The Power of Nines

Numerologists would certainly make something of it. Believers in alternative forms of faith and interstellar convergence would argue for its clear cosmic significance. Realists might remark that the end of every decade denotes a major turning point for a society — socially, philosophically, culturally — that mandates analysis and consideration. And of course, there is coincidence (let’s just avoid that for right now, okay?). For example, in sloppy overgeneralizations, music went from rock’s roots in the ’50s, to the British invasion in the ’60s. The ’70s brought punk and disco to the fore, while the ’80s turned them into New Wave and hip-hop respectively. By the ’90s, grunge was looking to realign the guitar chug past with the future, while rap went from boasting to bad-ass with the turn toward the ‘gansta’. Indeed, for every decade, sound as art redefined and reinvented itself.

It’s the same with film, except in a more isolated, less categorical manner. It seems like, within every individual decade, filmmakers save up their best work for the tail end of the time frame. After all, look at PopMatters previous week in celebration of the Most Memorable Films of 1999. Sure, this five day overview coincided with the magazine’s arrival on the hectic horizon of the Web the same year, but it also marked a significant creative junction in the celluloid artform. To that end, we picked over 60 films to comment on. Technically, we could have picked many, many more. And when you go back over the last 50 years, highlighting the movies made and/or released in 1989, 1979, 1969, and 1959, the results are quite compelling.

In fact, when you look at the aforementioned dates in movie history, you can see the medium lurching under changing public opinion, viewership taste, and demographic demands. TV was taking over people’s leisure time by the mid-’50s, and Hollywood was looking for a way to get viewers back before the big screen. Visual stunts like Cinemascope, Todd-AO, and your basic blue-red 3D experience were initially compelling, but as with most gimmick-based ballyhoo, it soon died out. No, it was the actual films that drew the curious to the theater, not the incomplete technical “advances”. And let’s not forget the growing influence of the youth market and its main resting point — the drive-in. A year like 1959 saw Roger Corman (Attack of the Giant Leeches) and William Castle (The Tingler) take teenage audiences on a wild ride of monsters, mayhem, and basic b-movie schlock. It also marked the moment when the unwarranted tag of “worst filmmaker of all time” was batted around one Edward D. Wood Jr. and his sci-fi freak show Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Ben Hur (1959)

Still, 1959 offered up several seminal works that we adore today, including the Oscar winning epic Ben Hur, the haunting, Holocaust themed Diary of Anne Frank, and the original, and far superior, holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Noted names like Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest) and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) were, arguably, at the peak of their creative form, while new names from the international scene like François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) were introducing adventurous moviegoers to previously unknown styles like neo-realism and the experimental New Wave. In between, Tinsel Town offered up weepers (A Summer Place), camp (an Imitation of Life remake), hard boiled drama (Anatomy of a Murder) and films that defy easy description (Suddenly, Last Summer, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil).

Of course, the concept of nine is not infallible. 1969 is an example of a powerful year in film that, today, is more or less overshadowed by the astounding accomplishments of what came previously. When you look back at 1968 (2001, Planet of the Apes, and Night of the Living Dead, for example), there are several titles that transcend their original purpose to become benchmarks both within and outside the medium. Naturally, that makes it a tough act to follow, and some can argue that the increasingly tenuous social climate, ravaged by civil unrest, political uncertainty, and a very unpopular war, mandated a swift and sudden shift in cinema. Perhaps that’s why we see so many aesthetic battles between the counterculture (Alice’s Restaurant) and the creaky, antique Establishment (Hello Dolly! ) taking shape.

Easy Rider (1969)

Indeed, 1969 is the year when Easy Rider redefined the independent film, when a couple of hapless hippy rebels (with some significant insider roots, remember) took the entire decade and redefined it as a drug-fueled quest for sex, drugs, and the American dream. It was the year when overblown spectacles and misguided musicals (Paint Your Wagon) were cast aside in favor of more personal (Midnight Cowboy), probing (Goodbye Columbus) works. It was the year of Putney Swope, Robert Downey, Sr.’s sensational satire on race in America, Medium Cool, the mock documentary centering on the horrific 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Sydney Pollack’s undeniably effective look at individual desperation and determination, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

It was also the year that old school star John Wayne finally won his little gold statue for True Grit, Sam Peckinpah spit on the system that fostered his filmmaking freedom with the blood drenched Wild Bunch, and Fellini went wild with his randy Roman wackiness, Satyricon. British filmmakers like Ken Russell (Women in Love) and Richard Attenborough (Oh! What a Lovely War) brought their skewered sensibilities to audiences eager for something sly and artistically risky. Woody Allen made his first film as a director (Take the Money and Run), while another future filmmaking giant, Frances Ford Coppola, cultivated his growing cinematic cache with the understated sentiments of The Rain People. In fact, any year that could embrace the now-dated pseudo-swinging silliness of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the superstar driven swagger of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was as confused as it was compelling.

