Losers Take All: On the New American Cinema
By all accounts, the first cut of Jaws was a disaster. The eponymous predator looked just like what it was: a submersible machine sheathed in rubber. The film was already 300 percent over budget, so building a better shark and reshooting was out of the question. What was to be done? Legend has it that director Steven Spielberg dreamed up an ingenious solution: focus on reaction shots, build tension like crazy and expose the entire shark only in the final reel.
It worked, of course. Jaws premiered in the summer of 1975 on more than 400 screens, an unusually wide release in those days, and was hyped on TV by $700,000 worth of advertising, at a time when most films were promoted exclusively in newspapers. Spielberg’s fish broke box-office records and spawned the modern blockbuster. It also devoured the New American Cinema, a movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s that included bold young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. These upstarts had staked a claim for character-driven, auteurist films that deviated from the desperate, big-budget movies like Hello, Dolly! that the Hollywood establishment was churning out in the ’60s.
Hollywood had long been an exclusive club, and a new director could gain entree only if he knew somebody on the inside. Yet many of the New American Cinema directors were total outsiders, like Scorsese. How could a working-class kid from the Lower East Side possibly hope to impress the Hollywood jet set? Luckily, a few of the new players had access to major studio promotion and distribution channels. Bert Schneider, for one, was the son of the president of Columbia Pictures. In 1969, following the wild box-office success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, which Schneider and Bob Rafelson’s company, Raybert, had produced and Columbia had distributed, Schneider, Rafelson and Steve Blauner formed the production company BBS and signed a deal with Columbia, which would distribute six of its films. Budgets would be restrained (under $1 million per film), but directors could do whatever they wanted.
Although the new approach was to treat the director and script as the “star,” and to forgo the glamour of the old star system, many of the New American Cinema actors were hardly radical newcomers. Peter Fonda did not have to struggle to get parts (even if they were in B-movies); his name guaranteed him auditions. Jack Nicholson had acted in numerous B-pictures directed by shlockmeister Roger Corman before his breakthrough role in Easy Rider. Hopper came to that film as a seasoned performer, having appeared in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, and TV shows ranging from Bonanza to The Twilight Zone. He had even appeared in True Grit, the film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. Warren Beatty, of course, had starred in Splendor in the Grass before making Bonnie and Clyde.
Hollywood’s old boys network had opened the door to a few new kids, but grudgingly. After all, this was a really old boys network: in 1965 Adolph Zukor was 92 and still on the board of Paramount. He and other execs were disgusted with films like Easy Rider; as Ned Tanen of Universal put it, they “didn’t want to see ponytails and sandals in the commissary while they were eating.” Yet Universal, Paramount and other studios were floundering. Big-budget films had failed to attract the youth audience and to recoup older viewers lost to television. On top of that, the studios had yet to rebound from the federal anti-trust decision that deprived them of theater ownership—and untold income—in the postwar years. Audacious filmmakers like Hopper had tapped into the youth movement’s sensibilities and frustrations, and small production companies like BBS were able to foster new countercultural talent. The suits ended up hiring the longhairs because they made movies that were popular and “didn’t cost anything.” For a brief period, it did seem that the inmates had taken over the asylum.
But just a few years later, auteurism appeared to have run amok. Michael Cimino’s absurdly over-budget western Heaven’s Gate (1980), for example, almost single-handedly destroyed United Artists, a hallowed Hollywood firm that had been created in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith as a safe haven for auteurs. Besides, Jaws had already given the studios a lucrative formula for making movies, one that George Lucas was quick to capitalize on with Star Wars. The outcome was inevitable: by the early 1980s directors had lost control over pictures, individual artistic vision had been pummeled by a blockbuster mentality and films inspired by Antonioni and Godard, like Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver and The Conversation, had been driven out by MTV-inspired fare like Flashdance, Footloose and Top Gun. The suits had retaken the commissary.
