United States Cinematography in the 1960’s and 1970’s

By | February 25, 2022

But all this belongs to a world that was about to end. US anti-communism had lost its luster by the end of the decade, and shortly thereafter, in 1960, JF Kennedy was elected president. It was not so much his ‘new frontier’ slogan that changed things, but his assassination in Dallas (1963), an event that profoundly changed the entire American culture, casting a long shadow of suspicion and uncertainty over the entire country. From that moment there was not a single expression of the nation’s thought about itself that was not conditioned by what that tragedy hid. In fiction, for example, a long chain of paranoid novels opened up (of which Th. Pynchon is probably the most representative author), whose register is recognizable in some films of the Sixties and in not a few others of the following decade. John Frankenheimer, in particular, would have given Hollywood two works in this eloquent sense: The Manchurian candidate (1962; Go and Kill) and Seconds (1966; Diabolical Operation). Neither deals directly with the assassination of JF Kennedy: the first still seems to breathe the climate of McCarthyist hysterical anti-communism in the story of a diabolical plot by the ‘reds’ to push an American into a political attack shortly after the Korean War; the second leaves out any reference of a political nature to describe a world of suspicion and fear that on closer inspection can be read as much as that of the McCarthy period as well as that experienced by the US after the Dallas events.

A cinema, therefore, which in the past had enjoyed attention and success was now obsolete. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) box office collapse perfectly summarizes the demise of old Hollywood with its superproductive glories, its epic celebration of history and even its star system. Just as a problematic and dramatic social reality had crept into the dreamy world of the musical (West Side story, 1961, by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), so the heroic one of the western would have given way to a twilight vision of the cowboy (Ride the high country, 1962, Challenge in the High Sierra, by Sam Peckinpah). Science fiction itself changed its tune, abandoning its traditional invasion ghosts: Kennedy’s assassination had shown that danger doesn’t always come from external and that sometimes must be sought within the borders of the country. For this reason the theme of the atomic danger was transformed again into a political fiction, concern for the fate of the planet in the face of the different possible ways of carrying out the nuclear holocaust by crazy splinters of power: examples of this are films such as Seven days in May (1964; Seven Days in May) by Frankenheimer, Fail safe (1964; Foolproof) by Sidney Lumet, The Bedford incident (1965; State of alarm) by James B. Harris and of course the forerunner Dr. Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964; Doctor Strangelove, or: how I learned not to worry and to love the bomb) of that Stanley Kubrick who, like Joseph Losey and others, had preferred to emigrate to Great Britain.

The African American Melvin van Peebles also emigrated to Europe and lived in France for ten years, where he made La permission (1968), based on one of his novels and whirlwindly experimental. Then landed in the US, the film signaled him as a very original promise and earned him a Hollywood production, The watermelon man (1970; The coffee-milk man), but his exceptional work was, the following year, Sweet sweetback’s baadasssss song, an independent production with a very violent character, full of action, but also with a strong criticism of white society.

It was no coincidence that at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s an anti-Hollywood art cinema took root in the US, based on the New Yorker New American Cinema Group by Jonas Mekas, advocate of a cinematography free from the industrial and economic constraints of production. mainstream and willing to bold experimentation (see experimental, cinema). However, that was a phenomenon that, with different nuances, invested more than a Western cinema at that time. We also witnessed the birth of the French New Wave and Free Cinema British, sure signs that something was changing in the culture of the entire planet. These are important events because they testify to much more than an attempt at cinematic renewal. Cinema is only the maneuvering ground for the discomfort that invested the new generations: the Nouveau Roman in French fiction, the Angry Young Men in the British one (and also in the theater, see Great Britain), the Spanish Nueva ola were other contiguous faces. of that discomfort and that desire for renewal, which after all also touched Italy with the formation of Gruppo 63. The problem was now that of renewing models, structures, production methods, taste, forms and contents.

The fall of traditional cultural values, moreover, had invested, especially in the US, also another area of ​​visual operations, that of the figurative arts. Heirs of the formal unhinging of the pre-war avant-gardes, the artists who inaugurated Pop Art were among the pioneers of the new sensibility: a sensibility that was exercised first of all on the ephemeral products of mass culture, by the stars of the news (Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy) to ready-to-eat foods and household products (cans of Campbell soups, Brillo detergent, etc.). The most domestic, simple and banal everyday had risen to be an emblematic cultural object of an entire society and its values.