As the last gasp of a decade that saw the post-modern movement literally redefine what a film could be, 1979 is like 1969’s half-breed half-insane brother. It’s an unusual combination of the commercial (10), the calculated (The China Syndrome), and the crazy (then comedy god Steve Martin’s first starring effort The Jerk). It was the moment when Star Wars‘ monster success resurrected another famed franchise that had left the TV airwaves 10 years before (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) while horror and the old dark house ideal was being recast in an outer space style with the influential Ridley Scott hit Alien. Directors from around the world continued to make an impact on both the arthouse (Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun) and the burgeoning Cineplex (George Miller’s Mad Max), while smaller gems like Over the Edge and Phantasm gained significant audience attention.

All That Jazz (1979)

Yet the crowning achievements of 1979 still stand today as major artistic accomplishments. Before his untimely death, Broadway demagogue Bob Fosse put his own debauched life on the screen for the amazing, semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, while Coppolla was back with the film that almost killed him and star Martin Sheen, the masterful anti-war screed Apocalypse Now. Kramer vs. Kramer put an A-list face (Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep) on the growing culture issue of divorce, while Sally Field finally shed her TV ingénue image to win her first of two Oscars as factory worker turned Union advocate Norma Rae. Between comedy classics like the Peter Falk/Alan Arkin In-Laws and the heartfelt coming of age insights of Breaking Away, it was almost as if the industry was trying to wrap up everything about the previous ten years in one, idealized package.

By 1989, all of that changed. Commerciality became king in the world of movies, the undeniable influence of home video and the VCR literally changing the way people saw, experience, and embraced film. The ’80s moved away from the more insightful and erudite efforts of before to center around high concepts, starring vehicles, blockbusters, and titles with major sell-through/repeat rental possibilities. Certainly, outside of the hugely influential United States system were directors taking chances. In Hong Kong, John Woo was reinventing action with The Killer, while in England, Peter Greenaway courted unheard of controversy to make his amazing political allegory The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. While overblown F/X wonders like Twister and Honey I Shrunk the Kids filled box office coffers to the top, smaller important independents like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Gus Van Zant’s Drugstore Cowboy were introducing Hollywood to its possible filmmaking future.

Batman (1989)

Still, 1989 was the year of Tim Burton’s Batman and James Cameron’s post-Terminator underwater treat The Abyss. It was the year where we went Back to the Future for a second time, and discovered the feel good facets of baseball in a Midwestern Field of Dreams. Bubbling around the fringes were far more inventive efforts, like Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, and Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising. From Italy’s Cinema Paradiso to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, from the return of Alejandro Jodoworski and Santa Sangre to “Weird” Al Yankovic’s UHF, it was perhaps the most divergent of all the cinematic nine times. After all, within one single 12-month time period, Woody Allen released Crimes and Misdemeanors, Oliver Stone offered up Born on the Fourth of July, Danny Devito directed friends Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses, while elsewhere along the contrarian celluloid landscape, Harry Met Sally, Nicolas Cage experienced a Method Vampire’s Kiss, and Indiana Jones went on his Last Crusade (well, almost).

Of course, not all years end up perfectly. For 1989, the dismal Driving Miss Daisy was named the Best Picture. In 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer took home the trophy. Midnight Cowboy managed to defeat a decidedly below average field in 1969, while Ben Hur steamrolled its way to 11 Oscars in 1959 (a record it would hold until Titanic in 1997). Even more intriguing is where we are right now. It’s 2009, which means the celluloid cycle is supposed to reset again this year. However, three months in and it’s hard to argue for anything other than raw populism, misguided vision, and undeniable averageness. Will Watchmen be remembered as anything other than disappointing at the box office? Can Adventureland capture the imagination of a generation once removed from its 1987 nostalgia? Will anyone remember the horror remakes of My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, and Last House on the Left? And will anyone consider the beauty and grace of Henry Selick’s Coraline as the flawless gem it truly is?

Indeed, perspective plays an important part in any list, requiring a few revisionist years outside the filmic fray before actual lasting impact can be measured. After all, not many thought Kubrick had cemented his auteur status with his mesmerizing, often incomprehensible Space Odyssey, nor was anyone banking on Coppola completing his triumphant take on Vietnam, let alone considered it turning into a movie masterpiece. So who know — maybe in 2019, critics will be clamoring for the CG strides of Monsters vs. Aliens, or arguing over which was more influential — Paul Blart: Mall Cop or Seth Rogen’s similarly themed (if much darker) Observe and Report. As we saw in the 1999 feature, such judgments are usually a mix of personal opinion, group acceptance, and eventual cultural consensus. But don’t underestimate the power in nines. As the last 50 years have shown, there’s something to be said about its cyclical ‘one before ten’ tenets.