So I’d gone over to my cousin’s house to see his new puppy and, as he and I are often wont to do, we got to talking about movies and TV and the like. The conversation drifted around to movies we liked but our kids didn’t.
“I have Blazing Saddles (1974),” he said, nodding at his rack of DVDs. “I don’t show it to the kids.”
I thought of the movie’s fart jokes, gay jokes, horny jokes, race jokes. “Too vulgar?”
He shook his head. “It’s because I don’t think they’ll get it.”
It took me a second, but then I got what he meant, realizing how much of the movie’s humor was built on lampooning clichés entrenched by forty years of Westerns.
Like when Cleavon Little tries to stop his deserting townspeople with the plea, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott!” to which they react as if he’d called on some divine being. It’s funny…if you know who Randolph Scott was.
Or the constant digs at Harvey Korman’s character’s name — Hedley Lamarr – because it was so close to Hedy Lamarr which is funny…if you know who Hedy Lamarr was.
Hell, when Slim Pickens shows up on screen, just him being there is funny because he was such an authentic Western movie icon going back a quarter of a century.
Or stealing a classic line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) for a punchline: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” That’s funny, too…if you know Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
It occurred to both my cousin and me that what was true of Blazing Saddles was also at least partly true for Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles follow-up, Young Frankenstein (1974). When the movie had been in theaters, we’d laughed ourselves silly just looking at the goofy, sparks-tossing machinery in Gene Wilder’s monster-making lab because we recognized all those gizmos as being the real deal from Universal’s Frankenstein movies of the 1930s and 1940s. We recognized them because we’d seen them a hundred times, watching those oldies on horror movie slots on our local channels all through our growing up.
We started ticking off other flicks the younger set might not get. Like Woody Allen’s Casablanca-inspired Play It Again, Sam (1972 – the script shrewdly incorporates the finale of the original 1942 Casablanca into the movie so the audience doesn’t miss the shot-for-shot mimicking during its own climax, but how many people under 25 that you know – who are not cinephiles – have ever seen a Humphrey Bogart movie? Who even know who Humphrey Bogart was?). Or the deliciously silly Airplane! (1980) whose comic riffs are built on 30 years of over-wrought B-movie melodrama. Or the epic slapstick comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) jam-packed with (then) comedy icons, few of which – if any — I’m guessing would be familiar to the average Gen X-er.
Talking about this with my cousin crystallized for me a sense I’ve had writing here at Sound on Sight for some time. It usually comes to me like this:
Je-SUS, Bill, you’re old!
It has occasionally been pointed out to me here – with respect and usually obliquely, I should say – that I sometimes come off like one of those old guys on a porch with a hose shouting, “Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!” I paraphrase, but that’s the gist. It is not an unfair comment. Based on the few SOS contributors I’ve come to know, it’s my estimate that I’m old enough to be the father of every other staffer on the sight…and not a young dad, either.
I do worry about being trapped by the sensibilities of my generation. It’s a weakness in this kind of writing, it eats away at your credibility: “Well, of course he likes that stuff! He’s old!” I not only worry about it; I consider the possibility it’s true.
Look, tastes change, sensibilities change, I know that. It was a big deal sixty-odd years ago when Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara he didn’t give a damn. “Oooooh, did you hear what he said? Now I have to go to confession!” Today, I don’t think you’d get more than a giggle if Rhett told Scarlett to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut.
I don’t want to be closed-minded, I don’t want to be out of step. I like the exchange of views we have here, but it bothers me if I’m read with an unspoken caveat, “Oh, well, yeah, he’s that old guy.” Worse, I would understand it.
But you know something? The numbers seems to be on my side.
When I was doing the research for Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema in the early oughts, there was a recurring pattern whenever I came across a list or scoured collections of notable movies both in the thriller genre or out. One of the first lists of Best Thrillers I came across was the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Thrills” list which, at the time, only ran up to 1999, and which didn’t’ really cover 100 years, it’s oldest title being Harold Lloyd’s 1923 comedy, Safety Last. But what jumped out at me immediately was that no other decade produced more memorable thrillers – at least according to the AFI – than the 1960s and 1970s. With 21 each, they had one-third more titles than the next highest decades, and combined took up the lion’s share of the list.
That same bulge in the time line showed up in AFI’s “100 Greatest American Movies of All Time” list, and on the National Society of Film Critics’ “The A List: 100 Essential Films” as well. Even the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, compiled by the National Film Preservation Board, showed a clear spike in memorable films when it came to those same two decades.