The rise and fall of the New American Cinema has been so thoroughly mythologized that it has become the very thing the upstarts were determined to demolish: a formulaic Hollywood story with winners and losers, saviors and sinners. The heroic new directors lost in the end, the story goes, but at least they managed to stick it to the man. The ambitious and brilliant directors of the New American Cinema loom so large in the story that it can be hard to remember everyone else who played a role—or to see beyond the strengths of the films and probe their deficiencies. Furthermore, to boast that these films were utterly new discourages us from looking for precedents. What about the low-budget genre filmmakers who preceded these “mavericks,” who also loathed turgid pictures like Cleopatra and who had staked a claim for innovation?
And what of women in the industry like Verna Fields, the editor of Jaws? The film’s producer, Rob Cohen, claimed that Spielberg’s solution to the shark crisis was really her idea, and she offered no denial. Of course, Hollywood is a playpen of dueling egos, where everyone takes credit for success and blames someone else for failure. But that doesn’t excuse stories about the New American Cinema that acknowledge only the male geniuses behind the camera and the male antiheroes in front of it. If we look past the myths to the films, we find that the actresses in them often transcended their flimsy characters. Harassed by a diner patron in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a waitress played by Diane Ladd exclaims, “Man, I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time. That’s how much you bother me.” Regrettably, few films of the era allowed women such pluck. In the New American Cinema, it was only men who were “born to be wild.”
* * *
When Peter Fonda announced that he and Hopper were developing a film about bikers, at that point titled The Loners, his friends were dubious. Another motorcycle movie? Big deal. Fonda had already acted in a number of such cheapies, most notably Roger Corman’s exploitation hit The Wild Angels (1966). But Fonda insisted that The Loners would be different. The lead characters, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), are hippies who have just scored a big coke deal and are headed from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way they encounter fellow stoners, a hippy commune on the skids, groovy chicks eager to skinny dip, a drunken lawyer (Nicholson) open to the freedom they represent, New Orleans hookers (Karen Black and Toni Basil, in thankless roles) and hostile rednecks who murder them without giving it a second thought. They also smoke a lot of grass, without sinking into reefer madness; the film offers no moral lessons about the dangers of drugs. Being “free” is hazardous only because people who are not free cannot tolerate nonconformity.
Of all the films included in Criterion’s “America Lost and Found” box set, Easy Rider is the least mature. It owes its coherence entirely to Nicholson’s charismatic performance and Laszlo Kovacs’s striking cinematography. Kovacs’s images of the American desert portray a new kind of western, evoking John Ford’s epic landscapes while also conveying a vision of America specific to the 1960s. The camera does not flinch from showing nonactors, not only black Louisiana sharecroppers—who seem trapped in the Depression—but also bona fide crackers. One strongly senses that neither the sharecroppers nor the bigots were members of the Screen Extras Guild. America is beautiful, the film says, even if some Americans’ beliefs are ugly.
Easy Rider’s aspirations and failures are apparent in an early scene in which Wyatt and Billy stop at a farmhouse to repair their motorcycles. While the rancher shoes his horse, they change a tire. The symbolism is painfully obvious. Later, Wyatt compliments his host over dinner: he is his own man, independent. The rancher asks where he is from. “LA,” Wyatt responds. “El Ay?” the man asks, confused, and Wyatt translates, “Los Angeles.” Here the film’s Hollywood brat perspective is writ large. The kids want to be “free” and discover an unvarnished “real” America, but it’s hard for them to communicate with anyone but fellow “El Ay” hippies.
If there was one thing Hopper and Fonda got right, it was that if you wanted to challenge Hollywood’s conventional values, the western was the genre to both embrace and revise. But there are other films of the era that more artfully and sensitively depict America as a place where old moral codes were cracking apart and new values were a work in progress. Some of these films also dissect the western with greater precision and depth. Just one year before Easy Rider, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West had offered an epic criticism of the old myths of the American frontier. Americans went west not to seek noble adventures but rather, the film insists, simply to get rich. Leone’s most brazen attack on the old myths was his decision to cast Henry Fonda against type. Viewers expecting Fonda to reprise his role of the noble hero of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine were shocked by the sadism of the character he played for Leone. Stanley Kubrick also understood the value of using old genres to do new things. Released in 1968, his 2001 was visually a sci-fi film and conceptually a head trip. The film leaps to a future in which the counterculture has collapsed and the bureaucrats have triumphed. The company man has conquered outer space and built a Howard Johnson there. Luckily, aliens take the situation in hand, and the final section of the film spirals off into an extended psychedelic experience that far outshines Easy Rider’s dreary Mardi Gras acid trip.
