Book Review
By Ray Young




The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!
American Films of the 1970’s

A new book by Ron Hogan

Featuring a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich

272 pages, illustrated; Bulfinch Press, hardcover, $27.95


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    For well over a decade now, a new generation of movie reviewers (the ones born after 1960) often look back on the 1970’s as the last gilded era of American cinema, but only those who lived the moment know the truth. A lot more people were flocking to see Aloha, Bobby and Rose than 3 Women or The King of Marvin Gardens. And next to every creative tour de force, for every Taxi Driver or Chinatown or Five Easy Pieces, there were billowing heaps of trash: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Once is Not Enough, The Baby Blue Marine, Macon County Line, and their seemingly endless clones…to say nothing of the glut of Airport copycats, the moneymaking tripe that’s been Hollywood’s bread and butter since Day One.
    Outside of a small circle of critics who pointed to the bursts of greatness as they occurred, inventive films generally sailed over the heads of the middlebrows hacking out reviews for daily newspapers and the mainstream press, providing the less liberal-minded masses further justification to stay at home in front of the TV. And as one who went to the movies regularly three or four times a week (when double features were de rigueur and ticket prices fell under five dollars), it was blatantly obvious to me then that the bad movies outnumbered the good ones ten to one.
    But in light of what went down afterward, the ‘70s were the last time when a mix of aesthetic, emotional and intellectual wisdom and innovation motivated studio heads to green light otherwise esoteric scripts and introspective subject matter. Although the high profile exploitation of Jaws and The Exorcist came before it, 1977’s Star Wars was a turning point that effectively put the kibosh on anything elevated above a ninth-grade reading level. Seemingly overnight, eye candy, fortune cookie philosophy and infantile gags took the place of mature emotional conflict and complicated human concerns. The suffocation was palpable and the damage irreparable. (For one thing, intellectual satire was driven to near extinction.) Over the ensuing ten years, once-stimulated and adventurous minds—Francis Coppola to Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson to Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich to Martin Scorsese—were exiled into small, dark holes.

Above: Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Roman Polanski and Roy Jensen between takes on Chinatown
    Racing at breakneck speed in his book The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!, author Ron Hogan scans over “American films of the 1970s” with swift efficiency in lieu of critical objectivity. Its catchy title derived from a scene common enough in ‘70s disaster flicks—brow furrowed and teeth grit, Karen Black graces the cover—the heavily pictorial work is chiefly concerned with its own breathless momentum. As he avoids critiquing the subtext, mise-en-scène and metaphysical ramifications of the decade’s cerebral films, Hogan bypasses the inquiring styles of Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and Manny Farber, whose ripened criticisms were an integral part of the movement. More than once I felt that the stewardess had written the book.
    When it covers any given film, titles and directors blur into one another. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s unique and bitter indictment of corporate dehumanization, is flattened by the author’s preoccupation with slight, miscellaneous plot detail. In homogenizing the picture to assembly-line status, Hogan inadvertently implies that it’s indistinguishable from other ‘70s science fiction—except Star Wars, which is regarded here with syrupy, dutiful reverence. (His target audience would undoubtedly draw a blank on Alec Guinness existing outside of Obi-Wan Kenobi.) A two-word summation of Peter Bogdanovich’s erratic misfire, They All Laughed, as “solidly crafted” (!) begs for explanation. That troubled film, though, may be beyond reproach: Bogdanovich allowed Hogan a brief Q&A session which, in a transparent display of kowtowing, prefaces the book’s preface.
    The somewhat fuzzy introduction cautiously approaches the “new Hollywood” of the ‘70s as a contradiction of terms, innovation pitted against convention, and sways to the latter when arranging chapter by genre. A paragraph about Chinatown (filed under “thrillers”), finds the author remembering Roman Polanski’s and Robert Towne’s masterpiece for John Huston’s character’s wheezed belief, “most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” Yes, it’s a good line, albeit an obvious and convenient one. Earlier in the film, though, Huston summed up the dark inevitability haunting the picture with cynical grace, irony, and veiled complexity which may have flown under Hogan’s radar: “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all become respectable if they stick around long enough.”
    There are gaffes (a photo from The Eyes of Laura Mars is in with sports movies; a caption under an image from The Last House on the Left points to actor Michael Berryman, who’s not in the shot) matched by wishful thinking (is Harold and Maude truly Hal Ashby’s “most recognized work”?) and simpleminded notions about quality and mass appeal. Huston’s brilliant Fat City is relegated to being a mere “boxing picture” dwarfed by praise for Rocky, an example of how box office grosses occupy this mentality. Titled ‘That’s Entertainment,’ an anemic appraisal of what remained of the musical (Americathon, Tommy, Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon) omits That’s Entertainment itself, a box office champ but a stinging reminder that nostalgia was ‘in’ and neighborhood theatres didn’t think twice about perking up attendance with revivals of the Marx Brothers, Bogart or the original King Kong.
    A tease of provocative writing comes toward the end, when photo editor Manoah Bowman discusses the trials and tribulations of collecting the book’s images. As movie studios cut corners in the ‘70s, publicity stills went from high quality large-format negatives to the lesser realm of 35mm photography. As the colors have faded at record speed, it would’ve been a pleasure to read more of Bowman’s insights on image preservation and restoration. But that would’ve invited depth, a no-no to Hogan, who professes that “Star Wars is easily the most common reason anyone rents Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress,” a film which “works so well because [George] Lucas knew exactly what to lift from other films to hit the audience’s emotional buttons.” Outside of the superficial and cosmetic, his is a mindset that shows little regard for the creative process, a glib indifference toward plagiarism, and a reminder of why I’ve felt so little joy in going to the movies for too many years.

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