Revisiting Hollywood’s last golden age: my part in a new publication

Over the decades the two questions I’ve been asked most, as critic and programmer, have been what my favourite film is and what made me want to work in film. To the first, after explaining that I don’t have a single favourite film, I used to reply L’Atalante, but that often met with blank looks, so now I opt for Citizen Kane: as strong a contender as any, it at least prompts a dialogue. To the second question, I pinpoint the birth of my interest in cinema as an art form on a Friday evening in the autumn of 1973 when, in my first term as an undergraduate, I went with a friend to see Ingmar Bergman’s new film, Cries and Whispers. As someone who’d grown up in Northampton, the closest thing to an art movie I’d seen prior to that epiphany was probably 2001, with Midnight Cowboy and The Music Lovers lagging some way behind, so nothing had prepared me for the sheer emotional and philosophical intensity – and honesty – of the Bergman. I was hooked, and immediately set about discovering more about the cinema. 

Fortunately I was in the right place at the right time. Cambridge then had the late lamented Arts Cinema, two double-screen chain cinemas showing the better new releases, and almost 20 college film societies. Moreover, this was the early 70s, when Hollywood was making quite a few movies I actually wanted to see. So besides catching up on classics from around the world, I was keeping up with new releases from America, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Studying Classics was fairly low maintenance (thank goodness I wasn’t a medic or mathematician!), often allowing me to take the afternoon or evening off to see a movie: I recall frequently postponing work to catch comparatively quiet matinee screenings of hot tickets like The Exorcist, Jaws and Nashville (I was already a huge fan of The Long Goodbye, picture below). Then, six months after moving to London in 1976, I got a job as manager – and later as one of the programmers – of the Electric Cinema Club in Portobello Road. It may have been run-down, I may have been paid peanuts, the hours may have undermined my social life, but we screened around 25 movies a week, and I made it my business to watch as many of them as possible. In short, the 70s was when my long-term affair with the cinema began; I was intoxicated by the medium.

Eliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

All of which explains why I recently very much enjoyed putting together a Sight and Sound  ‘bookazine’ – an anthology of reviews, interviews and features – on what used to be called ‘the New Hollywood’. As some of you may know, I had already edited volumes on Godard, Scorsese and Spike Lee, selecting pieces – some written at the time of a film’s release, some penned years later with the benefit (?) of hindsight – from the archives of S&S and its now sadly long defunct companion Monthly Film Bulletin; it was decided to move beyond auteur studies, and after some discussion the folks at S&S and I agreed it might be a nice idea to publish a couple of volumes on the best of American cinema made between 1967 – when Bonnie and Clyde created such a stir – and 1980, the year of Heaven’s Gate, often seen as the end of an era. That said, what many regard as the last ‘golden age’ of Hollywood may actually have been been over before the release of that particular film (certainly, Cimino should not take all the blame for its demise); that’s something I’ll be exploring further, I suppose, when writing my own copy for the second volume.

Clearly, one thing that made compiling and contributing to the first volume so interesting was that it dealt with so many movies I’d loved ever since first seeing them back in the late 60s and 70s. (I’d caught Bonnie and Clyde at a local Northampton second-run cinema soon after its initial release, successfully trusting that the cashier and staff wouldn’t notice – or, perhaps, care – that I was several years too young to be allowed into an X-certificate film.) But there was another reason my work was so rewarding. I hadn’t started reading S&S or the MFB regularly until around 1980, so the reviews and articles I was looking at for my research were all new to me, providing a fresh perspective on how those often innovative, sometimes controversial movies were received at the time. The writers – and there were many very fine contributors involved, including the likes of Tom Milne, Philip French, Jan Dawson and Jonathan Rosenbaum – were trying to make sense of the various changes in American filmmaking as they happened, and it’s fascinating to see them doing that from our own point in time, having seen the bubble burst and knowing what came afterwards. But it’s not just the critics’ opinions that are intriguing; it’s also the views expressed by the directors, writers and actors in the interviews, including Coppola in the immediate aftermath of the crossover hit that was The Godfather, Jack Nicholson on his rise from Corman juve lead to major star and occasional director, and a certain Terrence Malick, now famously reclusive but in this very rare outing both illuminating and surprising in his comments on Badlands.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

There are many ways one can look at the new Hollywood; it’s not just the directors who shaped its output, but the writers, producers, cinematographers, editors, composers and – who could forget, given those who first came to the fore during this period? – actors. (In one of my more fanciful moments, while considering how to structure the volumes, I did briefly wonder whether there might be any mileage in focusing somehow on the films of one or two actors, one of them perhaps inevitably being Jeff Bridges… but for very obvious reasons decided against it.) In the end I opted for a straightforward chronological approach; the first volume (1967-75) takes us from Bonnie and Clyde to Night Moves (by way of such landmarks as Easy Rider, Wanda, Five Easy Pieces, A New Leaf, Klute, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, Chinatown, the first two Godfather films and many more), while the second volume (1975-1980) will stretch from Nashville and Jaws to the aforementioned Heaven’s Gate. I can’t tell you yet which landmark titles will figure in that tome, as it’s still confidential. What I can tell you is how much I’m looking forward to researching which reviews and features to include. I have some good reading – and many happy memories – to look forward to.

Oh, one last thing, in case you were wondering: I get no royalties whatsoever from sales of these publications, so the above was not written to increase my income in any way. I just happen to like (and am quite proud of) the publication we put together.

Sight and Sound Presents The New Hollywood, Volume 1: 1967-1975 – From Bonnie and Clyde to Night Moves is now on sale for £9.95. 

Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson in Heaven’s Gate

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