While big budget filmmakers like Leone and Kubrick undercut the classic rules of genre, exploitation and B-movie directors like Corman and Sam Fuller worked comfortably within the confines of various genres (horror, the western, the thriller), while also engaging with the shifting values and ideological crises of postwar America. Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959) shows a powerful female corporate executive who cracks under pressure; she runs a cosmetics company and has gotten too “old” (she’s over 30) to be its spokesperson. Special anti-aging drugs remedy the problem, until she turns into… well, the title says it all. Admittedly, The Wasp Woman is one of Corman’s better directorial efforts; many of his early films are visually flat and hard to watch. Corman made a bigger impact as a producer; although he was not inclined to venerate the “personal vision” cherished by BBS, he gave his directors a long leash (tied to small budgets). Virtually every director or star and a number of cinematographers of the New American Cinema—Bogdanovich, Fonda, Nicholson, Coppola, Scorsese, Kovacs, Bruce Dern, Monte Hellman and Robert Towne—cut their teeth in the business working for Corman.
Not aspiring to artistic greatness, Corman productions stuck to a formula of action, humor and sex, lightly seasoned with a liberal social message. “The liberal or left-of-center political viewpoint was…worth ‘exploiting,’” he explained. “It improved the films, too, because it added a coherence usually lacking on low-budget films.” In 1970 Stephanie Rothman made an exploitation movie for Corman called The Student Nurses; the female protagonists had to bare their chests a few times (a concession to the drive-in and grindhouse audiences), but they also took time out to rap about abortion. Gale Anne Hurd, who would later produce Aliens, The Terminator and The Abyss, says, “I never even realized sexism existed in Hollywood until I got outside New World,” Corman’s production company. “Roger had no problem…hiring women directors, women editors, women art directors, producers, writers.” Maybe he simply considered it good business to hire hungry young artists of either gender on the cheap, but Corman was certainly ahead of the curve where Women’s Lib was concerned.
Like Corman, but with a keener sense of aesthetic innovation, Sam Fuller also made genre films that broke with the old Hollywood morality. Because many of his best films were produced in the 1950s and ’60s, and because he was one of the last of the studio-contracted B-movie directors, Fuller is frequently described as a “predecessor” to the New American Cinema. Yet in their formal innovations and social critique, his films easily match, or even surpass, what the new kids would accomplish a few years later. The message of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) is that while women and men both like to screw around, men do it for fun whereas women do it for the money. In The Naked Kiss (1964), a glorious Blu-ray transfer of which has recently been released by Criterion, Fuller portrays a similar sexual dynamic but draws a very different conclusion: the male exploitation of women is just a goddamn shame.
Kelly, a prostitute who decides to go straight, is the film’s moral center. She’s tough, violent and damaged. The film opens shortly after Kelly’s procurer has swindled her, slipped her a mickey and shaved her head. The bald Kelly takes her revenge by getting the pimp drunk, clobbering him and taking back the money he owes her. Two years later, she’s ready to forge a new life for herself, but she barely survives the hypocrisy of small-town Middle America. In Fuller’s words, “Kelly has balls and a sense of justice.” The Naked Kiss shows the 1960s before Woodstock, before hippies, before the so-called sexual revolution. Just one year after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Fuller, a gruff, cigar-chomping World War II veteran, had articulated a critical vision of a politically corrupt, hypocritical and sexist America.