Cinema, by now undergoing a profound transformation towards the end of the 1960s, operated in the same direction. A new generation of young producers rejected the dictates of the past, rejected the tradition of the studios, financed a series of low-budget films that intended to focus on the restlessness and discomfort of the moment. However, it was no longer the bewildering mythology linked to the advent of rock and roll a decade earlier; the intention was not on the one hand of épater le bourgeois and on the other hand to attract the superficial sympathies of Sunday teenagers with vaguely scandalous little films seasoned with drums, screams and saxophone. This time a vision of the world emerged from that cinema, a sometimes nostalgic perspective that placed the eventual rebellion of his heroes (or rather, anti-heroes) in an existential area of ​​introversion, of interiority, of privacy. In short, it was also a cinema of redemption: redemption from the widespread opinion that the new generations were violent, superficial, stubborn, polemical, aggressive. Of course, in the mid-1960s there had been the riots at Berkeley University (not to mention the Miami convention and the siege of Chicago, so harshly narrated by Norman Mailer’s counter-current voice) and in the early 1970s those of Kent University. But it was precisely from this image of violence that had been glued to it that the new generation wave intended to distance itself. And it was Hollywood itself that gave her a hand. The term Hollywood, however, is at this point inaccurate. New Hollywood. The renewal of the US film capital took place on several levels and in various directions. On the production side, a new generation of investors made their way, focusing on largely low-budget films; on the directorial side there was the arrival of an equally new and young wave of directors, some with a television background (Sydney Pollack, Stuart Rosenberg, Robert Altman himself), others who came out of the university film schools that in the meantime had begun to flourish in the country (George Lucas, for example) or trained through a hard apprenticeship at the Corman group. The latter in particular brought to Hollywood a component that until then was unknown to her: cinephilia. Feed on classic American cinema, these young people translated their culture to varying degrees in their films: P. Bogdanovich, the most sensational example, for a few years made films that were basically (splendid) imitations from Hawks and other masters of the past. In other words, US cinema had reached such a saturation point that it was re-enacted in different forms thanks to the competence and enthusiasm of the new generation of authors.

On a technical level, the new cinema adapted itself magnificently to the different production situation. Leaving the spaces of the studios, it ventured into the body of a country explored in the field in its everyday life and in its contradictions. A film in some ways pioneering like Easy rider (1969; Easy rider – Freedom and fear) by Dennis Hopper represents the new Hollywood situation well. Filmed in the open spaces of the West, it resumed the tradition of the road movie, but moving away from the restrictive dictates of classic Hollywood. New Hollywood cinema was a cinema in continuous motion, which adapted to the mobility of its protagonists. It was not for nothing that the operator Fouan Said invented the Cinemobile Mark IV at the beginning of the decade, a vehicle equipped to facilitate the filming of moving subjects in space. Photography itself could not fail to undergo strong variations compared to the classical tradition: where the Thirties had been characterized by high key lighting (slightly overexposed) and the 1940s by chiaroscuro, in the Seventies coarse-grained film triumphed, as if to give action a rate of realism, of improvisation, of truths normally absent from Hollywood cinema. In turn, the editing became more broken and nervous (Peckinpah’s films are, among other things, famous for the very high number of jump cuts), insinuating in the stories an objective correlative of the neurosis of the characters. The zoom progressively replaced the carriage forward, in order to make the movement more objective, that is, free from the slavery of any point of view (Altmanian zooms in particular are famous).

