The aesthetic importance of 1940s and 50s American cinema was a point of principle for the film theorists of the French New Wave. Beyond the great directors—Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ray—the studio system itself was producing work of real interest, they argued, even (or especially) in the undervalued genres of the detective film and the Western. But by the mid-sixties, these arbiters of cinephile taste decided that Hollywood had lost its way. ‘The reason we used to like American cinema was that, of every hundred American films, 80 per cent, say, were good. Nowadays, of every hundred American films, 80 per cent are bad.’ That was Godard contributing to a 1964 Cahiers du Cinéma round-table, and the mood was shared by his interlocutors, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol. They regretted the passing of the Hollywood studio system and the constraints that had forced directors to such feats of controlled cinematic daring. They had admired the ‘know-how’ of the film noir era, the ways in which practised hands could find ways to work through the machine. Now Hollywood directors were showing interest in ‘the intellect’—‘and intellect is of no interest in American cinema’. Truffaut was withering: ‘We used to say that we liked the Amer-ican cinema, but its filmmakers were slaves; what would it be like if they were free men? Well, the moment they become free they make lousy films.’
The general contention of When the Movies Mattered is that late-sixties and early-seventies Hollywood was, on the contrary, a cinematic golden age. A new collection of essays by some of the most original film critics writing on that decade of American cinema—Molly Haskell, David Thomson, J. Hoberman among them—the book joins a growing literature on what Time magazine, celebrating the box-office success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), dubbed ‘New Hollywood’. The late 1960s to mid-70s saw the emergence of a distinctive kind of filmmaking in the us by a young generation—Arthur Penn, Paul Mazursky, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, among others—many of whom were film-school graduates. In stark contrast to 1950s Hollywood, they made movies that were overtly political, morally ambiguous, often narratively unresolved, and featured unprecedented scenes of sex and violence. In films like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Alan Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’—Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976)—Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), New Hollywood challenged the conventions of American movie genres.
In Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) it was the camaraderie of the peace-loving hippy spirit that unravelled; Sam Peckinpah took down the Western in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973); and in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) it was the sacred bond of male friendship that was torn apart. These films characteristically refused Hollywood’s demand for happy endings: Alice stands alone in her wedding dress on the steps of her home as the camera rockily retreats; Pat Garrett shoots his own reflection to kill Billy the Kid, behind the mirror; Nicky is riddled with bullets against the closed front door of his best friend Mikey, barricaded inside. Welcome to a new generation in Hollywood, these films said collectively—where dreams come to die.
Ironically, these directors were also profoundly and self-consciously influenced by European cinema, in particular the French New Wave. The young Americans sought to emulate the freedom of filmmakers like Godard, Rohmer, Truffaut, Rivette and Malle, as well as the Italian Neo-Realists, and borrowed many of their techniques—jump cuts, fast shooting and editing, the use of documentary techniques within a fictional narrative, the prominence of the soundtrack, unconventional plots and a willingness to bend the rules of genre. A look at New Hollywood films quickly confirms the European influence—Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde, John Cassavetes’s Faces (1968) and Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces are impossible to imagine without the French and Italian works that preceded them. Coppola described his generation as the ‘American New Wave’, and Scorsese was just as enamoured: the first two minutes of Jules et Jim (1962) were simply ‘liberating’. As Haskell sums it up: for a fleeting period, American directors got to make European films with Hollywood money but without studio restraints.
When the Movies Mattered is co-edited by Jon Lewis, author of Hard-Boiled Hollywood (2017) and other works on film noir, and by Jonathan Kirshner, better known for his work at the intersection of global finance and international relations, including American Power after the Financial Crisis (2014), but also the author of an earlier history treating the same period, Hollywood’s Last Golden Age (2012). Here Kirshner examined the political and cultural context that gave birth to this new cinematic era. The critical backdrop was a crisis within the film industry: the old Hollywood studio system had been dismantled by the 1948 Supreme Court ruling that broke up the studios’ monopolies over development, production, post-production, distribution and exhibition. More broadly, suburbanization and the rise of television were causing a steep decline in movie-going audiences—falling from a peak of 90 million each week in 1946 to 25 million by 1960. Hollywood was emerging from the crippling self-censorship of the McCarthy era: by the start of the sixties Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten jailed and blacklisted for communist sympathies, could be credited for his screenplays again. In 1966, the Production Code Administration—the body charged with supervising Hollywood’s output—collapsed, to be replaced by the movie ratings system two years later, which effectively signalled the end of censorship: films no longer all had to be ‘suitable for children’.
The newly empowered directors were also reacting to the upheavals underway outside the industry. Alongside the domestic repercussions of the Vietnam War—including a pervasive loss of confidence in government—there were the ‘earthquakes’ of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Television itself nudged Hollywood towards the real world: images from Vietnam were flooding the evening news and bringing into millions of American homes a portrayal of violence much more vivid and real than in the movies. The demographic of the moviegoers was also shifting; producers could be persuaded to take a chance on young directors whose work might have a greater appeal to the affluent, educated, disaffected and equally youthful audiences, for whom rock music was the soundtrack of their lives. These early baby-boomers, used to material plenty, were nevertheless beset by existential insecurity, growing up in a decade punctuated by the assassinations of jfk, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, alongside widespread protest movements that were often met with police violence.
The catastrophic war in Vietnam—during the course of which the us dropped more bomb tonnage on North Vietnam (roughly the size of Wisconsin), than all the bombs dropped during the entire duration of World War ii—led to a re-examination of American national identity and myths, not least in classic genres like Westerns and detective movies. After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, the election of Nixon—‘smart, complex, paranoid, ultimately tragic’: a classic New Hollywood villain—signalled, in Kirshner’s summary, that the answers would not be found at the ballot box; seventies film turned inward, becoming ‘more downbeat, pessimistic, and infused with a sense of loss’. (By contrast, it is jfk’s death that Fredric Jameson considers the ‘paradigmatic political assassination’ in his discussion of the ‘conspiratorial films’ of this period in The Geopolitical Aesthetic.)