A Decade Under the Influence

Dir: Ted Demme, Richard LaGravenese, 2003. Documentaries.
A Decade Under the Influence
Playing on the title of the groundbreaking John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, or maybe ’70s cokehead producer Julia Phillips’s memoir Driving Under the Affluence, the IFC-produced, three-part documentary A Decade Under the Influence is a fawning but wildly entertaining tribute to the films of the ’70s (actually 1967 onwards) and the maverick filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood. It’s the perfect film companion to Peter Biskind's incredibly readable book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which also spawned a BBC-produced documentary with the same name. The IFC series may come out slightly on top if only because it’s an hour longer and, at just 119 minutes, the BBC flick may not cover enough ground, while A Decade Under the Influence is crammed wall to wall with clips and interviews. For anyone who romanticizes this era in film (like me) this is three hours of pure, giddy love. 

Episode One: Influences and Independents, begins with the big gaudy premiere of the crappy big gaudy musical Hello Dolly in ’69; the thesis: that bomb marked the end of the studio era. An intelligent group of interviewees, including Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, and William Friedkin, give us the set up: the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, the women's movement, ’60s innovative rock & roll and later Watergate, the formation of the counter culture, and youth movement had a generation of people  asking why and breaking the rules. For filmmakers who were seeing the art house foreign films of Godard, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini (and of course Julie Christie throws in the working class films of early ’60s England) the current beach flicks, musicals, and romantic comedies of  Hollywood no longer seemed relevant. When Arthur Penn took influence from the French New Wave (who were influenced by American film noir and gangster flicks) and came up with his sexually frank and violent Bonnie and Clyde, it opened the floodgates for a new kind of American film. With Roger Corman and BBS (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) creating a new class of filmmakers who could work cheap while learning their trade and John Cassavetes making his homemade indie movies, the idea for the “’70s flick” was solidified. Those early influential flicks of the era are recalled and analyzed, including Easy Rider, Targets, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and The Last Picture Show. But it’s not all classics; less memorable movies like Joe and Hi, Mom! are also included and even Dirty Harry is given props as an obvious influence.

Episode Two: the New Hollywood looks at how the studio bosses nurtured the new breed of artists. You had the subversion of genres by Robert Altman and the personal films of Woody Allen (who is pretty much ignored in Biskind’s book). Obvious films and directors like The Godfather (Coppola), Badlands (Malick), The Exorcist (Friedkin), and Mean Streets (Scorsese) are examined, while a less obvious but equally admired flick, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Cimino), is looked at, too (though ironically not as deeply as Peter Biskind did in his book, Gods and Monsters: Thirty Years of Writings on Film and Culture). It’s not just the directors who are given their due; those new actors who didn’t look like movie stars are showcased like Nicholson, De Niro, and Pacino. The often overlooked actresses are also featured, including Glenda Jackson, Sissy Spacek, and Jane Fonda. The episode ends with All the Presidents Men and the lack of political trust sweeping the nation.

The divisive politics of the mid-to-late ’70s and pervasive insecurity in the U.S. is what Episode Three: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow uses to explain the green lights given to films like Taxi Driver and Network, while at the same time the Vietnam flick floodgates open with Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (ignoring the great crazy ‘Nam vet sub-genre that emerged during the decade). Finally, mass audiences didn’t want to be depressed anymore and fell in love with Rocky and Jaws; Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster era while Heaven’s Gate killed the indulgences of the auteur theory (only producer and production designer Polly Platt, ex-wife of downhill-fast-director Peter Bogdanovich, suggests that it went sour because the guys became creeps). The rest of the episode is unfortunately an infomercial for the IFC Channel, showcasing independent films that have emerged more recently, apparently because of the influential work done in the ’70s.

It’s easy to be cynical about a docu-series like this; it may overstate the importance of the decade for some (not me). The films that are examined are only rarely connected by theme or significance (except in the case of the more politically charged third episode); instead, it does feel like just a bunch of fun clips with talking heads telling the usual stories. The end credits wisely apologize for all the names and films not mentioned though it’s hard to find too many important names ignored (maybe low-budget horror is missing, Tobe Hooper?), and besides the many names mentioned above, there are shout-outs to Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, etc. But sometimes it does seem a little convenient as to who gets profiled and who is there as a talking head; Pam Grier is the only low budget or exploitation star whose career is talked about, while also providing gleeful commentary for others. Some may also find fault in the fact that the film only tip toes around the more lurid sex n’ drugs details that Biskind’s book reveled in but I think that’s a good thing; A Decade Under the Influence is less about gossip and more concerned with the work. It’s a love letter to an era by people who obviously worship the films and, frankly, I can’t think of a more entertaining way to blow a couple hours then watching clips from the greatest film decade of all time. Now I’m ready to also go watch that other one, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, again.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 9, 2012 5:49pm
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