Thursday, March 21, 2019

1970s Film and Visual Culture: A Polemic on Art and the case of "commercial" entertainment


Here is my blunt principle for all the writing I have done and will continue to do on works of art: the absolute gold standard for understanding and evaluating any work of art, from the lowliest commercial advertising illustration to the highest Henry Moore sculpture (or Chantal Akerman movie) is how we feel about its sight and sound, temporally, as we are experiencing it in "real" time. All other considerations i.e., cultural allusiveness, intertextuality, historical context, and retroactive reconstruction and the like, while at times important, are still secondary to the experience of the artwork as it is lived forwards in time. One technical word for my approach is that it is fundamentally phenomenological. Another way of putting it is to say that I am an aesthete as this term is emblematic of this approach.

There is no such thing as realism or realistic art. All art is unrealistic. If you want proof of that think about a musical where people break into perfect, on pitch singing and dancing in the midst of a dramatic scene. People simply do not do this in daily life. (Thankfully, since the results would be decidedly off pitch were it to be common occurrence). If my statement is true, then so-called realistic or naturalistic art is simply another style going by the honorific "realistic", and not more accurate a representation of real life than any other style. What gets called realism is sometimes a good style or a bad one but a style all the same. And, truth be told, all art, even art that is not the best art, contains elements of profound reality and truth that we should recognize.



One of the welcome results of the invention of youtube is that archival visual culture that had been as unavailable as to have been "out of print" for several decades (except in highly controlled and licensed formats as in televised syndication) is being posted by different channels and users. This is doubly important to me. Firstly, for a long period of time, from, say 1982 or so, well into the early 1990s, I was without a working television of my own. This meant the only television I was able to watch was only a few days out of the year at family gatherings.  Secondly, as part of my long running project on the 1970s I have made it a point to see as many productions from the 1970s as is possible and that means, of course, made for t.v. movies. One of the additional things I have done is to watch productions into the middle 1980s, under the working hypothesis that a lot of this material, though 1980s in many respects would hold aesthetic holdovers in sensibility from the 1970s and my hypothesis was confirmed.

I had (re)visited Moxey's Intimate Strangers in an earlier 1970s blog post in a discussion aiming to include the made for t.v. movie herehttp://themoderatecontrarian.blogspot.com/2012/10/towards-aesthetics-of-1970s-cinema-and.htmlre. I have been fortunate to watch many more productions. I shall start with some general comments on art in general and the historicity of commercial entertainment in particular.



I am a thorough relativist about historical styles. I do not accept any kind of progressivism in art history.  I am not a relativist about quality as quality but I do not believe that the artwork of an earlier, forgotten or discarded period deserves to be treated as such at a later date. It is not the primitive, anachronistic relic of a less evolved era; it is simply an object reflecting an era that is wholly different from our own and in so many complex ways that are ultimately not amenable to any objective evaluation.  Put a little more bluntly, works in the current Golden Age Of Television like The Sopranos, Madmen, True Detective and The Wire are not better or more sophisticated that the ones regarded as their inferior precursors. It is simply that they are made in a style that is accepted and acceptable in our current moment.   One of the important reasons for this verdict of superiority is that these shows are at times superbly done, a large part of which is the stylistic effect of the long "serialized" form itself, above all what this long form means for the craft of acting as well as writing. On that account one could speak of a kind of aesthetic advantage but I still resist the notion of full stop Progress. Part of my  reasoning is what I wrote in another context here:

When a style or a mode becomes really big such that it overshadows all differing contenders, one of the things that happens is that the style in question begins to create around it an image of self evident superiority. This is almost always achieved through the enthusiasm of a large fan base, and I use the formulation of fan base in such a way that it includes both elite tastemakers in large and small media, say, critics, as much as masses of audiences. Elites and masses are united in enthusiasm for the style with the result that it is forgotten that what has occurred is a style at all but rather how a thing is simply supposed to be made, as if it were always thus. This is only compounded when everything gets made more or less the same way, when there is a single, dominant house style. Actually everything is some sort of style or another, all the way down, and for each style there is always a better and worse version on offer. But enthusiasm for any style creates an unconscious forgetting about style as style - instead of a style being seen as but one style among many, the style can be taken for actual reality itself. When this happens there can occur a crisis in representation since people might forget that there is such a thing as a representation and that representation is quite distinct from, say, daily life. I believe we are in such a moment today.
typical print ad for t.v. movies


