Cinema’s Crest: 1972 Was a Very Good Year for the Movies

Nixon and the movies were both riding high in 1972, but history was catching up with them


Did movies change in 1972? Of course they did, because movies change all the time, every year, every decade, every half-century—in fact, lately you might find more solid footing asking instead, do they change enough?

But did they, 50 years ago, change enough to rationalize a retrospective half-century-anniversary glance backward? Or, if it wasn’t change, what was it?

Because, clearly, something was going on. Something pivoted, or peaked, or reached a heated pubertal fever in ’72, that year of Tricky Dick’s landslide re-election, American war machine apocalypses, and terrorist mayhem at the Olympics and around the world—in what for movies looked like a public aggregation of post-’60s New Wave freedom, booming box-office clout, tense political urgency, and social experimentation. Movies were still our primary art form, and moviegoing an athletically active engagement with the world, but in 1972 the medium, and the culture that surrounded it, seemed to be cresting.

Indeed, 1972 makes a rousing bid for being the greatest single movie year there ever was, just beginning with The Godfather, Deliverance, Cabaret, Last Tango in Paris, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Fat City, but particularly when you look globally, at Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege, Jancso’s Red Psalm, Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon, Loach’s Family Life, Wenders’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, and so on. Not to mention Godard and Gorin’s double-bladed show of Tout va Bien and Letter to Jane. Not to mention Hitchcock’s penultimate film, and best in almost a decade, Frenzy.

Not to mention Michael Ritchie’s acidic double-header Prime Cut and The Candidate (released a day apart that June), and Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, and Marcel Ophuls’s A Sense of Loss, and Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. Not to mention the censored collective-made anti-war doc Winter Soldier, and Robert Frank’s always unseeable but always magnificent wallow in decadence Cocksucker Blues. Do we count the films already a year or two old that we saw here in the states in 1972, thanks to hardy niche distributors? The Emigrants, Two English Girls, The Sorrow and the Pity, Trafic, Murmur of the Heart, Uncle Vanya….

You could muster a similar pile of evidence for other years, of course (most of those years were in the ’60s, not many came later). You could also make the perfectly reasonable case that searching for cultural significance in round-number calendar benchmarks is arbitrary and meaningless. And so it is, technically. But because the ’70s were the ’70s, we’re now in an age in which almost every year’s New Wavey half-century-earlier precedent could be said to be some kind of world-beater. It’s also not hard to see the relevance and perspective that such an epic chunk of history offers, particularly for film. In the rapidly mutative modern era, 50 years is a substantial bite no matter what aspect of culture you’re looking at, but cinema (if you peg it to the Lumière brothers projecting moving pictures to a paying Paris audience in 1895) is only eight years older than the oldest living person today, so dialing back the time machine a half-century—39% of movies’ entire life-span—seems salient, a solid Goldilocks marker between long ago and not so long ago at all.


The American film scene of the Nixon era was suddenly an anti-Dream Factory, fantastically homely, thorny, addicted to discomfiting truths, densely inhabited by lost men, used women, free-roaming damaged goods, and unlovable losers in a dead-real movie-forgotten landscape of junkyards, diners, supermarkets, and empty highways.


In fact, 1972 can feel like both last week and a century ago. Its significance as a pop culture hinge is suggested by the simple fact of The Godfather’s overwhelming box office dominance. Previously, the record-holding moneymaker was The Sound of Music (1965), an unalloyed family film; before that, it was Gone With the Wind (1939), back when all films were intended for general audiences—which is why Rhett Butler’s “I don’t give a damn” stirred such outrage. Three years after The Godfather, Jaws ramrodded itself to No. 1—a PG-rated film to which grade-schoolers, along with everyone else, flocked. Of course, in 1977, Star Wars, a consciously child-like film, surpassed them all and established the paradigm for Hollywood filmmaking going forward. It was only in that brief interim, in the years immediately before and after 1972, when adult ticket buyers, and only adult ticket buyers—Coppola’s film was and remains a hard R—could catapult a film to the all-time top slot. Imagine it: a moment when the movie-lust of actual grown-ups controlled the conversation and defined the culture. The discourse, textual and visual and otherwise, was not watered down and sparkled up for 13-year-olds. We’re not likely to see that dynamic reappear, ever.