Once you read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-and-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, that 60s/70s spike begins to make sense. Biskind lays out a – to overuse an already overused cliché – perfect storm of circumstances which created an incredibly creative period in commercial mainstream cinema: financially desperate studios who, in their desperation gambled on risk-taking production executives who opened the studio gates (and wallets) to a stream of artistically ambitious filmmakers.
None of which would’ve amounted to much if not for the last, possibly most critical ingredient, and one that often gets overlooked in nostalgic pieces about the period: a cinema literate mass audience just as adventurous in their movie-going as directors and production execs were in their moviemaking.
It was a never-to-be-repeated alignment of circumstances ideal for cultivating a creative free-for-all in commercial filmmaking. Such an alignment has not occurred since, and I doubt it ever will again.
A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly provided me with some fresh data which suggests it’s not just me; that maybe they really did make better movies back in The Day.
Back in July, EW published its “The 100 All-Time Greatest” issue which included Top 100 lists not only for movies but TV, books, music, and theater (actually, the stage category only got a Top 50 which probably says something about the diminished role of theater on today’s pop culture scene).
According to managing editor Jess Cagle, the thinking behind selection for the lists was as follows:
“It was a lot of work – a lot of listening to EW’s critics, a lot of weighing in by equally passionate writers and editors from each section, a lot of debating, and, in the end, a lot of…consensus…(EW editor) Jeff (Giles) decreed early on that we would not react to other lists. We would decide what was best, without worrying whether it adhered to or violated conventional wisdom…We’ve also tried to honor contemporary work that will endure for centuries to come alongside the classics. We’ve tried to take into account each work’s cultural impact and influence…”
In every category but movies, there were strong numbers for recent decades. But the decade-by-decade score for films ran like this:
Even allowing for the fact that there were probably very few 25-year-olds on EW’s staff weighing in, and that any one of us – myself included – would probably react with a “You gotta be kidding me” to some of the individual selections, that 1970s number bulges out like a goat in a boa constrictor’s belly. And then when you start comparing it – as I did on Overkill – with lists and selections from other sources, well, that’s what journalists like to call, “corroboration.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are movies being made today every bit as good as five decades ago. My point is they’re harder to get made then they were five decades ago…and a hell of a lot harder to get seen.
If I set you to the challenge, I’m sure you could find a flick made in recent years as on-target about today’s disaffected youth as The Graduate was back in 1967, or some black comic skewering of a topical subject as sharp and on-target as M*A*S*H was in 1970, or a family drama as affecting as Kramer vs Kramer (1979), a political revelation as disturbing as All the President’s Men (1976), or a non-linear head trip as baffling as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
But where you probably won’t find it is topping the box office charts. The Graduate was not only the big hit of 1967; it was the fourth biggest grosser of the 1960s. M*A*S*H was #7, 2001 was #16. Kramer vs Kramer and All the President’s Men were both in the top 54 titles of the 1970s along with movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), both Godfathers 1 & 2 (1972, 1974), American Graffiti (1973), Alien (1979), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Not far behind were The French Connection (1971), The China Syndrome (1979), Ordinary People (1980), Deliverance (1972), Papillon (1973), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Yeah, there’s a lot of crap on those top grossers lists, too, but take a look at some of the flicks mentioned above and try to remember the last time a major studio rolled out something like it as one of its big releases of the year and hit the box office jackpot with it.
Even among moviemakers, those years are still a benchmark. Go back and read what people were writing about Narc (2002) and you’ll see people calling it a welcome throwback to the gritty cop thrillers of the 1970s. Find comments from director Jonathan Demme about his remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and you’ll find him talking about wanting to get back to the substantive topicality of the original. George Clooney on Michael Clayton (2007) or Syriana (2005) or The Ides of March (2011), and sooner or later you’ll find him referencing the dramas and thrillers of the 60s/70s.
On the one hand, I get some solace from the idea that it’s not just me. But what still bothers me is that generational disconnect I was talking about with my cousin; that so many young people are cut off from a monstrously big hunk of popular culture/social history. I’m teaching a basic film appreciation class in the fall and I’m dreading having to have them sit through a Chaplin or Keaton feature. I’ve gotten eye rolls from students just at the idea of watching black and white movies; a full-length silent they might consider justification to hang me from a lamp post in the parking lot.
All this makes me treasure the exchanges we have here on Sound on Sight all that much more. There’s an understanding here that today is built on yesterday; a willingness to see beyond the conventions and limitations of a period in time to see what’s still great, what still has value. Sometimes I think of you as cinema’s equivalent of medieval monks, preserving the old, forgotten manuscripts during the Dark Ages, hoping and waiting for a Renaissance when the old texts will, again, see the light of day.
As my old boss at HBO used to say, “You’re doing the Lord’s work.
- Bill Mesce