The works I have been watching are from an era that is not much older than the current one (speaking as we are of thirty years rather than, say, fifty or sixty years) but the sensibility is far from a current one to be sure. But it is a sensibility to be sure, with its own modes of (re)presentation, mainly built around some very emotionally direct and I would say traditional notions of human nature in psychology and behavior. The two features that make them part of a 1970s sensibility is a commitment to bold expression of raw human emotion for its own sake, without the ordinary propriety of classical taste, a focus on asking questions rather than presenting fixed answers - what I have called a non-conceptualized sensibility. All these movies were made under the most compromised of contexts, dependent on the rigors of advertising and the commercial marketplace, and yet, because of all this they reflect rather accurately the era in which they were made; in a sense there was no way they could get away from the limits and conditions of their production and its history.
(OUR TOWN, 1977)


Here is a rather short list of titles representing  some of the kinds of movies I have in mind. These titles reflect my personal preferences rather than any particular canon, though there are a handful of titles on here that have become canonical through critical and public acclaim. The most recent pictures on here are from 1983/'84, - roughly the time that the 70s were all but over and the 80s were emerging as their own independent period.

The titles on here run quite a wide gamut. Some deal with the most serious social problems. One of the most common concerns some kind of substance abuse, often with an explicit and hopeful recovery narrative arc. Others deal with more general  kinds of social oppression, like  domestic violence or poverty. Some, by contrast, are light and witty comedies. But here too there is the emphasis on "getting things out in the open" and the comedy has a kind of frankness about it. These television movies are unified by an emphasis on human emotion, and though all are limited by the rules of television. they nevertheless all possess what I can only call fearlessness and integrity towards their subjects, even as they simultaneously use sensationalistic effects to rivet an audience.  Another common stylistic device is the usage of extensive documentary techniques, in camera placement and lighting, especially location shooting in those works that take place in the present day.  I will not review or comment on the individual films  but I do believe all are worth your time.


          1. A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED WOMAN (ABC Hy Averback, 1978)
           2. DUEL (ABC Steven Spielberg 1971)
3. DAWN PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY (Randall Kleiser, 1976)
 4. DEATH OF RICHIE (NBC Paul Wendkos 1977)
           5. A CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SNOW (John Korty 1980)
           6. DIARY OF A TEENAGE HITCHHIKER (1979 Ted Post)
7. THE INITIATION OF SARAH (ABC Robert Day 1978)
8. LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE (ABC Harvey Hart 1979)
9. HELTER SKELTER (CBS Tom Gries 1976)
10. GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES (CBS William Graham1980)
11. LISTEN TO YOUR HEART (CBS Don Taylor 1983)
12, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN (CBS John Korty 1974)
13. FALLEN ANGEL (CBS Robert Michael Lewis 1981)
14. THE BOY WHO DRANK TOO MUCH (MTM Jerrold Freedman, 1980)
15. MAKE ME AN OFFER (ABC Jerry Paris 1980)
16. COCAINE: ONE MAN'S SEDUCTION (NBC 1983 Paul Wendkos)
17. DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY (CBS Hal Needham 1980)
18. LIKE MOM, LIKE ME (CBS Michael Pressman, 1978)
19. THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (ABC Lamont Johnson, 1972)
20. SPECIAL BULLETIN (NBC Edward Zwick 1983
21. THE DAY AFTER (ABC Nicholas Meyer 1983)
22. ELVIS (ABC John Carpenter 1979)
23. A CASE OF RAPE (NBC Boris Sagal 1974)
24. THE BURNING BED (ROBERT GREENWALD 1984)
25. A QUESTION OF LOVE (ABC Jerry Thorpe 1978)
26. OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder (George Schaefer 1977)
27. THE AMAZING COSMIC AWARENESS OF DUFFY MOON (Larry Elikann 1976)
 28. BUT I DON'T WANT TO GET MARRIED (Jerry Paris, 1971)
29. THE ROCKFORD FILES: BACKLASH OF THE HUNTER (NBC Richard Heffron, 1974)
30. GET CHRISTIE LOVE (William Graham 1974)
           31. YOUNG LOVE, FIRST LOVE (CBS Steven Hilliard Stern 1979)
          32. HOTLINE (Jerry Jameson 1982)
          33. SYBIL (Daniel Petrie, 1976)
           34. THURSDAY'S GAME (Robert Moore 1974)
35. HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC John Llewellyn Moxey 1972)
36. KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (ABC John Llewellyn Moxey 1971)
37. GO ASK ALICE (John Korty 1973)
38. INTIMATE STRANGERS (John Llewellyn Moxey 1978) 
39. HUSTLING (Joseph Sargent, 1975
40. THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER OVER THE SEPTIC TANK (Robert Day, 1978)
41. THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE (ABC Randall Kleiser 1976)
42. BRIAN'S SONG (Buzz Kulik 1971)
          43. THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD (ABC Sam O'Steen 1981)
          44. THE GIRL WITH ESP (Gerald Mayer 1979)
          45. A SENSITIVE, PASSIONATE MAN (John Newland, 1977)
          46. WINNER TAKE ALL (Paul Bogart, 1975)
          47. THE EXECUTION OF PRIVATE SLOVIK (Lamont Johnson 1974)
          48. FRIENDLY FIRE (David Greene 1979)
          49. SARAH T. PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC (Richard Donner, 1975)
          50. SINS OF THE PAST (ABC Peter Hunt 1984)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A New Year's Note for 2019