The voting-drinking-fucking-with-consent grown-up conversation of 1972 also propelled a die-hard porn film, Deep Throat, to No. 7 on the year’s box-office champ roster, ahead of Lady Sings the Blues and The Getaway. All told, it seemed only natural, this focus on authentically adult material and consumption, given the Arctic icebreaking the films of the “New Hollywood” (many of which were not “Hollywood” at all) had been busy doing for several years, at least since 1967, with The Graduate, David Holzman’s Diary, Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Targets, and Point Blank. The American New Wave was postwar American movies finally reaching the end of their prolonged puberty, and you could say 1972 was the year the movement lost its virginity, by way of The Godfather’s money-quaffing juggernaut of mood, menace, and gravitas.

The occasional disaster film aside—and those always seemed to play out like the old Hollywood imagining its own destruction—the American film scene of the Nixon era was suddenly an anti-Dream Factory, fantastically homely, thorny, addicted to discomfiting truths, densely inhabited by lost men, used women, free-roaming damaged goods, and unlovable losers in a dead-real movie-forgotten landscape of junkyards, diners, supermarkets, and empty highways. Like all maturations, it was a coalescence of influences, bearing the DNA not only of the European New Waves but also the Direct Cinema documentary movement; the grain-loving photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, et al.; the actors-first revolt fueled by John Cassavetes’s films and the Actor’s Studio; and the proletariat Existentialism of film noir.

What’s more vital and surprising was the Wave’s enthusiastic exploration of all-American off-road subcultures, something movies had never done before: the “found” sooty wastes of Pennsylvania anthracite country in Wanda (1970), the oil fields of Five Easy Pieces (1970), the back-roads drag life of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the vanishing cow towns of north Texas in The Last Picture Show (1971), the crime-edge of life in Little Italy in Mean Streets (1973), the bloodsport backrooms of Cockfighter (1974), the private industry of surveillance contractors in The Conversation (1974), the various specific geo-cultural arenas of nearly all Robert Altman’s ’70s films, the dog-eat-dog ghetto grunge of a Blaxploitation film like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and, right in the heart of 1972, the street-wise corruption of Super Fly, the dog-shit-eating Baltimore absurdity of Pink Flamingos, the down-low rodeo circuit of Junior Bonner, the inbred Appalachia of Deliverance, and, yes, the huddled Sicilian-American enclaves of Mob families in The Godfather. And so on.

It was as though America woke up from a decades-long celluloid opium jag of fantasy, homily, and baloney, looked around, and wondered, This is who we are?

Who we were on top of all that, in the unease of 1972: the generationally war-torn, the post-assassination/edge-of-Watergate paranoid, the staunchly bigoted, the civil-rights-warrior righteous, the insurrectionary anti-war, the pro-Nixon, the pro-McGovern, the getting-poorer, the ever-richer. Change was the only constant, and it moved slowly in the macro view, like a tanker at sea, but in 1972 you could also see certain vectors of cultural force rise and converge on film.

Mostly, as it looks from the majestic half-century aerial view, you can see the helium finally leak out of the idea of an all-powerful patriarchal hegemony. The actual white-men-in-power hegemony went largely unthreatened after the ’60s faded, of course, but in movies the hierarchy was under fire. What we’re really talking about when we talk about 1972, in the shadow of both Nixon’s blowout reelection in November and Watergate’s mind-boggling revelations—wait, the kidnapping, beating, and drugging of Attorney General John Mitchell’s wife?—is the cultural sense, aggregated on film over and over, that the white men running everything are incompetent, monstrous, or both.

There’s no way to exaggerate how American pop culture, from the 1880s dime novels to the postwar era, relied upon the certainty of white masculinity’s moral and institutional authority to craft its stories. It was the Hollywood default, the ideological world in which cinema manifested, from D.W. Griffith’s rescue melodramas in the teens to the 1970 Oscar-winning blockbusters Patton and Airport. There had always been some pushback; before the ’70s, particular movies (and novels and plays) tried to dress the paradigm down, in subtexts you can read into certain film noirs and Sidney Poitier movies. But by 1972, the reflexive respect for traditional structures was all but gone.