Although the New American mavericks recognized the genius of Fuller, he was wedded to the genre formulas they wanted to shatter. Similarly, while grateful to Corman, they kept their distance from his lowbrow version of “independent” cinema. Corman’s and Fuller’s genre pictures called for actors who played types; the new auteurs created character-driven films that demanded complex performances, an approach that could rarely be executed on the tight budgets typical of independent exploitation films and studio-backed B-movies. Scorsese, for one, was embarrassed by Boxcar Bertha, a weak film he made for Corman in 1972. John Cassavetes told Scorsese not to ever “do something like this again…. Make a movie about something you really care about.” Later, when Scorsese explained his daily battles to make Taxi Driver exactly as he wanted, he said, “I was going to compromise? I might as well have made another genre film for Roger Corman.” Corman—and the exploitation filmmaking he represented—was the embarrassing (if lovable) poor cousin to the mavericks of the New American Cinema.
The men behind BBS wanted to make art films as subtle as those by Europeans like Antonioni, but with a different sensibility: anomie, American style. Orson Welles had tried to make serious films within the old Hollywood system, and the struggle to do so tore him apart; the creator of Citizen Kane became an icon of the failures of the old Hollywood. (Down on his luck in the 1970s, he would take up residence in Bogdanovich’s spare room, and hawk jug wine on TV.) With the studios in disarray, maybe a new generation could succeed where Welles had been defeated.
Rafelson, director of three of the films included in “America Lost and Found,” was the New American cinéaste who came closest to realizing a high-art European sensibility, with Five Easy Pieces in 1970 and The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972. But his first film, Head, from 1968, was a pop art experiment. Schneider and Rafelson had manufactured the Monkees, a ludicrously wholesome American rip-off of the Beatles. They successfully exploited the “pre-fab four” for two years with a TV show modeled on Richard Lester’s episodic 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. Shortly after The Monkees was canceled in 1968, Rafelson decided to drive a few more nails into the coffin. His hammer was the avant-garde Head. He would later liken this heretical act of filmmaking to “making an ice cream cone out of mud.”
In the astounding opening sequence of Head, captured in its full Technicolor glory by Criterion’s perfect Blu-ray transfer, Micky Dolenz jumps off a bridge in an apparent suicide attempt and swirls around in an underwater neon world until he is rescued by a school of mermaids. Next, the bandmates are shown in their apartment with a girl who kisses each of them; that a fivesome may have preceded this moment is gently implied. Finally, the opening credits come up, with the boys chanting a voice-over: “You say we’re manufactured. To that we all agree. So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free…. The money’s in, we’re made of tin.” All the while small TV screens with different images pop up to fill the frame. The last screen shows an iconic image of the Vietnam War that is repeated later in the film—Eddie Adams’s photo of Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner at point-blank range. Head was the second American fiction film—after John Wayne’s The Green Berets—to invoke Vietnam. While it doesn’t exactly formulate a complicated critique of the war, it does convey a deep disdain for Hollywood and American consumer culture.
* * *
Rafelson’s next two films would abandon tin men for introspective characters. Five Easy Pieces stars Jack Nicholson as Bobby, a disaffected loser who has left behind his wealthy family and a career as a concert pianist to slum it working oil rigs. Shot by Kovacs, the film is an elegant study in slate and soft earth tones. The plot glides on an undercurrent of contempt for simple folks who enjoy country-western music, serve ketchup with supper and are mesmerized by TV. At the same time, the film suggests that these brassy extroverts are more attuned to their emotions, and better in the sack, than the upper-crust stuffed shirts. Working-class people may be crude, the film avers, but they are not phonies.
Five Easy Pieces is probably best known for the famous chicken salad scene. At a diner with a “no substitutions” rule, Bobby orders a side of wheat toast, and when the waitress refuses, Bobby demands a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, “no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce,” and “hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.” Needless to say, this attempt to beat the system fails, but Bobby has triumphed by daring to fight the “no substitution” rule. The scene showcases Nicholson at his unhinged best.