A radical change in content corresponded to these formal innovations: the revolt against classical cinema took place in a conspicuous way in the historical-moral operation that not a few films carried out. In almost all the works set in a more or less distant past, traditional values ​​were overturned: the Indian emerged as the true and noble hero, mistreated and betrayed by the treacherous white government, the outlaw was represented as a Robin Hood crushed by a power that took it as an alibi for his own misdeeds. In short, Hollywood rewrote national history from the point of view of counterculture (these were the years of the hippy movement) and the vision of the middle class proposed in contemporary films was very different from that, albeit remarkably critical, of the Hollywood of the past: a film like The graduate (1967;

The revolution also touched genres, once stainless structures that gradually lost their rigidity, often contaminating themselves with others in order to make cataloging difficult. This phenomenon must be read within a much broader change, the one that refers to the advent of the postmodern: a vision of the world that renounces any order and classification to present reality as an indistinct mass of the most diverse and irreconcilable components. In the seventies, Western culture became an alternative (and later virtual) universe characterized by the juxtaposition of the incongruous, by careless gratuitousness. It is not difficult to trace on this line eloquent connections between different artistic fields: for example, an evident debt of New Hollywood towards contemporary figurative arts, so that in a film like Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese the influence of the American pictorial hyperrealism of the 1960s is easily readable (J. Salt, R. Estee etc..). Indeed, there were filmmakers who, like Bogdanovich, attempted an application of the hyperrealist instances not in terms of simple reproduction, but by constructing the film as an exact repetition of the ‘real’ model: The last picture show (1971; The last show) was indeed a reproduction, not only visual but also stylistic, of the provincial family melodrama a la Minnelli, typical of the 1950s. Differently, but in the same way, in the first films made by Bob Rafelson – Five easy pieces (1970; Five easy pieces), The king of Marvin gardens (1972; The king of the gardens by Marvin) – reality was observed by the camera with such close and calm attention as to bring back moments of the most domestic Italian Neorealism. But a shadow loomed over that cinema, the ghost of the collapse of confidence, optimism, hope that occurred in the early sixties. America was no longer what it once was and she knew well that she could not return to the happy era of her certainties. This explains the very strong nostalgic component of New Hollywood, its continuous reinterpretation of a past that may not always be edifying, but in which the ancient national virtues were still in force. Contemporary America, it was clearly seen in the films that dealt with it, was quite different. In particular, the image of a nation in the grip of powerful and top secret conspiratorial forces. Not only in films like Stuart Rosenberg’s WUSA (1970; A Man Today), Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974; Why Murder), David Miller’s Executive action (1973; Executive action), which featured more or less veiled what little was known about the facts relating to the assassination of President Kennedy (in the meantime, ML King and R. Kennedy had also been killed), but also films of other types and invoices clearly revealed a paranoid unease that the explosion of the Watergate case in 1974 had helped to enlarge. Films such as Lumet’s The Anderson tapes (1971; Record Robbery in New York) and Tree days of the Condor (1975; The three days of the Condor) directed by Pollack show a reality monitored by a dark power in which everyone is constantly observed thanks to efficient technologies, or are even in danger of life due to organizations that, colluding or not with power, act underground eliminating all deviant elements. Nostalgic vogue therefore realizes why the Twenties, Thirties and Forties were so popular in this cinema, which deepened them as never before, both in comedy, both in melodrama, and in gangster films.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the 1970s marked a turning point in Hollywood’s attitude towards black audiences. For the first time, in fact, the industry realized that that public existed and that it was a potential and strong buyer. At that time, proposals aimed at it flourished, mostly labeled under the term of blaxploitation, that is exploitation in a black key, with films such as Shaft (1971; Shaft the detective) by Gordon Parks, which had a large number of sequels, or Coffy (1973) by white director Jack Hill, who launched new black stars, from Richard Roundtree to Pam Grier. New Hollywood, however, lasted the space of a morning. In the mid-1970s, two young writers of the new wave, G. Lucas and Steven Spielberg, made two hugely successful science fiction films: respectively, Star wars (1977; Star Wars) and Close encounters of the third kind (1977; Close encounters of the third kind). From that moment a new New Hollywood began, characterized by the relaunch of spectacular superproduction (whose production values ​​were this time technical and not artisanal), but also characterized by the strong revival of science fiction, which, together with horror, would soon become the cinematic genre that marked the end of the century. It was not about escapism or a reaction to the New Hollywood realism of a few years ago. On the contrary, the two phenomena are linked by a red thread: reality meticulously, hyperrealistically reconstructed and observed by so many New Hollywood cinemas, could only dissolve in a space of the mind.

United States Cinematography in the 1960's and 1970's