Everywhere you looked, the body of patriarchal dominion was laid out on the table and sliced open. Distractingly seductive, The Godfather is virtually a tragic, Dostoyevskian satire on the systems of masculine power and traditional families: There isn’t a single character in its web, save for Diane Keaton’s Kay, that isn’t a bloodletting perversion. The cunning craft of the film lies in the Corleones’ social density and familial allure—you’re baited into accepting this fabulous, messy family, and Marlon Brando’s moral authority, even as you see the catastrophes they conscientiously create and the throats they blithely slit.

The specter of the middle-class modern Everyman—husband, father, leader, paragon—disarmed and lost and disconnected from his source of power was ubiquitous in the American New Wave, and so it went in 1972: the stranded middle-class urbanites in Deliverance, the empty-hearted dick-bully of Last Tango in Paris, the going-nowhere brothers of The King of Marvin Gardens, the failed punch-drunk drunks of Fat City, and the guilt-wracked widower of Solaris could all be scanned as explorations of that guy’s floundering inadequacy. Certainly, the men in these films all seem surprised when their assumed entitlement does not rescue them, and it’s that existential shock that the films are probing as if it were a tumor. Even The Poseidon Adventure goes there, compelling its nominal all-white man-heroes (Gene Hackman’s Nietzschean priest, Ernest Borgnine’s hen-pecked cop) to climb backward through a world of privilege literally turned upside-down, largely enabled by children and Shelley Winters.

Or, take the complementary tack, in Perry, Dunne, and Didion’s Play It as It Lays, in which the untethered wanderer is a self-destructive woman, trying and largely failing to escape from one toxic man after another.

If Aguirre, the Wrath of God was self-evidently a study of the masculine fascist impulse rising spontaneously from imperialist greed, then The Candidate’s cynical, made-for-TV politics; Ulzana’s Raid’s frontier nihilism; and Winter Soldier’s deadpan recitations of Vietnam War atrocities dissected their extant power systems from within, where hypocrisy and brutality are structural factors, not collateral. Other films—often, musicals—happily occupied the fringes of white-male institutional milieus and historical moments (Cabaret, The Harder They Come, Lady Sings the Blues), roaming through demimondes cultivated in opposition to the mainstream order. Sometimes, as in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and The Merchant of Four Seasons, the protagonist is merely a clueless facet of the dominant culture’s tendency to eat its own.

Maybe it was Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that formed the most uncompromising vision, of a white ruling class of suspect authority figures (diplomats, officers, bishops) whose very reality is an absurdly unstable quantity. (Slaughterhouse-Five did something similar.) Or, you may prefer the instances where men in any form are practically elided from the universe: see Cries and Whispers and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

Of course, there were always countercharges advertising for the supremacy of righteous male saviors—this was the general era of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish avenger, and the ongoing James Bond franchise, and ’72 did find a hit with Robert Redford’s Native-killing mountain man in Jeremiah Johnson. But the overall messaging seems clear, a sign of the times: For a moment, movies were looking at the world run by men and seeing little except disaster, failure, and absurdity.

Those were the days.

It did not last, as we know: Cultural pessimism and paranoia always give way to a backlash of bull-headed optimism, narcissism, and patriotism, and on film, the beautiful suspicions and doubt we all shared did not survive the tsunami of wonder hurled by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who by decade’s end had effectively lobotomized the New Wave spirit and converted a pervasive critical wariness into a sixth-grader’s timid embrace of power. Reagan got elected, and the high season of New Wave cynicism came to a close.

In 1972, you couldn’t find a buyer for the usual patriarchal bullshit, and it may be that spike in awareness, caught forever in the year’s stack of film cans, that makes it leap forward through the decades. And it seems appropriate—only recently has that political qualm become universalized again, far more deeply and consequently this time in the real world, if not necessarily in film (superhero movies, dominated by white dudes saving the day, are nothing if not the Dirty Harry complex writ super-large).

We could hardly do better in the next half-century than to try to retrieve our loss of innocence, and struggle to grow up all over again.  ❖

Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.




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