That so-called ‘Golden Era’ of the ’70s

November 19, 2013


Lists of the greatest this or the best that are provocations and nothing more.

Whether it’s a critic offering his 10-best list of films (or books or TV shows or albums) for a given year or decade or an organization or website doing the same thing, it’s always a matter of opinion. It’s meant to say, “Here’s my hierarchy – agree with me!” Or the opposite, as is often the case.

I came across a list of the supposed 100 greatest films of the 1970s, through a friend’s link on Facebook. Mostly it was a tally: How many of these have you seen? As it turned out, I’d seen 99 of the 100 – the only one I’d missed being “Fiddler on the Roof,” which I skipped at the time (1971, the year of “Carnal Knowledge” and “Taking Off,” neither of which is on this list).

Looking at that list made me feel old because, in truth, I’d not only seen them but had reviewed almost all of them when they were first released.

But that started me thinking about the movies of the 1970s and this so-called golden era of cinema. If you look at the films on that particular list, there are a lot that have come to be regarded as classics. And rightly so.

Still, when I read someone offering thoughts about the glory that was the 1970s, such as the mythology promulgated in Peter Biskind’s vastly overrated book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” I have to stop and say, “Well, yeah, but…”

Yeah, the studios – in a state of panicked transition – seemingly handed the keys to the asylum to the inmates. The studios had moved from their original owners to new corporate keepers, who had no particular passion for filmmaking but saw it as a profitable business. Then came the revolution – the rise of the counter-culture and the influence of the baby-boom generation (though they weren’t necessarily synonymous). Suddenly, the old models didn’t seem to work.

So younger people were recruited to run the studios or allowed to make movies for them: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Ashby, Altman and more, who created films that wouldn’t have been made by the studios in the old days. There were also movies being made by emigres from elsewhere – Milos Forman, Roman Polanski – who brought a new sensibility to the American mainstream.

But, taking the long view from this point, 40 years later, it’s possible to see that as part of a larger whole. Sure, the studios were releasing films like “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” But you can go through the 1980s, the 1990s and so on and cherry-pick great films as well and draw your own conclusions.

Because, as someone who was a working critic in the 1970s, I can tell you that there was as much that was leaden as there was golden about the 1970s. A number of those movies – mundane, lumbering, middlebrow – are on that particular list of the 100 greatest from the decade.

I can’t imagine a greatest-anything list that I could create that would include “The Towering Inferno” or “The Poseidon Adventure,” two bloated disaster films that are on the list. Yes, they were influential – but in the wrong way.

Nor would I put “The Sunshine Boys” on any list except, perhaps, George Burns’ greatest screen performances (which would be an extremely short list, given his limited filmography). Or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or “Grease” or Polanski’s “Macbeth.”

Again, these are all opinions – my opinions. But my point is that the perspective on a year – or a decade or a century – gets burnished by time. It also gets shifted by people who weren’t there, who appraise it long after the fact and who lack the context of the period when the film first appeared.

Were the 1970s a golden era of cinema? Sure, but they also produced a lot of dross. If you were a critic in the 1970s, you weren’t just reviewing the “Animal House”s and “Days of Heaven”s. You were also reviewing the endless films of Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood (in his more antic mode with those monkey movies) and all those awful Roger Moore/James Bond films.

I could just as easily make the case for the 1990s as a golden era. Or the 1960s. Because there were lots of great films. And, as in the 1970s, they were scattered among the chaff that hit theater screens every single week.

Sort of like now. Sort of like always.

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