, we have enough struggles with our own times that any longing for the ’70s seems unnecessary. There was a reason that Star Wars and Rocky out grossed Network or Taxi Driver at the box office. That reason can be summed-up by Laraine Newman’s studio executive character in Woody’s Allen’s Stardust Memories who so aptly states: “Too much reality is not what the people want.”

Production note: In terms of production, the book is a rather plain trade paperback with a few illustrations. I think Kirshner and Cornell University Press could have come up with better captions for the images.

RATING 7 / 10