Sometimes the best counterprogramming happens forty years after the fact. The Film Society’s genre-spanning, globetrotting (though mostly Anglophone) series “ ’77” surveys the cinema that was released or completed the same year that Star Wars, which opened on May 25, broke records, minted money, and ushered in the era of franchised, industrial moviemaking — a mandate unlikely ever to end.
While George Lucas’s outer-galaxy opera may have dominated the box office (and had a permanently deleterious effect on how films are financed), other cine-movements flourished in 1977, a year dotted with milestones. A scan of the 33-film lineup in the FSLC retrospective reveals symmetries and consonances. Two American greats, Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and David Lynch (Eraserhead), made their first films; a European maestro, Luis Buñuel (That Obscure Object of Desire), completed his last. Three paragons of New Hollywood — Robert Altman (3 Women), John Cassavetes (Opening Night), and Martin Scorsese (New York, New York) — each at least a decade into their careers, released films in this annus mirabilis that follow only the idiosyncratic dictates of their makers. Working in a vastly different registers and idioms, U.K. queer firebrand Derek Jarman (Jubilee), then in his ascendant phase, and Senegalese doyen Ousmane Sembène (Ceddo), at roughly the midpoint of his oeuvre, created works that are united in their insurrectionary ire.
The themes explored in “ ’77” don’t fit so tidily into pattern recognition, especially in the films made in the U.S. As Alice Echols points out in her excellent study Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010), the Seventies, particularly the latter half, were “contentious, contradictory years” in this country. The era that’s still too often dismissed as the “Me Decade” was, in fact, a time “when some of the most significant movements of the sixties — feminism, gay rights, and the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities — had their greatest impact.” And also met their fiercest backlash: For instance, Anita Bryant’s coalition of anti-LGBT hate, the hysterically named Save Our Children, was formed in Miami in ’77, the same year Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Another institution of intolerance and draconian gender policing, Focus on the Family, also founded in ’77, was likewise a panicky response to Roe v. Wade (decided in ’73) and the cresting of feminism’s second wave.
These schisms, the first flare-ups in what still gets called the culture wars, animate many of the titles in the Film Society program. The A.I. antagonist of Donald Cammell’s sexed-up sci-fi Demon Seed, based on the 1973 Dean Koontz novel of the same name, not only anticipates the horrors of the smart home but also articulates the fear of the accomplished professional woman. The advanced computer system Proteus, which speaks like an adenoidal version of 2001’s HAL 9000, has colonized all the mod cons in the well-appointed residence of child psychologist Susan Harris (Julie Christie) and her scientist husband, Alex (Fritz Weaver), Proteus’s creator, from whom she’s temporarily separated. The malevolent machine additionally claims Susan’s reproductive system: “You want to be the mother of my child. That is the purpose of your life,” Proteus intones to the terrorized shrink, tied spread-eagled on quality-fiber sheets. The declarations could have been cribbed from Jerry Falwell’s marriage manual.
More ambivalent — and absorbing — is Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, starring Diane Keaton as Theresa Dunn, a single woman whose virtuous job teaching deaf kids is presented as completely incompatible with her favorite off-the-clock pastime: picking up men in bars and clubs. (Opening in October of ’77, Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released six months after Annie Hall, not included in the FSLC series — an elating omission for the Woody-weary.) Brooks’s movie proves consistently incoherent about the sexual freedom of its protagonist, at once celebrating Theresa for rejecting the marital model of her devout, miserable Irish-Catholic parents and deeming her ghastly end the inevitable outcome of her nighttime activities.
The weird tension generated by the anxiety surrounding Theresa’s hedonism is even more pronounced by Looking for Mr. Goodbar’s soundtrack: some of the moistest, ripest disco hits of the mid-1970s (Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover,” Donna Summer’s “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”), music that provided the anthems for gay revelers and gyrators of the first post-Stonewall generation, some of whom Theresa parties with. There’s no such mingling at the Bay Ridge four-on-the-floor emporium 2001 Odyssey in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever, the fifth highest-grossing film of 1977, which I wrote about at length for these pages in May. Like Keaton’s character, John Travolta’s Tony Manero in SNF remains intriguingly irreconcilable, an unstable signifier of outer-borough machismo.
