The undercurrent that should have proven most troubling to would-be optimists, though, was the rebirth of the traditional Hollywood blockbuster. The tentpole genre looked like it had taken a turn for the worse after such top grossers as Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (1965) gave way to brash, moneymaking newcomers like Mike Nichols’s The Graduate or an epic masterpiece like Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, Part I (1972). Even William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), despite its pulpy origins, demonstrated the triumph of artistic inspiration over generic conventions.
But The Exorcist also foreshadowed diabolical and disastrous developments. Literally disastrous: disaster movies were the latest rage, ranging from the campily sublime Poseidon Adventure (1972) to the merely camp Airport (1970) and its subsequent franchise. They reflected, however crudely, in ways more subtle auteur works could not, the growing anxiety and impotence of the pre- and post-Watergate era, a time of betrayal followed by the feckless age of Ford, Carter, oil embargos, mutton-chop sideburns, and wide ties.
It took Jaws (1975), however, to make people afraid to go into the water. Not just audiences terrified of the giant shark, which in the poster looks like a fusion of a devouring penis and a vagina dentata, but studio green-lighters began to fear the deep waters of arty movies, preferring the sure profit of “high concept.” That being, in Steven Spielberg’s infamous dictum, the belief that any successful movie could be explained in 25 words or less.
Words like “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Which is only 10, leaving space for other words, like “the Dark Side.” Some would argue that was where the movies headed after George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) made, for a while at least, all other kinds of moviemaking superfluous.
Meanwhile, not that it mattered, the auteurs of the new Hollywood were doing a fine job on their own of pissing away their gains. After the critical and commercial triumphs of the Godfathers and the small masterpiece of The Conversation (1974), Francis Coppola ended up losing his way in the jungle of Apocalypse Now (1979), which he is at this moment probably still revising into another “Re-redux” version. Making the studios a fortune with M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman kept his integrity and managed to squeeze out some classics like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville before they squashed him. (He would return with a vengeance, hilariously parodying the kind of people who did him in, in 1992 with The Player.) Scorsese held on despite the dope and megalomania, reaching Oscar-nominated heights with Taxi Driver in 1976 (losing to Rocky) and Raging Bull in 1980 (losing to Ordinary People), but the new decade would not prove to be his best. But the coup de grâce came from a latecomer in the genius game. Michael Cimino, vastly overpraised for his The Deer Hunter (1979), believed in his own divinity and made nonnegotiable “creative” demands that bankrupted Orion studio and ended the brief but glorious reign of the director in Hollywood.
Life on the Dark Side
Or so it seemed. High concept prevailed, of course, along with all the simple-minded pieties, ruthless politics, shameless profiteering, and anti-intellectualism of the Reagan era. But some geniuses survived the machine, even flourished. Others, seemingly moribund, would revive.
For example, Star Wars may have blighted creativity in the industry in general, but it also revived the science-fiction genre, traditionally a window into the cultural unconscious exploited by enterprising directors and occasionally shaped into works of lasting significance.