[Excerpt from “What Price Masterpiece? Looking Back at the Hollywood Century,” by Jacques Bruel, The Village Voice, January 11, 2000]
…and studio suits were stunned when the audience reaction cards unanimously opted for the ending in which Rocky dropped dead, à la Kirk Douglas in Champion, of a cerebral hemorrhage right in the ring. For better or probably worse, of course, the decade’s pivotal moment may have come in 1977, when George Lucas’s much-anticipated Star Wars, after tremendous hype and a smash opening weekend consisting mostly of school-grade allowances, died an ignominious box office death. Lucas’s announced plan for a cinematic novenary, this sophomoric cliché-mobile being #4, was met with helpless industry hilarity. His dream of a technocinematic empire scuttled, drunk on Rubicon red, Lucas died the next May of a self-inflicted soldering-gun wound, and so our chances for a fun, thought-free, blithely triumphant, truly egalitarian American cinema died with him.
What can you say? The
gritty, depressive, “realistic”
Upton Sinclair-ish ’70s became the gritty, depressive, “realistic” Faulknerian ’80s, and old-fashioned, mindless escapism
became an endangered breed of culture. Jimmy Carter, and then Tip O’Neill, winning over the reassuring sentiments of the Reagan machine was a sign of the times— Hollywood kept pushing the “belch and fart,
excuse my French, aesthetic” (as Michael Medved memorably put it) as far as it could go. The so-called “Us” decade saw erstwhile auteurs Monte Hellman, Jim McBride, William Friedkin, and Sam Peckinpah hit their strides; if Hellman’s hyperrealist garage noir Gasoline Love (’83) was Hollywood’s answer to Ken Loach, then Peckinpah’s labor epic Smokestack Lightning (’85) was surely its Germinal. Terrence Malick became the era’s most prolific manufacturer of big-
budget mood studies, including a free-form biopic of suicidal poet John Berryman titled I Have Heard the Voice of Lilith Singing in the Trees of Chicago (’84). Steven Spielberg, inspired by Lucas’s failure, had modest hits along the Jaws paradigm, so emphasizing the idiosyncratic interplay between James Woods, Jeff Goldblum, and Harry Dean Stanton in Driver Ants (’86) that the deadly insects in question only show up in the final 10 minutes.
Naturally, a huge section of the population went back to reading books, many of which had large words and long sentences, and were subsequently made into movies without happy endings. Robert Frank’s The Big Damnation (’88), for instance, starring Jack Nicholson as a one-eyed Georgian ornithologist with acromegaly who sees the Virgin Mary at the Battle of Antietam, was a record-breaking hit… —Michael Atkinson
Without a Hitch
[From The Alternative-Universe Film Encyclopedia, 1999]
Hitchcock, Alfred (18991980) In 1939, as he was about to leave for America, star British director Alfred Hitchcock realized that Hollywood, dominated by the studio system and the Production Code, could never guarantee him the autonomy he craved. After much wavering, he decided to stay put. By 1945 he felt it his patriotic duty to help rebuild the war-devastated British film industry.
After several light suspense movies in the mid ’30s, Hitchcock explored various genres from psychological melodramas to gothic
romances to comedic capers. But while he was Britain’s top director in the ’20s and ’30s, the following decades saw him increasingly torn between his commercial instincts and a taste for offbeat matters: for each triumph, like his spooky Jane Eyre, there was a stylistic experiment shunned by public and critics alike.
One of the more interesting aspects of Hitchcock’s career was his personal and professional rivalry with director Michael Powell, most notably over Deborah Kerr. For many film historians, Kerr’s finest role
remains her against-type appearance in Hitchcock’s sexual thriller Psycho, which in effect put an end to her burgeoning Hollywood career. Hitch made her dye her hair blond and set her up against Peter Cushing’s Norman Bates, the murderous owner of an isolated B&B in the Orkney Islands. Too dark and sadistic for audiences of the time, Psycho was butchered by the British censors and remains a rarely seen curiosity.
Psycho‘s failure turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Hitchcock, who found a haven at Hammer Films in the early ’60s. He redefined horror by emphasizing psychological dread instead of monsters, but also explored the struggle between the dead and the living in several vampire movies. (Julie Christie and Vanessa Redgrave made their film debuts as mod lesbian bloodsuckers in From the Grave.) Ultimately the ’60s sexual revolution proved fatal to a director who’d built his career around the sublimation of erotic desire. It didn’t help when rising filmmakers like Tony Richardson publicly criticized his exclusive fondness for genre movies. Hitchcock simply retreated from filmmaking, and became a familiar figure on British TV game shows. Still, Hitchcock may finally be emerging from purgatory, as the wildly popular young Hong Kong auteurs openly refer to his morbid touch, fetishistic sexuality, and flamboyant color palette.
De Palma, Brian (1940 ) American
director who has based his career on emulating Douglas Sirk’s melodramas. —Elisabeth Vincentelli
Larger Than Life
[Excerpt from an interview with Orson Welles at his Bel-Air estate, September 1998.]
Q: And then, The Magnificent Ambersons. Any trouble with the studio?
Welles: Christ, no. They started mauling the poor creature when I went to the tropics to make It’s All True, so I flew back up, slapped them around, and took out every loathsome scrap they put in. They actually reshot a happy ending!— in one shot, with poor Agnes and Joe Cotten. I made sure no one’s eyeballs would ever be reddened by that goat shit.
Q: What do you think of Ambersons today, looking back?
Welles: Everybody knows it’s a masterpiece. Smooth sailing. I’m still in awe of myself, making that when I was, what, 21?
Welles: Well, hey, ask me about It’s All True.
Q: How about it?
Welles: What do you think, a masterpiece. Damn lucky with the footage of the erupting volcano.
Q: I’ll say. You’ve been lucky a lot of times.
Welles: If you want to call it luck. I started young, brilliant, and handsome. I got to marry Rita Hayworth, Catherine Deneuve, Nastassja Kinski and Salma Hayek—
Q: And divorce them—
Welles: And divorce them. I’ve made 32 of the best movies in the world— many say, and I agree, that the middle five hours of my Proust film is the greatest artistic endeavor ever completed by a human being— without any production problems whatsoever, I’ve made a billion dollars. You call that luck?
Q: And you’ve stayed healthy and trim.
Welles: I’m 83, and could kick your ass.
Q: Indeed, you spearheaded the whole fitness craze with your 1981 exercise video, Too Much Orson, which I must say keeps me mesmerized, no matter how many times I work out with it. The surreal perspectives, the expressionistic lighting, the compositions— quite Riefenstahlian.
Welles: Oh, it’s better than that.
Q: What’re you working on now?
Welles: The Paradiso. Thought it’s about time to wrap that whole magilla up.
Q: We’ve been waiting.
Welles: Yeah. I play God again. —Herb Carter