Arguably, though, it is a less flashy scene later in the film that is the heart of Five Easy Pieces. Bobby returns home to visit his family, after unceremoniously depositing his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), at a nearby motel. After two weeks without even a phone call from Bobby, Rayette arrives in a cab to join him, to his great embarrassment. At an evening salon, a snobby fiftysomething woman speechifies that “aggression is prehistoric.” Rayette asks if there is a TV in the house, and then briefly captures the attention of the small gathering with the story of how her fluffy kitten was accidentally “squashed flatter than a tortilla.” Here Black transcends the limits of her underwritten character, a stereotyped hick waitress: she allows Rayette to assert her dignity against all odds. The phony intellectual mows her down, and Bobby unexpectedly shouts, “Where the hell do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class or who the hell’s got it or what she typifies? You shouldn’t even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate!” Bobby defends Rayette, if only for a single moment. Yet it is telling that the nastiest insult Bobby can muster is “pompous celibate.” In the world Rafelson has created, sexually desirable high-class women and sexually desirable low-class women are the only women who count. To be menopausal, and therefore undesirable, is to be beneath contempt.
In terms of the plot, the climax of Five Easy Pieces is Bobby’s attempt to set things right with his ailing, mute father. The film succeeds because it declines to resolve the relationship in a reassuring manner, not even attempting to tie up any of the protagonist’s loose ends. The failed reconciliation scene is moving, but it is Bobby’s interactions with women—nags to be endured or bedded as he suffers his existential tremors—that offer the film’s most poignant moments. Bobby prefers to avoid discussing his true feelings; everything would be fine, he tells Rayette when she hops into bed in a diaphanous negligee, if she would just shut up. At his family home, the talk seems endless, and Bobby appears at risk of revealing himself, but his motivations and the origins of his malaise remain oblique. The same is true of the lead character in Drive, He Said (1971), released for the first time to home viewers in “America Lost and Found.” Only Karen Black brought depth to this earnest but slight endeavor, Nicholson’s directorial debut.
Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, also beautifully shot by Kovacs, stakes an even greater claim for high-art status than Five Easy Pieces. The film’s images of Philadelphia and Atlantic City evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper in their lighting, color and composition. These should be busy places, yet exteriors and interiors are strangely barren, and figures are often isolated. The plot is not terribly important: this is a film about the push-pull of intimacy and the futile striving for interpersonal connection. Marvin Gardens revolves around the relationship of two brothers, David (Nicholson) and Jason (Bruce Dern), the former a depressive, the latter a self-deluded flim-flam operator. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Jason’s for-hire girlfriend, finding depth in a role that could easily have been a disaster. She’s got more than one screw loose and is filled with a rage that finally erupts only when she has burned all her gowns and held a funeral for her fake eyelashes.
There are two scenes that best capture the film’s emphasis on the near impossibility (yet utter necessity) of human connection. The film opens with a striking chiaroscuro effect: David sits in a pitch-black room, with only his head visible. He is telling an intimate story—to an analyst, lover, friend?—about how he and his brother allowed their grandfather, “a fish enthusiast,” to choke to death on a fishbone. Suddenly, a red light flashes on David’s face. This is a radio studio, and what we’ve heard is an installment of David’s late-night show, Etcetera. Nicholson playing a nerd, against type, shuffles out of the studio with his cardigan misbuttoned. We instantly know nothing about him—it turns out that the story is invented—and everything about him: he is a quiet failure. When David gets home, his cranky grandfather takes a break from his morning cornflakes and ladies’ TV exercise show to cough theatrically at his grandson. He has apparently heard David’s show and is displeased with the tall tale of the fishbone.
At the end of the film, following an extended encounter with Jason that has gone horribly awry, David finds his grandfather projecting home movies on the back of a door. David glances at the ancient footage of him and his brother as children building sand castles (pointless—the tide is coming in), then closes the door. But he hasn’t fully closed the door, and it swings open, the film now projecting through the staircase onto David’s legs. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s OK, I know you didn’t mean it,” his grandfather replies. The dialogue concerns the door, but these are the words they might say to each other, with a deeper meaning, if they could actually connect. Instead, Grandpa wanders off, the silent film still running, his dry smoker’s cough providing an ad hoc soundtrack. The two characters haven’t really sorted anything out, but at least the cough is real.
