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Modernist Cinema 1963-1976

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This paper seeks to follow the development of the film industry from the period 1963 to 1976. This was a particularly significant time for America’s film industry due to the rapid change in culture. The period from 1963 signifies the end of innocence or an idealism cut short. The period from 1963 experienced a lot of bloodbath and persecution. The violence was mainly fueled by political reasons and has, therefore, become appealing for filmmakers. Some of the popular persecutions that were created to movies include assassination of President John. F. Kennedy, Malcom X, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The battle in Vietnam, Texas tower and Kent state, are also popular film ideas from this period.

The period from 1963 to 1976 was different from the post-classical period. People had different ideas and political views. For instance, people who were somewhat apathetic towards the Korean War before, were now enraged over the Vietnam War, with its televised violence, public protests. During this period, Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964; Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers began fighting racism in confrontational, even militant ways. There was a sudden increase in the number of petitioners for gay rights and feminism. Furthermore, the movies from the modernist era had an explosively confrontational surface. These movies did not shy away from exposing sexuality and nudity. Because so many films from this era are so daring and so different, it is a moment that many either look back on fondly, or try to duplicate in the present, or both. Quentin Tarantino, for example, loves the exploitation films and European art cinema of this era and often makes reference to them in his films. Steven Soderbergh also enjoys paying homage to this era in his films: Traffic, The Limey and Solaris.

Films and film culture were tremendously exciting during the modernist era. People used to keenly read movie reviews and criticisms so keenly that film critic Joe Morgenstern once had to write two reviews about ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. This movie particularly symbolizes the era: it is sexually frank (part of the plot involves Clyde's impotence), violent (the slow-motion shoot-out at the end was so graphic that many saw it as a direct reference to Vietnam), and it celebrates youth (the line on the poster was "They are young, they are in love, and they kill people".

Such types of movies gave the youth some recognition and importance in Hollywood. The expensive post-classical movies were beginning to fail in Hollywood. They seemed old-fashioned and Hollywood started hiring new, youthful directors, and movie stars to make movies. The young directors embrace a culture of making cheap, confrontational and violent films. Some films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, MASH, and Easy Rider made vast amounts of money. However, some other cheap films of this era were cheap rip-offs just meant for drive-in shows. Such movies were referred to as ‘exploitation films’.

The counterculture started developing in the modernist era at the campus of UC-Berkeley, in Northern California (just across the bay from San Francisco). The culture involves challenging authority, experimentation, freedoms, etc., it quickly spread throughout the country. For instance, Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard Psychology professor, began to lecture about the positive effects of taking LSD. However, there is a sense in which what pervades the culture is not so much this behavior itself as it is our public awareness of it. This truly delightful time of freedom in the culture does not last. For many people, this counterculture and the hippies who populated it were just too weird.

The modernist era increased people’s awareness and they realized that they were living in a media society. People began to become aware of the role of advertising in shaping their lives. Another respected professor, Marshall McLuhan, came up with the phrase "The medium is the message", suggesting that we spend too much time thinking about the message presented by whatever medium we have on (the radio, the TV, film, newspapers), and not enough time thinking about the ways in which those media structure our lives. The fact that people are now aware of themselves as living in a media society means that they are far more likely to look at movies in a different way. The directors who make those films are themselves making films in a different way.

In the 1950s, a bunch of young film critics, writing for a new film journal called Cahiers du Cinema, wrote about their favorite films. Surprisingly, many of their favorite films were American films made in the Hollywood system. They loved the movies of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks in particular. What the critics admired about these films was that they held on to their individuality despite being made for Hollywood studios and that you could still tell who had directed them despite the high level of studio control. For instance, you could look at the style and tell a Ford film from a Hitchcock from a Hawks. Critics began referring to the ever-controlling and inflexible directors as Metteurs-en-scene" (those who merely place or arrange things within the scene) and the latter as Auteurs ("authors"), who used the camera as a pen ("camera stylo") just as any eminent literary figure would use their own.

The Auteurs had a disdain for the types of movies they felt they were being told to like at this time. Such films were dull adaptations of literature, too beholden to the original writer, or the screenplay being used -- too often were films being forced to follow such artificial conceptions of value, of quality. These writers felt that this tendency was slowing down the progress of cinema as an important art in its own right; they felt that this emphasis on the written word was making people see cinema as nothing more than a "stepchild" of literature.

Auteurs like Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol all went on to become acclaimed and influential film directors by the late 1950s. Their films were collectively known as the Novelle Vague, or the French New Wave. Their filmmaking style was determined by their desire to cement the concepts of the Auteur theory, and the films were designed to show off the style of the director making them. Later in the 1960s, this idea was popularized in America by the critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris wrote reviews in the ‘Village Voice’ and went on to publish a book called ‘The American Cinema’, in which he compiled a massive list of the most distinguished American directors, listed their key movies, etc. Effectively, this book was a canon. The canon is essentially a book of rules and ideas that have to be learnt by anyone aspiring to be acknowledged in the film industry. This effect applies both to older movies and contemporary cinema. This means we should both go back and appreciate our best movies as valuable works of art worthy of study, while also keeping abreast with developments in the latest movies.

Now that television is the mass medium families enjoy together, film can now reach the level of High Art, High Culture, etc. More and more universities are adding cinema classes to their curriculum. This concept of the "Auteur" seems to have helped raise cinema to the level of literature (as opposed to forever remaining in the shadow of literature).

            Hollywood increasingly turns to new, young directors during the modernist era. Many of these young directors are Americans influenced by exciting European trends. More and more young people are studying cinema and rebelling against traditions. Gradually interest is generated in the figure of the director himself. These directors and their filmmaking styles become so distinctive, so noticeable, so acclaimed, that you can literally promote a movie around their names. For instance, the only real "star" in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, is its director, Stanley Kubrick. Many of these directors felt like members of the counterculture, rather than the traditional Hollywood establishment. As a result, these directors got even more power to make bigger films as Hollywood sought to combine their youthful, countercultural appeal with extensive populist material that everyone could enjoy.

The changeover to the modernist era also saw the appearance of a new breed of stars. These are actors who are enormously talented, but not as conventionally good-looking as earlier counterparts. This is an era when people like Dustin Hoffman, Peter Sellars, Elliott Gould and Gene Hackman can be major movie stars. For many the appeal of these men was that "they looked just like us". They could be ethnic; they did not have to be tall and gorgeous.

Exploitation movies got their big break in the late modernist era. These are movies made outside the Hollywood system. They are of lower quality according to Hollywood standards, and depend on violence, sexuality or controversial material to attract audiences. Poor casting and shooting of movies plagued the Hollywood movie industry for a while. Their so-called high quality standard movies were monotonously made by new, young directors who had seen lots of European art films. The audiences started to appreciate the cheaper exploitation films more than Holly wood films. Television later came and changed the scene. Audiences are no longer interested in films thus forcing directors and actors to turn to other forms of production. 

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