Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1970s

I think it is safe to say that the seventies bore witness to the greatest decade for cinema. The fifties saw a post-war stagnation, the sixties saw experimentation and a liberation of ideas, and the seventies saw expansion and, as was often the case, a reach for excess. The Hollywood elite lost all semblance of control, and by the middle of the decade they were embracing the new American wave of ‘boomer’ independent directors, who were making the movies they wanted to make. The Box Office receipts supported this and a new era of blockbusters were heralded thanks to the breakout success of exciting entertainment flicks like Jaws and Star Wars. By the end of the decade, there was a sense of burnout seeping into these independent ventures, epitomised by the four-year production hell of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (still a triumph) and the delusions of grandeur sought in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (not even close to a triumph). The zenith had been reached, and there was nowhere else to go – except the eighties!

The world’s landscape had been massively altered in the seventies, with revolution and independence-seeking occurring in almost all continents. The US were experiencing testy times – a conservative Government led by Richard Nixon was rocked by the Watergate scandal, and despite what Lynyrd Skynyrd may say, what followed was an era of unrest, paranoia, and deep soul-searching (defined in many ways by the Americans loss in Vietnam). Movies were made with all of this unease hanging around, and many directly explored the issues head-on (e.g. All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter) while others ran as far away as possible from them (e.g. Deep Throat, Grease, Animal House). ‘Old hand’ directors and stars were hanging on making films that harked back to the Golden Age, e.g. George Cukor, Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder were heading up Studio-friendly productions, while John Wayne, James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Henry Fonda were still around driving their own vehicles. Then there were the directors who had begun their trade in the Studio era but picked up steam in the early 1970s thanks to a relaxation on depictions of blood and violence, such that their styles of film-making profited from e.g. Sam Peckinpah made The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Don Siegal created a phenomenon with Dirty Harry. But as alluded to above, the cool kids were doing a lot more besides pandering to a traditional audience. The so-called ‘movie brats’ were busy rolling some premium, sweet-smelling joints.

A young Martin Scorsese took to the mean streets of New York to make Mean Streets, and with persistent bad language and abrupt, explicit violence, he never looked back. Coppola adapted a novel about the mafia and made the most defining crime movie sagas of all time in The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2). Robert Altman brought serious comedy to the fore with a sharp and challenging reflection on America and its preoccupation with war in M*A*S*H, following up with the audacious revisionist Western McCabe & Mrs Miller. Sylvester Stallone wrote one of the best screenplays about an underdog in Rocky and went on to win an Oscar for it (we are still unsure where it all went wrong after that). John Cassavetes continued his niche of subtle independent gems, the best of which were A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Miloš Forman, previously of the Czech New Wave, gave Jack Nicholson his pivotal moment as a very loose cannon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. William Friedkin made The French Connection and The Exorcist in 1971 and 1973 respectively, and could he have made two better films? Roman Polanski made a blindingly good villain out of the legendary John Huston in the glorious Chinatown. Peter Bogdanovich ruminated about a broken America in a respectful nod to movies of the past in The Last Picture Show. Woody Allen broke out of the B-grade with the delicious Annie Hall. Mel Brooks, god bless him, gave us Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. John Boorman gave us thrilling and disturbing scenes in Deliverance. Sidney Lumet bravely took on crime, corruption and soullessness in a tremendous trio of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network. David Lynch appeared fresh from his art studio with Eraserhead. And Ridley Scott came in at the end of the decade with John Hurt’s exploding stomach and Sigourney Weaver’s harrowing escape in Alien.

And that was just in the US. There were extraordinary films made elsewhere too. The New German Cinema was exemplified by incredible talent in Rainer Werner Fassbinder (a quest for humanity amidst our intolerance), Wim Wenders (a quest for humanity amidst a cloud of uncertainty) and Werner Herzog (a quest for humanity amidst a hostile natural world). Bernardo Bertolucci maintained the impressive output from Italy (as from previous decades) with the wonderfully perplexing The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, but he went over the edge with his cringe-worthy and perverse Last Tango in Paris. Dario Argento began his stylish giallo horror flicks in earnest (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria being his best). The Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski gave us probably the best British film of the decade in Deep End. Paul Verhoeven, before he became dreadful, made two great Dutch films in Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange. Akira Kurosawa was still around to give us the incredible Russian production, Dersu Uzala. And amazing stuff appeared Down Under with Walkabout, Wake in Fright, The Last Wave, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Mad Max and Picnic at Hanging Rock (and not to forget Sam Neill’s breakout in Sleeping Dogs from New Zealand).

