I don’t think most people view the 70’s as a golden age in recent American history, given the economic and political miseries and lousy fashions, but the prevailing confusion was immensely productive for American cinema - many legendary directors did much (or all) of their best work during that decade. We all know about the glories of The Godfather and Nashville and Taxi Driver, but even lesser studio products of the decade usually feel rooted in specific times and places and people and ideas, with an overall texture that seems almost lost now. Of course those films were commercially calculated in their own way, but it’s as if the calculations were carried out in longhand, by people who didn’t necessarily check their math that closely; in contrast, the calculations are carried out now by computer, with superhuman precision, but often therefore with no human stake in the end result. To illustrate, I recently rewatched two minor films by major figures of that era, finding myself delighted once again at their idiosyncracies.
Alan Pakula was one of my favourite directors of the era – I’ve written before here about his film Rollover. Pakula thrived in the 70’s, with Klute and The Parallax View and All the President’s Men: he was adept at distilling the paranoia and insecurities of the time, the underlying fear of liberty and soul on the line, into dark, gloriously textured thrillers. After that theme lost momentum in the 80’s, Pakula still made some notable films, like Sophie’s Choice and Presumed Innocent, but it was as if his artistic roots had withered away, leaving him to work on artificial turf.
In 1979 he made Starting Over, a comedy starring Burt Reynolds (the biggest box office star in the country at that point) as Phil Potter, a newly divorced man whose attempts to solidify a new relationship are undermined by unresolved loose ends with his ex-wife. It’s an exceptionally low-key film – Reynolds is so quiet and undemonstrative he seems almost catatonic. I don’t mean that as a swipe at his acting talent – I think it’s a deliberate strategy worked out by him and Pakula, to embody his bewilderment and lack of self-determination, The woman he falls for, Marilyn, played by Jill Clayburgh, is a bit of a mess – not in some stylized movie manner, but in a gratingly plausible way – and on the surface it barely seems believable they’d even make it to a first date, let alone that they’d persevere beyond that. I mentioned it’s a comedy, but of the kind they barely make anymore, rationing the laughs out very parsimoniously. And anyway, those laughs, consisting of such things as Clayburgh falling into a dunking pool, or Reynolds putting on a Santa outfit, are more theoretical than actual. It also has really schmaltzy music.
None of this, obviously, provides any reason to seek out Starting Over at this point. Yet it’s rather fascinating, because of the sense that Pakula was primarily interested in demonstrating the exhaustion of romantic comedy, rather than in actually making one. For instance, there’s a scene where Phil hooks up again with his ex-wife, played by Candice Bergen; Pakula films their undressing in a long single take, both distanced and tentative, while the title song (also distanced and tentative, sung by Bergen) plays on the soundtrack. It’s very weird – you could imagine such a scene being played for passion, or outright laughs, or perhaps tinged with some element of underlying disgust, but I don’t think numbing blankness would occur to most directors.
Similarly, on and off throughout the film, Phil attends a divorced men’s support group, where again the dominant emotion is a kind of frozen incomprehension. You gradually start to conclude Phil’s pursuit of Marilyn is analogous to the skullduggery carried out in Pakula’s paranoia films, driven by the demands of the system rather than by actual feelings. As with all conspiracies, the logic becomes increasingly self-absorbed, swamping whatever the original motivations might have been. Could he possibly put as much weight as he does on the act of jointly buying a couch with her, for instance, if his head was his own? The notionally happy ending doesn’t feel like one; it feels more like time just ran out. It’s not a political movie, but it seems to convey that what really needs to start over is the whole damn system - which in turn, watching it in 2012, could start off a whole complicated reverie on how much that’s actually happened in the meantime.
The Anderson Tapes
Sidney Lumet made interesting movies for some fifty years, but most people would put his 70’s work (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) at the top of the list. He made twelve films in that decade, some of them derided (The Wiz), several others largely forgotten. One of those, The Anderson Tapes, made in 1971, has Sean Connery as a recently released convict, instantly snapping back into a life of crime, with a plan to knock off all the apartments in a high-end building. It fits into the heist genre, spending much time on planning and execution; but Anderson doesn’t realize that virtually everything he does is being recorded by various groups; law enforcement teams staking out the mobster who finances him; narcotics agents tracking one of the guys he ropes into the job; a jealous ex-boyfriend spying on the woman he sleeps with.
This theme of oppressive surveillance is quite prophetic, and closely related to the Pakula movies I mentioned. The surprise though is that Lumet basically treats it as the punch-line to an extended joke: the plan fails, as it must (I can hardly think of a film where the likelihood of it succeeding through some surprise twist seems less likely throughout), but for a very different reason than we anticipate. The movie ultimately isn’t so much about the oppressiveness of power as about the way it creates its own reality. In the first scene, Anderson rails (equally prophetically) about the system that punishes personal transgressions while sanctioning corporate ones, and the film seems to confirm his angry incomprehension, by showing how he can’t hope to grasp how it all fits together (in part, because it doesn’t). It’s not a message movie though: Lumet enjoys himself with all kinds of character stuff (some of it very dated, in particular the depiction of a gay antique dealer) and vicissitudes - for instance, he depicts the efforts of a group of cops to enter the building in more detail than it really seems to need, presumably just because the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing interest him. But even such eccentricity supports that same theme, by tweaking our notions of how such a familiar-looking film should work.
Again, these aren’t major films in the scheme of things, but they’re more productively stimulating than most of the pictures that get acclaimed now, despite – partly of course because of - their limitations and dated aspects. And of course there’s much more where those came from. I could do articles like this for a year. Maybe I should!