On these "pages" (!) I have railed against New Years wrap-ups - particularly when they are pleas for pity due to misfortune on the one hand, or medals and awards for hard won accomplishments (self improvement) on the other. That was before this phrase "virtue signaling" entered the lexicon (one of manifold vogue words or phrases to enter the 2000s). Now my problem with such public pronouncements is not that they are insincere or egotistic. On the contrary, I have no doubt that people are genuine in their motives and that they have virtues for which they should be proud, and I am inwardly most happy at the thought that there are individuals who have overcome the worst forms of privation or injustice and, when requested and appropriate,  I might express my verdict publicly as well.  Not only do I not hold it against anybody who aims to improve their life and hopefully succeed in doing so, but I made most happy at the thought, regardless of content or context.  I am also one of those people that believe that other people actually have real beliefs and that those beliefs are rarely cynical covers for status seeking and so on. And if there is a cynical component it is also invariably accompanied by sincerity. I believe in belief, as it were.

None of the foregoing means in any way that one should go on about such matters at all times and to all people. Now there are some great exceptions to this. There are some issues that are, objectively speaking, always, already a federal case.  But these are far fewer than we realize or the more civic minded among us would wish.  Examples are serious crimes or violence to individuals or populations, natural disasters, the effects of climate change, But as a favorite philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out, humans need a place or space for nonmoral values, things that fall outside the category of obligation. Part of the the problem in my case is how and when I was raised: I was taught not to advertise oneself and herald what one has accomplished. I guess it was seen as excessively immodest. For me the aesthetic downside of such flag waving and parading compromised whatever virtues the individual's story possessed for the reader or listener.

This past year has been marked by enormous change, change far greater than I am frankly as able to live with as I should like. For thirty plus years of my life I lived in one of the largest cities in the northeastern United States, and in the downtown city part. mind you, not any of the suburbs or exurbs. Now I find myself living in a culture, geography, even world, seemingly opposite in every way to that which I was not only accustomed but also innately loved. To say this has been a challenge would be an understatement. I believe it is also harder to do this at the age of fifty than, say, thirty or even forty. (For me, anyway). One of the bright moments is I have been most prolific. I am working on more than one instrumental large scale composition as well as work for small groups and solo piano. I also plan to go into the recording studio soon, and am looking into the possibilities of a podcast! Another bright location is I have found immense goodness, from both humans and nonhuman nature, where I now live.
Nic Roeg's use of typical 1970s wallpaper - often found in dental offices

