Essay by Greg Ng
Senses of Cinema
The 1970s in Hollywood were a fertile time. The emergence of the director, as a legitimate artist in his or her own right, shifted focus from the studios, which by the ’60s had grown formulaic and unadventurous in their output, to a new generation of writers and directors, whose concerns and experience were markedly different from the conservative voice of the movie industry at that point.
Due in part to falling profits and the rise of television, a vacuum arose in the industry that opened the door for fresh ideas. Hollywood was redirected and, as a result, American cinema entered a new age – an age when box-office success did not necessarily preclude sophisticated content in a movie, an age when political discourse was not relegated to non-existence or tokenism, or a niche-market. The period between 1969 and the beginning of the 1980s saw American cinema, inspired as it was by international filmmaking (such as the French New Wave), offering critical, ambiguous and highly artful movies.
At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, by enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art. The filmmakers of the ’70s hoped to overthrow the studio system, or at least render it irrelevant, by democratising filmmaking, putting it in the hands of anyone with talent and determination. (1)
However, as the decade passed, the promise of real change receded; the status quo prevailed. As Peter Biskind puts it, in his book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,
although the decade of the 70s contains shining monuments to its great directors, the cultural revolution of that decade, like the political revolution of the 60s, ultimately failed. (2)
Robin Wood, in Hollywood: from Vietnam to Reagan, argues that the Vietnam War, among other things, focussed Western society’s dissenting voices, simultaneously discrediting ‘the system’ and emboldening the dissenters. However, like Biskind, Wood acknowledges “this generalized crisis in ideological confidence never issued in revolution. No coherent social/economic program emerged.” (3)
Commercial imperatives once more came to play their part in shaping the output of the industry, as previously fêted directors suffered box office losses and investment money turned to more secure propositions. Thus, a central tenet of political economy – i.e., the inherent censorship of the mass market – prevailed. Ironically, one of the films that stands as a testament to ’70s Hollywood’s freedom and ambition, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), depicts precisely this phenomenon.
Network is an example of a hugely successful and critically acclaimed feature film that offers a critique of television, ideology, radical chic and the consequences of American-led post-war capitalism, whilst being funny – no mean feat, and something only barely achieved in the current day by the likes of Michael Moore, et al.
Lumet’s direction and Paddy Chayefsky’s script lambaste the ills of the modern world (couched within the fast-paced soliloquies delivered by the stellar cast of Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and William Holden) and are oft times prescient, predicting the rise of ‘reality television’, and the subsequent decline of both production and social values.
One of the central themes of Network – the decay of society and of love, concurrent with a plunge in standards and morality of the audience, which represents the world (in keeping with the mindset of both the film and its characters) – proves salutary in explaining what happened to Hollywood after the ’70s. Just as the collapse of the old studio system in the ’60s was precipitated by a change in demography and values, so too has a drift toward social conservatism and the continuing project of marketising everything affected our age.
When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the ageing news anchor for Union Broadcasting System, is fired due to poor ratings, he announces to his friend and network executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he intends to “blow my brains out, right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o’clock news” (4).
Schumacher replies, “You’ll get a hell of a rating. I’ll guarantee you that. 50 share, easy.” He facetiously begins to run with the idea: “We could make a series out of it. ‘Suicide of the Week.’ Oh, hell, why limit ourselves: ‘Execution of the week.’”