The list of brilliant films from the seventies never ends. As an explorer of film history, I still find gem after gem that I have never heard of before from that decade, such was the prolific output of film-makers, old and new. The Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time is utterly non-reflective of how amazing and how wonderfully varied the seventies really were, with only fourteen films selected in the top 100. It was so much better than this:

  • The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Victor Erice) (=85)
  • Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette) (=78)
  • Touki Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambety) (66)
  • Fears Eats the Soul (1974, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) (=52)
  • News from Home (1976, Chantal Akerman) (=52)
  • Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden) (=48)
  • Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick) (=45)
  • Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett) (=43)
  • Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky) (=43)
  • Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky) (=31)
  • Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) (29)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) (19)
  • The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) (12)
  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) (1)

Having said that, this list is a revisionist viewpoint, given that it highly rates previously unheralded directors such as Chantel Akerman, Charles Burnett and Djibril Diop Mambety, and rightly so (Killer of Sheep is up there for me). But I feel like the seventies deserves its own Top 100 list. Maybe this is a future post, but here I discuss my usual five additions to the ‘best of’ the decade:

La Planète Sauvage / Fantastic Planet (1973, René Laloux)

A striking sci-fi animation from the early seventies, this French-language film is every bit as fantastic as its English title suggests (it actually translates as ‘The Wild Planet’). Many critics have commented on the film’s singularity and its uniqueness in the history of cinema. Caught between a period of very few adult animated films and a period that would see it flourish, the film does not appear to have been inspired by anything before nor have we saw anything like it since. It is so rich in ideas and imagery, and yet so strange and surreal. It is a product of the psychedelic era transitioning into a more coherent phase of global and environmental awareness. There are allegorical messages about politics, subjugation of animals, genocide, and the human race’s insatiable needs, and this is presented amidst experimental animated visuals that are beautiful and fun to watch. Even now, the animation is not totally out of date. Unfairly, it has been compared to Terry Gilliam’s madcap work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus that was on TV around the same time, but the purposes of the two animations are non-divergent. Gilliam played it for absurdity and cheap laughs, but this gem plays it for surrealism and subtext. And it impressively works.

Fantastic Planet has a very simple (and whacky) story centred on a species of red-eyed, fin-eared blue beings called the Draags who live in an alternative dystopian universe, where they subjugate a miniature human-like species called Oms (a play on the French word for men – hommes) who they often torture and keep as pets. The whole premise is hallucinatory and totally engrossing. The expressionistic animation was led by Roland Topor, who was part of the surrealist Panic Movement in Paris in the sixties, which included the mental case, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Topor teamed up with director René Laloux and others who made the film in Prague, a city that was firmly behind the Iron Curtain at the time and not exactly supportive of liberal ideas. Thankfully, the French came in and financed the film, leading to a success at Cannes and a global distribution that sat neatly in the progressive and expansive global film industry of the 1970s.

The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

Coppola was a busy man in the sixties and early seventies. He wrote scripts, directed films, and ran a successful production company, the pioneering independent studio American Zoetrope. He wrote extensively in the 60s, but as in the case of The Conversation, not all his scripts saw the light of day until he had secured more creative freedom. The draft script for The Conversation started in 1963 and finished in 1969, which is astonishing because it echoes so much of the real-life Watergate Scandal that preoccupied much of American politics from 1972 to 1974 (the film was released as the scandal was dissipating). Indeed, the film was very much a success because it precisely captured the moment when surveillance and people’s privacy in the modern world was in the spotlight for the first time.

Coppola’s film was a unique thriller at a time when thrillers were released by the dozen on a weekly basis (most of them Dirty Harry rip-offs). It appealed to the mainstream but it was not generic and it oozed with intelligent cool. Gene Hackman personified a new type of American Everyman in the main character Harry Caul – a shy, working man with a strong professional ethic. However, Coppola whips us under the blanket to explore Caul’s mostly pathetic life and we discover his spiralling mistakes sometimes leads to fatal consequences. As the film progresses, the wiretapping world that Caul partakes in becomes less about a ‘nine to five’ job and more about a soul-search into a dangerous unknown – an unexpected redemption story thus formulates. With John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, and Robert Duvall offering stellar supporting roles and David Shire’s timeless jazz score, the persisting genius of the film mostly lies in its pervading mood of paranoia that stood in step with the times. And that haunting, incredibly tense and complex opening scene in Union Park, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, is a landmark in seventies film.

The Travelling Players (1975, Theodoros Angelopoulos)

For the 230 minutes that this film runs for, I wanted to stay the course and remain watching it in one sitting. Theo Angelopoulos’ utterly engrossing ‘slow cinema’ masterpiece is unique in that regard. Films like Shoah (9 hours, 30 minutes), Sátántangó (7 hours, 19 minutes), 1900/Novecento (5 hours, 17 minutes) and Fanny and Alexander (5 hours, 14 minutes) are all brilliant too, but I had to break up my viewing of these over the course of a few days, given their complexity. The Travelling Players is indeed complex too, but it has a soothing pace and a rewarding finale. Angelopoulos’ extraordinary and pioneering style of long takes, pivoting cameras, distant observations, and marvellous landscape vistas is utterly mesmerising. The fact that a large ensemble of characters inhabits these scenes and effectively (but often silently) communicate to the audience is testament to the director’s genius.