Recently a favorite filmmaker, Nicholas Roeg, died and I was put in mind, when reflecting on my own experience of this world from the time I was first aware of being conscious, of his The Man Who Fell To Earth, in particular the opening sequence. Now I do not have the ability to do a shot by shot analysis of the whole thing but heaven knows it would be worth doing, so masterful a piece of filmmaking it is (like all of Roeg, in fact). While we are on the subject of Nicholas Roeg, here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote wayback in 1987 on his Don't Look Now, comparing the characters of the Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland characters:
Now I don't have the space to go into all of the intricacy that is Man Who Fell To Earth, but I want to concentrate on the opening sequence which in a sense depicts the falling to earth of a being from another society/planet/life - take your pick. (Indeed Roeg maintained that the movie was not science fiction proper but was a bout a person who was unusual and an extreme nonconformist, almost as if Roeg, like fellow genius, Andrei Tarkovsky, simply didn't buy the literalism of whole notion of genre and generic rules.  David Bowie suggested much the same thing in an interview: "…it's assumed he's an alien from outer space, but it may not necessarily be true".

There are no documents of the opening screen online in their original form but here is one with an added soundtrack from David Bowie (not the original instrumental 1970s styled music which I consider actually appropriate to the scene).https://youtu.be/gY4FOSaSoDo

Thematically The Man Who Fell to Earth is part of a very long line of artistic works that negotiate or think about the question of what it means to be an insider or outsider, Although Roeg was an English director this concern with the tension between the individual and the collective has also been important in American arts and letters from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Ralph Ellison's  Invisible Man.  The best world of art on this theme finally do not have all the answers. I mean narratively we know, see, and experience empathically the bowie figures descent into ruin and a kind of alcoholism, among other problems and it is made clear in no uncertain terms that the United States, or at least the United States of 1973 did this to him. That is less important than the feeling we get watching the film. In this film, like in all great films the feeling is what matters rather than the fact.


Now the thing to notice in this sequence is this man literally falls into earth - evidently into, at least initially, a more rural part of the United States. He appears to have trouble walking in the whole mass of soil and dirt and the slope of a mountain, but also seems guided in his walking by force not entirely his own. He is then is inundated with shocking and sudden stimuli of various kinds, not only unknown images what looks to be a poor family of some kind but a drunk man yelling things at Bowie and finally some kind of garish and loud amusement park figure in the shape of a smiley face. Overwhelmed, the Bowie figure collapses on a bench outside a small town antique store. We in the audience are placed in the same position as the protagonist through the visual telling of the sequence. This is a most important example of Roeg's cinematic style, a kind of associative cutting that is not about forward momentum or events inside linear time, but a (visually) poetic linking of one thing or group of things with another.

I mention this opening to suggest that in many (but not all) important ways, the world has appeared  to the present fifty-one year old author as it does in the opening of this picture from 1974. That is, I am faced with a lot of stimuli and do not immediately form a conceptual system to integrate it into a narrative whole. This has both advantages as much as disadvantages.  The feeling of being an outsider can be a function not of any complex emotional symbolism or ideas and ideals about how the world should work but a function of the shocking newness of the world's aesthetics which is on a level far before the complex emotions of ethical evaluation. Sometimes the world appears to you a plastic multicolored smiley face from an abandoned theme park and you have to find a way to move past it or get around it - if you aren't forced to laugh - all the while wondering where it came from and what it is doing there.

One of my favorite philosophers George Kateb has the concept of what he calls "positive alienation" where alienation is a source of independence of mind that is fruitful and possessed of wisdom rather than anything pejorative having to do with loneliness proper. Most recently I have become a partial sort of relativist, convinced that there is not an Archimedean point where we can evaluate an d master everything all at once, Now by relativist I am not referring to the inability to know or the inability to be wrong or right about proper conduct. I mean that much of human life comes down not to right and wrong which actually concern a small area of life, (though an area of life that has greatest emotional intensity for us as if it were all, rather than a small part, of life) but to things like fashion and preference rather than objectivity. And when I use the word fashion I mean something considerably sturdier and longer lasting than trend or fad, close to what the word culture used to mean. One of the problems in our current moment is that the bigness of our technological society and the need to integrate so many billions of people (or, rather, the belief that we ought to so integrate) is at odds with the differences among all those many people, differences that make integration not really attainable.

I close with another video,  this one an excerpt from an experimental film on Roeg that I happened across.