A heads-up: Another lengthy spiel of my blahblahblah-ing over at the '70s blog, once again on the topic of film.. Started out as bit of a response (by way of elaboration) to Mark 'K-punk' Fisher's wildly unpopular piece in the Guardian from a few months ago.
My interest in the topic isn't with the emergence of filmmakers like Lucas (or Spielberg, et al), but rather with the backlash I talk about – the massive shift or reversal in critical and popular tastes. One could reduce this to a general preference for "escapism" in entertainment or whatever, but there's more to it in this context. That context being the film market of the first half of the 1970s, when "social relevance" was to be be expected with many films. And a good many movies of that period reflected – whether directly or indirectly – many of the shared phobias of the time – reflecting either the economic bottoming-out that was occurring at the time, urban decay and crime, or Watergate-era paranoia, and the like. Dark films, "downer" films. But despite all that, there were some areas that were still off-limits – certain things that people didn't want to be reminded of or confronted with, specific aspects of American society or recent history that many avoided examining. Vietnam being chiefly among those things. Still, the violence of Vietnam (and of the social turbulence it caused domestically) trickled down into the popular culture, manifesting itself in oblique ways.
And not just violence. The social malaise and various cognitive dissonances of the era filtered through in some form or another, as well. It's worth returning to the Pauline Kael piece I cited in the piece, which is worth quoting at length. Entitled "After Innocence," the article was a long-form review of the film 1973 The Last American Hero. In an early part of the essay, Kael wrote:
"The Vietnamization of American movies is nearly complete. ...The Vietnam War has barely been mentioned on the screen, but you could feel it in Bonnie and Clyde and Bullitt and Joe, in Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and The Last Picture Show, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Candidate and Carnal Knowledge and The French Connection and The Godfather. It was in good movies and bad, flops and hits, especially in hits – the convictionless atmosphere, the absence of shared values, the brutalities taken for granted, the glorification of loser-heroes. It was in the harshness of the attitudes, the abrasiveness that made you wince – until, after years of it, you stopped wincing. It had become normal."
Kael goes on at length discussing what she saw as a prevalence of cynicism and defeatism in American films of the time, saying a little later in the essay:
"Though it was exhilarating to see the old mock innocence cleared away, a depressive uncertainty has settled over the movies. They're seldom enjoyable at a simple level, and that might be one of the reasons older people no longer go,... Almost three-fourths (73 percent) of the movie audience is under twenty-nine; it's an audience of people who grew up on television and began going out to theaters when they became restless and started dating. ...But while they're going out to the movies, they want something different, and this demand – in the decade of Vietnam – has created a fertile chaos,...
"American movies didn't 'grow up'; they did a flip-over from their prolonged age of innocence to this age of corruption. When Vietnam finished off the American hero as righter of wrongs, the movie industry embraced corruption greedily; formula movies could be energized with an infusion of brutality, cynicism, and Naked Apism, which could all be explained by Vietnam and called realism.
"Outrage isn't the aim of our most violent films, outrage isn't expected. When movie after movie tells audiences that they should be against themselves, it's hardly surprising that people go out of theaters drained, numbly convinced that, with so much savagery and cruelty everywhere, nothing can be done. The movies have shown us the injustice of American actions throughout history, and if we have always been rotten, the effect is not to make us feel we have the power to change but, rather, to rub our noses in it and make us accept it. In this climate, Watergate seems the most natural thing that could happen. If one were to believe recent movies, it was never any different in this country: Vietnam and Watergate were not simply where we got to but where we always were."
Kael's remarks echo sentiments similar to those expressed by Lucas in the quotes I used for the piece; and they are, admittedly, representative of a good many films of the "New Hollywood" period in the early 1970s. And in some ways, I can see some basis for the critical backlash that I described in the piece, which I can remember from my early teens. I can imagine audiences fatiguing under the weight of heavy and increasingly "self-important" epics, or formulating – in light of Coppola and Cimino letting their projects spiral off-budget and out of control – that some of the culture's cinematic storytellers had succumb to hubris and over-indulgence. Or of longing for something else, something equally as epic in the way of "light" entertainment.
But judging by not only the scope but the intensity of the backlash, one has to wonder if there was more to it than just that. Especially in light of the points made by Kael. One wonders if the fate of Heaven's Gate wasn't more a matter of bad timing more than anything else. If objections to the film had as much to do with content more than anything else. It is, after all, a frontier tale involving xenophobia, class tensions and economic injustice, severe social Darwinism writ large and monied interests running roughshod over all things civic and humane, all of it culminating – in the film's final reels – cataclysmic brutality. And thus, contained some commentary on certain aspects of American history (if not on certain characteristics of the society as a whole) that were bound to meet with an unreceptive audience in 1980.*
Why? Because it's perhaps worth bearing in mind that the years of 1975-1977 saw the release of the three runaway blockbuster films that most played a part in reshaping the film industry and public taste – Jaws, Saturday Night Fever, and Star Wars. In the middle of that stretch, something else took place – the 1976 American Bicentennial. The occasion was of the Bicentennial proved to be one of reaffirmation – a collective rehabbing of political faith and patriotic sentiment in the wake of the cynicism and disillusionment wrought by Watergate. Add to this that Heaven's Gate came out in the year that a majority of American voters cast their lot with Ronald Reagan, embracing his rhetoric of "making America great again" and the like. As Lucas said in that one quote I included: What kids or people were missing – what they probably needed while not knowing they needed it – were fairy tales.
So: Cimino's Heaven's Gate – the sprawling four-hour, $44-million dollar epic whose massive failure at the box office, by most accepted accounts, marked the official end of the short-lived New Hollywood era. Aside from its taxing length and numerous flaws, the film perhaps is ultimately guilty of being out of step with changing public attitudes.
Case in point: What critically acclaimed films came out in 1976? Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President's Men. What overwhelmingly out-grossed them all and won Best Picture at the Oscars that year? Rocky.
* I'll admit that it was only recently I only got around to viewing Heaven's Gate. I avoided it for years. Partly because I was never all that amazed by The Deer Hunter; the other reason being that if I figured if there was anything to the initial criticism...well, am I gonna get that four hours of my life back? Verdict: I very flawed film in more ways than I care to count; masterfully executed in some parts, with its fair share of mishandled or wasted potential in various scenes and stretches. But taking the good with the bad, one has to admire the ambition. Falling quite short of the Overlooked and Unfairly Maligned Masterpiece that recent advocates have claimed, but utterly unlike the mess its original critics claimed. In fact, doubling back to read some of those original reviews, the descriptions often strike me as so wildly inaccurate that I, at times, find myself wondering: Dude, are we even talking about the same movie?