A major success in its home country, the film sets itself in fascist-ruled Greece from 1939 to 1952. It follows an acting troupe travelling through northern country towns and villages performing a popular folk tale called Golfo the Shepherdess. The timeline is surreally presented, with the group starting many scenes in one year and ending it another. Of course, there are no prompts for the viewer as to when and where we are meant to be, but a knowledge of 20th Century Greek history is helpful to figure this out, e.g. the Metaxas dictatorship, the Greco-Italian War, the Nazi occupation, the Greek Civil War, the British-American intervention and the election of Papagos. All of this is treated carefully by Angelopoulos, because the censors would have easily banned it, but his mastery is evident in making an obviously anti-fascist film without using obvious techniques. The heart of the film reverberates in the struggle and suffering of the ‘travelling players.’ They are poetic figures of the earth, and their sadness, happiness and searing humanity are major proponents in the effectiveness of this sprawling story.

Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)

Many have written about Robert Altman’s cornerstone classic. Mainly Americans, because it is a film about America, or more accurately, a film about America in the seventies. America as a critique, and if you look at it another way, America as a celebration (although the Country Music scene denounced it as condescending). One writer, Molly Haskell, described it as capturing ‘the full complexity of America, rich in contradictions, rife with neurosis, and convulsed by the celebrity madness of ambition and envy.’ Almost 50 years later, it is still very relevant. The film is dazzling as it is hilarious. It sees Altman reach the zenith of his auteur-ship: multi-storylines, a smorgasbord of characters, crowded scenes of ‘Where’s Wally’ levels of complexity, biting satire and a healthy sense of inquisitiveness. The epic tapestry that he weaves in Nashville is arguably his greatest achievement. Utterly original in its execution, and yet so reflective of the state of Americanness at that time. The nods towards the Country and Folk Music scene, the pageantry around political campaigns, the broadening of the celebrity industry, the persisting sense of ‘free love’ and the polarisation around the Vietnam War all come to the fore.

The intelligence in Altman’s picture (and Joan Tewkesbury’s brilliant script) stems from a resistance to judgement. The assembly of 24 main characters (a bold strategy that was not replicated until Wes Anderson) allows for a wonderful display of ambivalent characteristics, both masculine and feminine. There is much chaos and fluidity, but at no point does one feel left on the outer. We are drawn in, and a lot of it comes together in the end (well, the parts that matter anyway). That is because Altman is wedded to realism as much as he is to providing whimsical entertainment. The large cast is fantastic and, in my opinion, makes the film repeatable viewing. Henry Gibson (later to give that unforgettable performance as the gay barfly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia) is the diminutive, arrogant, power-bearing Country deity with wider ambitions; Scott Glenn is the quiet and empathetic, uniform-wearing, war vet returning from Vietnam; Geraldine Chaplain (Charlie’s daughter) is the possibly bogus, infuriating and pretentious British reporter from the BBC; Keith Carradine is the narcissistic, semi-sleazy hippie folk singer forced to head his own way when his band breaks up (styled on Peter, Paul and Mary); Karen Black is the sultry wannabe star intent on being the next best thing to rise to the top of the Country and Western tree (resembling Lynn Anderson, or perhaps Dolly Parton?); Jeff Goldblum is a scene-stealing, non-speaking motorcyclist (styled on Dennis Hopper’s Captain America from Easy Rider); and Ronee Blakey, the absolute stand-out, is the ‘Loretta Lynn’ sweetheart of Nashville whose fate more or less ‘settles’ the film’s threadbare plot.

Kings of the Road (1976, Wim Wenders)

One of the best things for me about films is that they are escapist (I have written about this before). When you are taken on a journey of escape with the characters, it is the perfect tonic. Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road is exactly that. Two men in present-day West Germany are on a journey somewhere. Not sure where, but they don’t really know either. The clues are subtle and likely of no consequence. Wenders is seeking out answers in the landscape, in the mood, in the faces of his characters. This is Germany at a crossroads. A new generation is taking stock of a horrific past, where complicity is a difficult word. The present is equally pocketed with scions of hope as it is with reminders of past trauma. The border with East Germany hangs over the film like a cloud, as too does Wenders’ interest in American culture – an ever-prominent incursion on European sensibilities at that time. But none of that is explicit. Wenders allows the camera and the audience to do all the work.

There is a wonderful flair to the film, even though it is three hours long and communicates little of what you would call a plot. Two men, a film projector mechanic (Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler) and a linguist (Hanns Zischler), have a chance meeting after the linguist drives his car into the Elbe River in an apparent suicide attempt. They decide to hit the road in an enormous truck, proceeding to visit various run-down movie theatres in rural towns, where the projector mechanic conducts his work. The two men seem to be intrinsically linked through their troubled pasts and their present loneliness. They form a mutual bond, one of tenderness and respect, and this allows the film to maintain a sweet and humorous feel throughout. The magnificent black and white visuals from cinematographer Robby Müller is grandiose in the most cinematic way, and along with Wenders’ poetic direction, it makes for the most delectable of films to watch.  

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