Film Review
By Ray Young


Francis Coppola filming Apocalypse Now


A Decade Under the Influence

A film by Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme

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    A dizzying glance at an intriguing epoch, A Decade Under the Influence (2003) possesses a sycophantic spirit. Armed with dozens of interviews and film clips, directors Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme adore their subject — “the 70’s films that changed everything,” according to the picture’s tag line — and run the risk of sacrificing their objectivity. But to be perfectly honest, who cares? Originally a three-part mini-series broadcast on the Independent Film Channel, running a total of 180 minutes, we’d be entranced even if it were triple that length.
    It opens with the chestnut about the demise of the studio system, a mid-century passing of the baton when the moguls (Darryl Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, etc.) retired and sold their interests to lawyers and accountants. Television and a collective urge away from outmoded values ultimately killed the dynasty of old Hollywood, and it went down in gaudy, graceless denial. LaGravenese and Demme disinter footage taken at the ‘star studded’ premiere of Hello, Dolly! (1969), where celebrities well into their golden years whoop it up for an astonishingly archaic, white elephant of a picture.
    “The film business was a decadent, decaying, empty whorehouse, and it had to be assaulted,” reflects Paul Schrader, one of the documentary’s jubilant interviewees. Like many of his contemporaries who either worked in television during the 50’s, or spent perhaps too much of their adolescence going to the movies, Schrader embraced the impending upheaval. “You had that student-film mentality: let’s pick up the banner of Godard and walk in there and take over!”
    They had a ready-made audience, supportive of foreign films and apprehensive of the conventional (re: ‘establishment’) thinking that threatened to hitch the 60’s to the conformity of the 50’s. “It was an audience that had been politicized by Vietnam and Watergate, whose consciousness had been changed with drugs,” explains Julie Christie. “It was an open audience.”
    Heady films for heady viewers. Approaching the terrain skewed earlier by Peter Biskind in his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), A Decade Under the Influence recognizes the groundbreaking advance of adult themes in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the progression of John Cassavetes’s improvisational experiments, as American drama became visibly affected by the naturalism of postwar European cinema. The writers, actors and directors who’d be influenced the most were then working at the opposite end of the spectrum, honing their craft in low budget exploitation pictures. Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, and Bruce Dern (here providing a killer Jack Nicholson impression) have no shortage of stories about “Roger Corman’s guerilla university of filmmaking,” as it’s affectionately referred to by Peter Bogdanovich, churning out movies remembered chiefly for their meager budgets and impossibly tight shooting schedules than any aesthetic or socially redeeming values.
    As members of what once was labeled “The new American cinema,” this far-from-beat generation have remained enthusiastic about the art and, for the most part, reverent of those who came before them. When asked to name their influences, Bogdanovich replies, “There was Renoir, and” — sweeping his hand to divide rank — “then there was everybody else.” Robert Altman, conversely, uses his own distinct approach: “The filmmakers who influenced me the most, I don’t know their names. Because I would go see a film, hate it, and say ‘I’ve got to remember never to do anything like that again!’”
    Young, bursting with ideas, and inexpensive to hire, they were a persuasive lot who finagled a degree of autonomy from broadminded backers and distributors. One important factor that allowed their films a liberal handling of sexuality and vulgar language was the MPAA ratings system, which had been initiated in 1968. Unless we were distracted by all that was going on, A Decade Under the Influence overlooks this milestone entirely.
    Without it, no distributor would’ve touched The Last Picture Show (1971) for its nudity, or Deliverance (1972) for its homosexual rape. Without the ‘R’ rating, M*A*S*H* (1970) and The Exorcist (1973) would probably never have been made. And Robert Towne would not have had the dispute he relates here, an amusing quandary with producers over how many times he should use the word ‘motherfucker’ in his script for The Last Detail (1973).
    The liberation and creativity under the ratings system enticed Francis Coppola and Sidney Lumet to expand the parameters of drama, and enabled Altman, Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson to subvert traditional forms. “The director was trump,” says producer John Calley. Studios and financiers and directors, William Friedkin declares, “were all on the same page.” This is not to say that mindless, studio-controlled movies evaporated entirely — it was, after all, the decade of the ‘disaster’ picture. But for approximately seven years, beginning around the time of Easy Rider (1969) and lasting through Network (1976), an environment existed where, to borrow from Sissy Spacek, “the artist ruled,” and generated a branch of cinema that turned the glamour of old Hollywood inside-out.
    But the artist ruled for only so long. Metaphysic, satiric, introspective and nose-thumbing, films like Hi, Mom! (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and Chinatown (1974) could also be intellectually and emotionally draining. Money, power, and excess would soon sour the reputations of ‘superstar’ directors: Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) all fell victim to reports of ridiculously excessive budgets and unrestrained egos behind the camera. By the time they hit theatres, there wasn’t damage control enough to woo a paying audience.
    After the remarkable popularity of The Exorcist, escapism became the seminal buzzword, and by the time A Decade Under the Influence reaches Jaws (1975), we see the dawn of yet another new Hollywood. Here the documentary virtually palls in tone and spirit: is that grief in the voices and faces of Monte Hellman, Julie Christie, and Francis Coppola? Or merely our take on a distressing situation that’s yet to reverse itself? For almost overnight, mature themes and characters were tossed out like so many unwanted ideas, and American cinema experienced a candy-coated epiphany. Jaws isn’t a bad movie — time may reveal it to be the best thing Steven Spielberg’s ever done — but it opened the door for artlessly pretentious, epic bubblegum. With Star Wars (1977), a picture devised at the lowest rung of Hollywood’s food chain (the vacuous Saturday matinee serial gussied up as celebratory event), the crossover to superficiality was clear, the arrival of the producer as auteur. Which, in turn, shifted the concerns of the media and public from art to capital: budgets, merchandising, opening weekend, franchises, and the double-entendre of ‘back end’ deals.
    Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme close at this point. Where else can you go? Coppola, Bogdanovich, Towne, Scorsese and Friedkin wandered out of the 70’s as if nursing a hangover. Altman dipped into obscure filmed stage plays, Clint Eastwood found his voice as an artist, and Sidney Pollack abided by the rules and earned a fortune. Ellen Burstyn sank below radar, and Dennis Hopper entertained with anger issues (re: Blue Velvet) and yarns about drug abuse. A who’s who in a depressing chapter for a future volume of Hollywood Babylon we hope will never be written.
    A Decade Under the Influence neglects some areas — the arresting psychological fringe of the early Henry Jaglom films and Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart (1969); the controlled violent horror of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) — and gives short shrift to the rise and commercial viability of 70’s black cinema. (Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles go unmentioned, while a brief inclusion of Pam Grier concentrates on her “hooties in the jungle” exploitation movies for Roger Corman.) Though these omissions are not minor quibbles, LaGravenese and Demme shouldn’t be faulted for shortsightedness. (At the end, they apologize for any exclusions.) It was a long, arduous decade, and the uneasy alliance of high- and lowbrow films is too vast a subject for any one documentary. A Decade Under the Influence is miraculous for covering as much ground as it does.