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In 1943 the world was on fire. The campus, too, burned with change — while a little booklet taught students the genteel manners of courtship.
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40 years of violence and revolution
February 12, 2008
The onset of this new year triggered reflections on my earliest initiation into film criticism. Forty years ago, in 1968, I began my doctoral dissertation research on the newly-retired New York Times motion picture critic, Bosley Crowther. Crowther had written reviews for the Times from 1940-1967. His tenure was notable for its unwavering social perusal of the medium. That unique aspect of our first full-term journalistic film critic had caught my attention.
A principal tenet of Crowther's critical stance was that film is a photographic medium and hence an inherently realistic one with unusual powers for persuasive communication.
The early years of Crowther's career coincided with World War II, an event which led to a keen interest in the way Hollywood and documentarists dealt with war topics. So intent was he on screen accuracy that Crowther once visited naval operations to check up on how well movie treatments matched up with the real thing. From beginning to end he remained cinema's social watchdog.
In 1967 Crowther deemed "Bonnie and Clyde" a socially suspect film. In his interpretation the theme of the film seemed to lay blame for the Barrow gang's outlawish behavior on failed government policies during America's depression years. The film had come out in a time when the country was becoming deeply divided over Vietnam, with volatile activist attacks against government officials and policy. Crowther's criticism of "Bonnie and Clyde" infuriated the film's many fans and led to charges that he was out of touch with the times. He retired at the end of 1967. (My dissertation, completed in 1970, was titled Bosley Crowther: Social Critic of the Motion Picture.)
In my own career as a film reviewer I've never felt compelled to become the social critic that Crowther was. And yet I'm sure that his writings about the motion picture's larger implications had an influence on mine.
When I began in 1971 as a film critic for the University of Michigan's public radio stations, it was an era when movies were undergoing a startling, dramatic and socio-political transformation. After "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" in 1967 there appeared a string of films designed to appeal to younger audiences, especially college age youths who had begun embracing the medium as their own – in attendance, in emerging film schools, and in a search for shared cultural identity and community.
From Hollywood came picture after picture with themes that conveyed disillusioned and cynical views of the country: "Easy Rider," "Cool Hand Luke," "Alice's Restaurant," "Joe," "Five Easy Pieces," "The Strawberry Statement," "WUSA." For me, the most explicit statement of a counter-cultural position in these films occurred in "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) in a line spoken by Bobby Dupee (Jack Nicholson). Dupee is a moody, angry character who has rejected his auspicious beginnings in a family of well-to-do musicians for life as an oil rigger. When a fellow worker expresses dismay at his buddy's disavowal of his past, Dupee responds, "Keep on telling me about the good life, because it makes me puke."
Emerging simultaneously with the counter-culture movement, was an onslaught of extremely violent, often insensate films with heroes who employed guns in the resolution of personal and societal dilemmas. On the heels of "Bonnie and Clyde" came "Straw Dogs," "The Wild Bunch," The Dirty Harry films and similarly-styled law and order variations: "Billy Jack," "Death Wish," "Walking Tall." Champion of all was "The Godfather" (1972), a landmark of violence in which the Mafia patriarch's son, Michael, asks "Where does it say that you can't kill a cop?"
The revolution in content in the late 60s and early 70s was matched by revolutionary innovations in cinematic technique: narrative discontinuity, jump-cut editing, handheld camera, subjective imaging, pastiche multi-genre music tracks. For a young critic, teaching and living in the film-oriented community of Ann Arbor, it was a challenging and invigorating opportunity.
And then, in 1976, a year beyond Vietnam, the movies began to ease back to displaced escapist entertainment stories: action heroics ("Rocky," 1976); special effects heroics ("Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1977); upbeat family domestic dramas ("Breaking Away," 1979). More films with women characters, more adult romances, more cartoon features.
And so it remains. A New York Times year-end report on the movies of 2007 noted that nine of the top ten films of the year — all escapist fare — were either science fiction, fantasy or animation, and many of these were sequels, e.g. "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek The Third." I see this as a continuing trend that began in the late 60s and solidified itself in the post-Vietnam 70s and 80s: to a significant extent, motion pictures are still being made for the young, and these films are registering success at the box office.
The other trend that took hold in the late 60s and which continued noticeably into 2007 was the appeal of scripts dominated by violence: "Eastern Promises," "American Gangster," "No Country for Old Men," "Sweeney Todd," and "There Will Be Blood," to cite a few.
Ironically, however, these movies are now aimed not at youth but at a thoughtful, adult audience. Apparently Baby Boomers still have a taste for cynicism and violence, despite (or maybe because of) their famous idealism.
The amount of blood and gore in these films still manages to startle me in spite of decades of exposure to violence on the screen. And, like "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967, these are all well-made, engaging explorations of the dark side of our humanity, directed by some of the movies' most renowned artists — David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson. Embraced by adult filmgoers and critics alike these are among 2007's very best.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.