American Cinema of the 1970s: A Failure or The Golden Age?

How do we define failure and success?  Failure is not achieving the desired end.  It is the condition of being inefficient and insufficient.  On the other hand, Success is achieving what is desired.  The standards of failure and success are always subjective and relative to the person or group who is judging an idea or an event.  It is never objective.  The word desire in itself is very subjective.  We have different desires.  We differ in what we value and what we deem as important.  Some may contest by saying that their opinion or verdict is based on facts and is purely impartial.  But to say that someone is totally unbiased is in effect saying that the person is inhuman.  The fact that a subject was chosen to be studied is somehow biased.  It goes to show that the subject is of importance or is interesting to the person to merit his time and effort in studying it.  The way that some events or ideas are emphasized and some are downplayed is based on personal preference.

Using the framework of subjectivity in any kind of analysis will be very useful in the discourse on the American Cinema in the 1970s.  I am now faced with two opposing views.  On one side are the proponents of the American 1970s Cinema as a failure.  On the other side is the group who refers to this period as the Golden Age of Cinema.  Both may have their own valid points and both may have their weaknesses.  In the analysis of the American Cinema in the 70s, both groups could have focused on different aspects of the Industry.  Each group could have their own set of ideals on what Cinema should be.  It is possible that these ideals may be opposing or they could also share some ideals but may be clashing in some.

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Let us start with a background of the social, political and economic situation of the United States in the 1970s.  The 70s saw the worst recession after 40years.  Richard Nixon was forced to resign as President due to impeachment charges relating to the Watergate scandal.  Social movements, specifically the anti-war demonstrations increased because of US involvement in the Vietnam War.  An event directly connected with anti-war demonstrations is the Kent State University tragedy where four students were killed by National Guardsmen when they open fired on demonstrators.  The Supreme Court released a decision to legalize abortion.  These are just some of the important events in the 1970s.

The economic and socio-political climate of the 70s greatly affected the Film Industry.  The sale of tickets went down due to bad economy.  People considered movie-going as a leisure activity and thus made it a least priority.  They also considered watching movies as one of those non-worthy activities.  They felt that movies are a distraction to more important activities or to issues that are greatly affecting the country and its people.

Another noteworthy effect on the movie-going statistics in the 70s is the gaining popularity of   Television.  Television and its wonders kept the audiences of the 1970s glued too their Television sets at home (San Filippo, 2001).  Television programs and sitcoms touch based with the reality of everyday life. The shows reflected the lives of ordinary American families in the 70s, even showing lifestyles of the 50s creating nostalgia.  A more damaging effect on the Film Industry is the introduction of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) which took away some of the Industry’s business.   There was a decline in movie-going due to the accessibility of home videos.

This is the starting point for the advocates of the 1970s as a Cinema of Failure.  The Film Industry needed to draw the attention back to patronizing of their films.  They need something to revive the Industry.  That something was provided by the emergence of a new generation of players in the Industry like university-educated directors and actors.  They took a risk and experimented with young alternative film-makers while the Hollywood professionals and moguls faded and a new breed of film makers surfaced (The New Decade for Film-makers).  These young film makers took up film courses and were very skillful and technical in terms of production.  At a certain point, it was all good.  Fresh ideas from young directors gave a new take on film-making.  Their films tackled contemporary social issues with characters that are believable and with astounding visual effects (Huggins).  These directors were given the autonomy they needed for experimentation and so tried all sorts of combination to make the movies appealing.  They were provided big budgets which allowed them to utilize elaborate productions.  Their creative juices were encouraged to flow and storyline or visual effects restriction was not common.  Auteurism was very much alive.    This is the method of analyzing films in terms of the distinct characteristics of a director’s work which makes him or her the author or auteur in French (Auteur Theory).    It gives ownership of the film to the director’s personal artistic vision.

The American audience saw this new spirit in the Film Industry which intrigued and enticed them to watch movies again.  Movie Characters and plots which mirrored the present social and political state of society made the films interesting and relevant.  People were able to connect to the movies and can very well relate to the characters or to the feelings evoked by these characters.  Cinema at that time was a reflection of society.  It challenged norms and rules which were very evident in the social and political arenas.  People were questioning leadership motives and abilities, and were seeking reforms in social matters.

If you look at what was happening at that time, one would wonder why critics continue to call this era as a failure.  Their contention was that this period in the 1970s Cinema history was short lived.  The brief glory days were overshadowed by big blockbuster films which capitalized on form rather than content.  Studios spent a lot of money with these blockbuster films.  The focus was placed on box-office earnings and the production concentrated on youth-oriented films with incredible special effects (The New Decade for Film-makers).  The studios experimentations paid off and finally had the formula of success in their hands.  They found the key to great financial rewards through the blockbuster films which were promoted to mass audiences.

The two monumental blockbuster films from this decade include Jaws (1975) by Steven Spielberg who was then 27 years old and Star Wars (1977) by the George Lucas who was 33.  Both films were amazing successes earning rentals of more than $100 million (The New Decade for Film-makers).

Through these two films, the studios did not need to experiment further.  They already had the formula in their hands so what they did was to create blockbuster films following the recipe of Jaws and Star Wars to increase their profits.  This was the time when the creativity drought set in.  Critics claimed that the human interest and thought-provoking stories were sacrificed for more popular and mainstream topics with very simple and predictable storylines.  Films had no focus on content and no relevance to society’s ails and issues.  Film-making as an art of storytelling was soon overshadowed by film-making as a business.  The major film studios controlled the Industry and the independent producers and directors have no place to go.