If Rafelson sought to bring a European gravitas to the American art film, Peter Bogdanovich embraced the classic American directors of the 1930s and ’40s while also seeking to update their sensibility. You might say that he was the Quentin Tarantino of his time. This is less an insult to Bogdanovich than a criticism of Tarantino, whose movies-about-other-movies are exercises in passionate detachment. Bogdanovich also became a cinéaste because he was a cinephile, but his earliest and best films surpass homage and convey a distinct authorial view, even if it is one heavily indebted to John Ford and Howard Hawks. Bogdanovich’s BBS production, The Last Picture Show, is simultaneously elegiac and unsentimental, offering a sociological portrait of the mating habits of the 1950s that is both poignant and trenchant.
Returning from a tryst with her mother’s lover, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) breaks down crying. It takes her mother, Lois (Burstyn), only a split second to intuit what has happened, and instead of turning jealous she is remarkably empathetic. When Lois mentions that Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) is having an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), Jacy says it’s silly: “She’s 40!” “So am I, honey,” Lois responds. “It’s kind of an itchy age.” One has the feeling that all the people trapped in this Podunk Texas town have an itch that they can’t quite scratch; sex just barely takes the edge off. Although it is Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny who dominate the film’s point of view, The Last Picture Show may well be the New American Cinema production that is most thoughtful about the female perspective, outside the jaggedly uneven Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Production designer Polly Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich at the time, brought Larry McMurty’s novel to the director largely because of its accurate portrayal of the sexual practices of the 1950s. Platt was behind the camera, next to Bogdanovich, as they discussed each shot, and many felt that she directed the film as much as he did. Rafelson later said that Picture Show was the best film BBS had made.
* * *
The last film produced by BBS was the 1974 Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds. Although Columbia had contracted to distribute six films, the studio would not touch it. Henry Jaglom—director of BBS’s pretentious and indescribably dull A Safe Place—bought Hearts and Minds back from Columbia for $1 million, and it was briefly exhibited in Los Angeles by Warner Bros. so that it would be eligible for the Academy Awards. (It won the Oscar for best documentary.) Regrettably, largely because Criterion had already released the film on DVD in 2002, it was excluded from “America Lost and Found.” Columbia tried to erase the film from the BBS roster once; Hearts and Minds should now, at last, be reunited with the other BBS films. To call a collection of films “The BBS Story” and omit this chapter is a glaring error.
Hearts and Minds was the work of Peter Davis, who had also directed the controversial CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon (1971), about the production of US government propaganda. In the pre–Fox News days, when the Fairness Doctrine was still in place, if idiosyncratically enforced, any TV news reporting perceived as “one-sided” was in danger of generating controversy. By directing a film, and thereby freeing himself from network strictures, Davis could tell a story about Vietnam however he wanted. The director’s central insight—that the war had been a disaster and unwinnable from the start—was by that time not novel. But American documentaries on Vietnam were still rare; previous efforts were more or less limited to Winter Soldier (1972), Interviews With My Lai Veterans (1971), an Oscar-winning short film—available today thanks to Criterion’s inclusion of it as an extra on the Hearts and Minds DVD—and Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968).
Davis offered something new by presenting interviews with a wide array of figures, ranging from Gen. William Westmoreland and Walt Rostow to Daniel Ellsberg and an assortment of patriotic and disaffected veterans. Enough opinions are expressed on both sides that the film could almost be considered “balanced” were it not for the fact that Davis includes not only sympathetic interviews with North Vietnamese civilians (a coffin manufacturer with a thriving business, in particular) but also footage of high school football games, excited cheerleaders and frantic coaches—conveying an America permeated by a knee-jerk, militaristic, win-or-die mentality. Vincent Canby accurately declared Easy Rider a “small, pious statement” about American society, but he thought Hearts and Minds a tremendous success, a film “not about General Westmoreland, nor the succession of United States Presidents and their advisers who sought desperately and probably sincerely to understand Vietnam. Rather it’s about the generations of attitudes, wishes, and beliefs that these men represented. It’s about the power the country inherited.”
