The Return of the Seventies (II)

Peter Suderman has kind words for my essay on Hollywood in the shadow of Iraq, but he also writes:

[The piece] gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970’s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies ... It’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.

Contrast this with the films of the 1970’s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View ... sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.

Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970’s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.

I largely agree, and tried to suggest as much in the original essay, though Peter may be right that I should have made the point more explicitly. I do think that our neo-Seventies moment has produced movies and (especially) television shows that rival the best work done in that decade - not only highbrow work like The Wire and The Sopranos, Zodiac and No Country For Old Men, but thrillers like the Bourne films (the first two, especially) and B-movies like 28 Days Later. (I think Danny Boyle's zombie film is a vast improvement on the work of George Romero, in fact, though that's a minority opinion.) But it's certainly true that the more explicitly politically-infused material is considerably weaker this time around, often to the point of embarrassment. One problem, as Chris Orr among others has suggested, is the lack of distance on the Iraq War: Films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now came out years after we had departed Vietnam, and as a result they didn't come across as attempts to grab the viewer by the lapels and convince them to END THE WAR NOW!!!!, which was what movies like Lions For Lambs and In the Valley of Elah often seemed intent on doing. The other problem, I think, is the one I tried to get it in my post on Michael Clayton: The best paranoid movies - The Parallax View, say, or The Conversation - wear well precisely because they're willing to "stop just short of realism, to build rotten, conspiracy-ridden worlds that overlap with our own but aren’t necessarily identical to it." Whereas films like Clayton or Syriana or The Constant Gardener are too real-world for their own good, and as a result their byzantine conspiracy theories feel like agitprop rather than art.