Highlighting the garish spectacle of masculinity at its most exaggerated, George Butler and Robert Fiore’s pecs-and-flex documentary Pumping Iron features Arnold Schwarzenegger as he vies for his sixth Mr. Olympia title. Supremely self-regarding and puckish, the swole Austrian, eager to describe the explosive pleasure working out gives him — “I’m cumming day and night! It’s terrific! I’m in heaven!” — was surely never more charismatic than he is here, years before his string of inert performances in Eighties and Nineties blockbusters and the worst role he ever played, the real-life governor of our nation’s most populous state.
To be reminded once again of this strange turn of history — that the enormous, oiled-up, gap-toothed guy in the itty-bitty briefs would be elected to such a high office — produces cognitive free fall. As it turns out, the unmooring effect of discovering just how porous the boundary between fact and fantasy can be emerges as a motif in several films from this labile year. “I seem to have lost the reality of the reality,” the boozing, capricious, genius theater actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) tells her increasingly exasperated director during another disastrous rehearsal in the high-wire, multi-layered backstager Opening Night, the ninth of twelve films by Cassavetes, the actress’s husband and most important collaborator.
Myrtle’s line chimes with something Scorsese would say about his voluptuous musical New York, New York, a far cheerier tribute to his hometown than Taxi Driver (1976), the project that preceded it: “I wanted to make it in the style of Forties films, with all their artifice and the idea of no reality. The sets would be completely fake, but the trick would be to approach the characters” — Robert De Niro’s Jimmy, a sax player, and Liza Minnelli’s Francine, the canary for his band — “in the foreground like a documentary, combining the two techniques.” However invested he may have been in make-believe, though, Scorsese nixed a traditional Hollywood happy ending (advising him not to do so was Lucas, then married to NY, NY’s supervising editor).
The “idea of no reality” also motors Altman’s 3 Women, the most superb shape-shifter in “ ’77,” which the FSLC is giving a week-long run, August 18–24. Originating in a dream that Altman had, the film, about self-delusion, intense attachment, and identity-merging, proceeds with the mutable logic of a reverie. 3 Women, as I’ve noted elsewhere, abounds with ineradicable oddities and generative juxtapositions, never more so than when its two unconventionally beautiful leads — Shelley Duvall as Millie, a garrulous employee at a geriatric rehab center, and Sissy Spacek as childlike, pigtailed Pinky, who becomes completely besotted with her babbling co-worker and soon-to-be roommate — are enclosed in the same frame.
“It is both a dream and a document, a set of facts and a cluster of myths,” Andrew Sarris wrote in his rapturous response to 3 Women in the April 11, 1977, issue of the Voice. However open to interpretation Altman’s movie may be — the epilogue reveals an even more radical transformation of identities — it is grounded in certain indisputable truths. Namely: that Duvall, one of the most emblematic actresses of 1970s American cinema and here in her sixth of seven movies she made with Altman, gives one of the greatest performances of that fertile decade. The actress was largely responsible for creating Millie, an ardent reader of McCall’s and Woman’s Day, a gourmand of chemically saturated victuals. “Shelley wrote all of [Millie’s] letters, all of those recipes, all of her diary stuff. I don’t know any writer who could have done it better,” Altman said of the performer, who would win the Best Actress award at Cannes for 3 Women.
Duvall last appeared in a movie in 2002 (a sit-down with Dr. Phil that aired this past November suggests she is not doing well). But in New York, we are currently in a High Season of Shelley: In addition to the revival run of 3 Women later this month, Metrograph (which screened Altman’s oneiric opus a handful of times in late July) will show Popeye (1980), the final Altman–Duvall collaboration, this weekend. On view through August 18 at the 326 Gallery in east Chelsea is “For Shelley,” thirteen portraits of the actress — several saluting her look (long pageboy, yellow maxi dress) in 3 Women — by ten female artists.
“I played her like a Lubitsch comedy — people taking themselves very seriously,” Duvall said of Millie, in a Voice interview that accompanied Sarris’s review. In her most prized performance, the actress plumbs the inconsistencies of a woman whose unshakable confidence in her superior taste coexists with a gutting frailty. Millie is a legendary paradox in a year teeming with them.
Film Society of Lincoln Center