People never tire of asking me, doubtless with the implication, perhaps if only unconsciously, that they are concerned for my mental state, "what is it about the 1970s?" Why does that time fascinate rather than others? And if that time was so outrageous or unusual is it not a sure sign of unwelcome decadence to be so engrossed in it? And, last but not least, isn't it the case that we must live for the future anyhow?
Firstly the future is not here yet, to quote The Firesign Theater. And, secondly the future doesn't look too good, given the current developments.
But what about those 1970s? Bruce Schulman and similar revisionist historians with whom I am most sympathetic refer to a long 1970s, lasting from roughly 1968 to 1982, give or take a year. Indeed, they are so revisionist that they try to lump two decades, classically regarded as antithetical opposites, the fifties and sixties together into one time period. I welcome such a periodization; it suits my "obsessions" just fine.
I must begin with an abstraction. The seventies, unlike any other time in the modern period, actually attempted to break the law of contradiction. That in itself creates a weirdness worthy of the highest works of art and the most complex human personalities.
Let us list them, at least in part.
The seventies was scrappy, ugly, financially compromised.
Yet they were excessive, exhibitionistic and beautiful in their daring.
Variety shows are as good an example as any. They went all out in them with stars and jokes and acts yet the quality of the decor and costumes so cheap and terrible looking and the simplemindedness of the skits so astonishing as to make the variety show a moot point even as it was entertained and delivered. If you look at a 1970s variety show today you see things that are impossible in their garishness and gaudiness. You see a complete lack of self consciousness. That kind of lack of embarrassment, that sense of having nothing to lose and everything to express and an urgency in getting it off your chest is a most 1970s mode.
How different today. The generation Y and millennials are so consumed with how they are doing and how they are getting over. They are constantly watching themselves and each other. A more prefab age could not be imagined that the 2000's. Part of Obama's appeal is that he seemed a figure from the 1970s in his directness and candor, only with a more trim afro.
The millennials are seen as the most sexually conservative generation in decades. In the 1970s sex was something you simply did as part of expression.
The 1970s did not believe in appropriateness. It may have believed in good and evil and conspiracies of all sorts. But it did not believe in boundaries. The fifties and sixties were very psychological, informed by Freud and so on. The 1970s tried to go back and become almost pre-psychological, or at least develop their own psychology movements like EST or Esalen. In the 1970s self expression was more important than the intent or meaning behind it. It is little wonder that Cassavetes flourished in the 1970s because he tried (and succeeded) to make movies based not in psychological motive but pure feeling or "behavior" as he called it. In the 1970s feelings and psychology were different matters. In Dog Day Afternoon, the hero played by Al Pacino says at one point "I speak what I feel."
The 1970s made earnestness into such an art form that earnestness became the most cool and coded kind sophistication. The naive was turned into its other, became the worldly.
One major trope in the 1970s, usually exhibited in 1970s comedies, was the applause. Doubtless influenced by the ever present seminar or motivational training, or one of the newer religions, people would erupt into unified applause about practically anything. Someone would announce they were new to a town or that their kid got a new dog at the PTA and everyone would clap with exuberance.
Yet in the 1970s it was every man and woman for themselves and the image of the loner was ubiquitous as in Taxi Driver.
The movies of the 1970s have the most innovative, radically dedramatized sense of acting and scene construction in all of cinema. Actors go on about anything for hours, scenes follow them around without any clear narrative motive. A 1970s movie is never boring because you never know what is going to happen next.
Yet those same films are so under lit and scrappy. The camera choices seem just as wild and unpredictable. The 1970s, from a NARRATIVE point of view have some of the most simple minded conflicts between good guys and bad guys ever seen, so simplistic they make B movies from the forties look like Chekhov. In the 1970s the bad guy was always the capitalist businessman (as in Klute). He was chubby and always had jowls and ill fitting suits. He was always The Man. The good guy was usually sweet and easily likeable. There are many moments in 1970s dramatic art where characters announce the plot or theme openly in a most unironic and didactic fashion, usually of a political nature. This is in direct violation of one of the first principles of good writing.
And yet the 1970s had Frnch director Jacques Rivette where nobody tells you anything. The audience is on their own with him.
Yet it is in the 1970s when new commercial filmmaking took over and all of the ills of today's studio system were first hatched, notably in Star Wars and Jaws.
A typical narrative 1970s movie will feature a lot of soft core porno imagery of attractive women, followed by those women more or less complaining about the male gaze. Then they will be shown in a most unglamorous light, say, picking their toenails or sitting on the toilet, only to be followed by some odd political activism that has little to do with all of the preceding sexual titillation. Indeed one John Sayles film opens with a woman cleaning a toilet in an extreme close up. One of the reasons I love mumblecore movies is they at least dare to keep that spirit alive. Otherwise it would not exist in our culture.
The 1970s was an episodic time. Todays world is about the climax rather than episode. Today we are always being led somewhere. In the 1970s it was the journey that mattered.
The Godfather, which everyone credits as an art film, is the most conventional film ever made. It is so relatively simple, almost as if the radical nature of Gordon Willis' camera and the bravura performances made people lose sight of its tedious treatment of the family and crime.
And yet the era saw an explosion of the most incomprehensible and dense avant-garde since the fifties and sixties. Sometimes you saw both modes at work in one and the same movie. Robert Altman is an example. Odd and weird camera angles, inaudible dialogue exist alongside heavy handed villains (usually a rich white guy).
The 1970s were a matter of fact age. Everything was very direct. There was a virtue made of craft and pluck.
But the results were so deafening and blinding in their excess. Those colors and textures have a most aggressive quality. Those are modes usually associated not with thrift but baroque excess and flush times. How did the 1970s do both? Or was it that all of the ugliness was a result of the economic deprivation? We can never know.
Carlo Ginzburg says that the historian must destroy our sense of proximity to the past because the minds there were very different than our own. I will always love the 1970s because I am seeing almost a different race though it is close enough to the humanity we recognize today. In other times people seem exotic yet simple, as in, say, the fifties or the forties. But in the 1970s people were both simpleminded and simplistic yet unpredictable and wild, and filled with inner layers. This is another example of the oxymoron that is the 1970s.
I am also haunted by the specter of a childhood filled with my mother's pastel dacron slacks, odd deep shag rugs, oppressive brown wood panelling everywhere and men with so much facial hair it felt as if in daily life most males resembled The Wolfman.
The 1970s was the most American of decades. It was a decade where people sought to make their own religions and clubs and their own meaning. They said fuck you to the past and everything else.
And yet they sought comfort in traditional peasant skirts, and ancient mysticism and were consumed with a search for family roots.
But enough about the 70s.