* * *
There is more to the New American Cinema than BBS, but no director or producer of the era was able to duplicate its special success as a production unit that enjoyed an ongoing distribution deal with a major studio. Paramount attempted a similar arrangement with the Directors Company, which brought together Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Coppola. Its debut film, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), made a modest profit. Disdainful of Coppola’s ponderous film and distrustful of Paramount management, Friedkin never delivered a picture. Although Bogdanovich had done well with Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc?, he tanked with his Directors Company picture, Daisy Miller. It all fell apart. As Rafelson summarized, “They all wanted to do BBS again. But that was gone. This wasn’t young guys trying to fight for a statement.” The problem wasn’t that the directors were old; it was that their egos were elephantine. Modesty was also in short supply at BBS, but somehow the company fostered an environment in which young directors could make winning films about losers.
Winners dominate today’s fast-paced, videogame-inspired American movies. Even when the superheroes are brooding and morose, there are plenty of pyrotechnics to keep viewers’ adrenaline levels elevated. Losers mostly appear in lower-budget “independent films,” a phrase that years ago changed from an accurate label to a marketing category for quirky, often uplifting films with characters designed to be more disarming than alarming. A number of actors—Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Murray, Catherine Keener—have thrived in this niche playing genuine, old-school losers; clearly America has the actors to make films as compelling as those fostered by BBS, but the will to produce and direct such films seems to have faded away. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Warren Oates declares, “Nobody loses all the time.” We need films about how nobody wins all the time as well.
If the ethos of the New American Cinema has endured, it is not on the big screen but the little one, TV, where today’s multi-channel, niche-audience environment allows for long-term character development, genre innovation and aesthetic risk-taking. Rather than bemoaning the tragic loss of BBS, and assuming that the black hole of the superhero franchise has swallowed up any remains of innovation not devoured by Jaws, we might point to programs like The Wire as signs that complex, character-driven American drama did not perish in the late 1970s. Yet what has regrettably also lingered is the snobbism of much of the New American Cinema—hence, the ridiculous idea that TV can be good only if it transcends TV, as in the slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Such pretension recalls Spielberg’s early concern that Jaws might turn out to be a lowbrow genre film. By keeping his rubber shark mostly out of the picture, Spielberg boasted, he had transformed the film into Art: it went “from William Castle to Alfred Hitchcock.” The desire for greatness that propelled the New American Cinema directors was similarly clouded by an elitism that demanded the transcendence of genres and rejection of the lowbrow tawdriness that made the films of Castle—the man who brought us Vincent Price dropping acid in The Tingler—and Corman (and Fuller too) truly splendid.
Luckily, the post-network environment has provided a safe haven not only for HBO’s terrific “not TV” shows but also for clever network and non–premium cable programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Guided by Joss Whedon, Ronald Moore, Vince Gilligan, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, respectively, these programs embrace old genres (horror, sci-fi, melodrama, the sitcom) while also taking these forms in new directions. This is not to say that the formulaic network-era shows were inferior because they were less sophisticated. There is, for example, much to love in classic 1970s sitcoms like WKRP in Cincinnati. The pleasure in viewing such shows comes not only from the carefully constructed characters and performances but also from predicting how everything will—indeed, must—turn out in the end. Defenders of the old-school sitcom format have compared it to the sonnet: its structure is unvarying and precise, but it allows for variable content. Notwithstanding Norman Lear’s bold innovations, though, how politically inventive could sitcom “sonnets” really get? Freed from the restrictions that governed the broadcast era, Parks and Recreation can be pro-gay (or, specifically, pro–gay penguin) and anti–Christian right. It is also hilarious. Striking a more serious note, Battlestar Galactica allegorically takes on issues such as the American occupation of Iraq, the ethics of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus.
Embracing a complicated seriality, sometimes in terms of plot but even more important in terms of character development, the best of contemporary television is simply more compelling than most contemporary American cinema. So enough with the hand-wringing about the decline of directorial autonomy, and the grumbling about the mind-numbing sameness of the franchises that crushed the New American Cinema more than thirty years ago. The New American Cinema is dead. Long live the New American TV.