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.”
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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.