AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE '70S
runs May 31-June 27 at Grand Illusion
THE DECADE THAT won't die has gone from kitsch revivalism to scholarly veneration. SIFF is not only programming a series of six notable '70s titles but also conducting a panel discussion on the decade (11:30 a.m. Sun., June 9, Broadway Performance Hall). Among the participants is author Peter Biskind, whose 1998 book title gives you its thesis: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind's revisionist take on the '70s—buried in his sloppy, gossipy, lazy book—is that an ossified studio system briefly allowed baby boomer auteurs the freedom to indulge (and overindulge) in personal cinema—until Jaws, Star Wars, and other blockbusters put an end to this flowering.
Linked to SIFF's series, this separate program of 10 pictures at the Grand Illusion supports Biskind's thesis, but only up to a point. Martin Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets (Fri., May 31-Sun., June 2) certainly holds up. Loyalty, guilt, atonement—all these themes permeate his second real feature and prefigure his subsequent career. His dazzling camera moves, rock soundtrack (then novel), and volcanic new talent (i.e., Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel) certainly helped shake up Hollywood, all right.
By contrast, Monte Hellman's 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop (Tues., June 4-Thurs., June 6) shows how '70s nostalgia is getting out of hand. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson star as two nameless and nearly wordless hot-rodders who race Warren Oates across the country. "Whaddya need?" our heroes are asked. "High-test," replies Taylor—in other words, fuel to go faster; that's all the meaning they require.
Blacktop is a good cult film, which is not the same as being a good film. Its sketchy plot, shoddy construction, and terrible acting (Oates excepted) provide a kind of blank slate for audience projection. Smoke enough dope, and it even becomes existential. Unlike the dormant passions of Mean Streets, Blacktop's laconic surface merely covers an absence. Maybe Taylor's in love with the hitchhiker they pick up; maybe he's succumbing to dread or ennui; or, more likely, B-movie director Hellman simply wanted to make a Roger Corman-style exploitation flick with cool music-world icons, hoping to attract both college kids and Southern drive-in audiences.
You see, the '70s were as much about commerce as art—like any other decade in Hollywood history. It'd be just as easy to cherry-pick 10 good titles from the '80s or the '60s, then label that period an overlooked golden age. Today, Blacktop cries out for a remake. Just take two pre-sold music stars, say Beck and Fred Durst, and you've got a picture. In 20 years, it'll probably be called a classic of our decade.