On the other side of the fence are those who believe that The American Cinema in the 1970s is The Golden Age of American Cinema.  Film-makers showcased their creativity without having to think of restrictions on form and content because the Industry experienced a loosening of film censorship at this time.  Elements of violence, nudity, sexuality and extreme language were all needed to make the films closer to reality.  These elements have to be incorporated in the film to a certain extent to give life to the characters and give the story a touch of realism.

The formats of the films produced in this decade were not only mentally challenging, but they are also stimulating and entertaining.  The cinematic effects were admirable due budget was really set aside and not constrained for this purpose.

It is in this decade when movies from different genre were made to cater to a diverse audience.  Movies reflecting the political and social conflicts within society were shown.  These movies were reflections of the sentiments of the people about certain issues at that time.  Two of the more relevant movies shown were The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) both by Alan J. Pakula.  The Parallax View was based on the issues of conspiracy surrounding the Watergate Scandal.  It was about a reporter whose girlfriend mysteriously died after witnessing an assassination.  He believed that the death of his girlfriend was a conspiracy to silence her.  He then goes undercover so he can gain access to the Parallax Corporation, which he discovered was recruiting and training political assassins.  The film used the wholesome themes of family and home, and also involved violent scenes or images to put forth the message that violence and political assassinations are existing in the American realm (Millikan, 2007).           All the President’s Men was also a movie based on the Watergate Scandal.  The movie was about two Washington Post reporters who discovered the Watergate conspiracy.  After uncovering the conspiracy, they were placed under surveillance their lives were in grave danger.  Although the movie showed that the President eventually resigned, the point of the story did not end there.  The story wanted to bring the message across that even if the problem was solved, there are still existing problems and issues will come up in the future.  It is important that the people maintain constant vigilance (Millikan, 2007).

Both of the movies mentioned above are great examples of movies relevant to the times.  Other conspiracy thrillers include the Conversation (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola, Chinatown (1974) by Roman Polanski and Three Days of the Condor (1976) by Sydney Pollack.  These political thrillers catered to adult movie-goers.  The offbeat comedy drama genres with movies like The Shampoo and Midnight Cowboy also had adults as the audience base.

The Film Industry had to produce a film which catered to the whole family.  This was when Star Wars was born.  Star Wars catered to both the young and old alike.  Though sentiments of critics claim that Jaws and Star Wars placed an end to the Golden Age of American Cinema due to the introduction of blockbuster movies, it has to be emphasized too that these movies were all-encompassing in that it reached different markets.  The box-office status was attained because they did not only target a specific market or they did not specifically target the adults only.  Instead, they were open for appreciation by the whole family and this is what happened.   Other family oriented movies which also showcased other talents like singing and dancing were Saturday Night Live and Grease.   The movie Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) also proved to be a family spectacle.

The movie Rocky (1976) with Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildsen made a tremendous impact on audiences because it created a hero for the people who were at that time experiencing transitions in leadership and failed representations.  The people had a hero in Rocky idealizing the values of reaching the top through hard work and determination.  Sequels were made of Rocky along with the very successful movie The Godfather (1972).  The movie Exorcist (1973) inspired Horror film-makers as this movie caught the interest of young thrill-seeking audiences.

The contemporary style of advertising to increase sales started during the 70s.  Upcoming movies or new releases were advertised in Television to increase audience awareness of the showing dates.  The first movie to ever benefit from a Television marketing campaign is Jaws.  The promotion of movies and actors through the print media started with People Magazine.  This allowed the people to monitor the new releases and to get to know the celebrities better.  This technique was likewise very effective and up to this date is being utilized.

The 1970s ushered in most of the styles and strategies used in the Film Industry today.  Most of the movies made in this decade are known by even the young generation of today.  The 1970s was a decade of rebirth, experimentation, risks, emergence of talents and new strategies, and of failures and successes.

Critics who call the 1970s American Cinema as a Cinema of Failure have their points.  Likewise, advocates of the 70s Cinema as The Golden Age have their own points.  These are subjective opinions which I cannot even negate unless no concrete evidence was used as support for the arguments.  The question now is who merits the most number of valid statements.  Before I even attempt to answer this, let us discuss the nature of the Film Industry as a whole.

Film can be considered a mix of different media.  The story came from prose fiction.  The acting or drama originated in theatre and the sound came from music.  Film is also a business.  It exists to make profit and to pay the salaries of the workers.  With these premises, I can now adequately respond to the question of validity of the statements of both sides.

Let me start with the business aspect.  The critics argued that the content and the artistic side of the Film Industry were sacrificed for big profits and that the blockbuster films hindered the studios from being creative and further investing in experiments.  The point is real but is not practical.  The studios cannot afford to miss out on profits or cannot rely on break even results because of the tremendous amount of investments involved.  If they do not earn money, they will not have the funds to continuously create other films.  They would not have the funds to pay the salaries of the workers.  They would not afford the salaries of the actors.  In short, if no money comes in then there will be no business to run.  Regarding the issue of experimentation, this cannot sustain any business.  The reason why businesses have their trade secrets is because of the value of a formula for success.  There should always be one consistent and stable factor in achieving the desired results.

I do not think that the artistic expression in films was totally ignored.  In fact, it was very evident.  It just came in a different package.  Artistic expression and storytelling skills were not longer limited to elaborate dialogues or storylines, but they were also reflected in the form and the effects of the movie.

The times are changing and in order to keep up with it, we have to embrace the new ideas or concepts that go along with it.  The state of the Film Industry now, like how it was in the 1970s may not be the same tomorrow.  Someone could wake up tomorrow with a brilliant idea to revolutionize the existing system.  It could mean further success, but on the contrary, it could mean failure to some sectors of society.  We each have our own opinions and views.  We of course stick to them, but it will not hurt if we open ourselves a bit to new information and new ideas.


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