The Stewardess is Flying the Plane
American Films of the 1970s
Ron Hogan, in conversation with Peter
First off, I have to apologize. I am not qualified to write about the subject of film in the 1970s, because I am perhaps too enamored of it. I have only to catch a glimpse of a lapel flapping in the wind or large-hooded muscle car flickering across a TV screen and I swoon with bittersweet reverent nostalgia. One look at the grainy film stock transmitting floral orange wallpaper patterns or stripey-shirted teenagers on banana bikes and it’s all over.
While Peter Biskind mythologized 70s auteur culture in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Ron Hogan’s lushly illustrated paean to both the treasures and trash of the decade reminds us that Hollywood’s “last golden age” had more than its share of tin soldiers. It’s been said that the whole notion of Golden Ages is hopelessly subjective, anyhow. As the Douglas Coupland generation enters their fourth decade they’ve begun to lionize the films, cars, sports stars and even the color palette that weaned them — sometimes out of all proportion. But in this case, objectively speaking, subjectivity is beside the point — the self-indulgent masquerade party that was the 1970s has no equal.
As social changes unmoored a culture, those in charge of evaluating the tastes of the American consumer found themselves chasing a moving target. With the success of films like Easy Rider — a meandering contemplative road trip of the ego — studios began to cede decision-making power to those who only recently were having stoned-out dorm-room conversations about Herman Hesse. The results were alternately brilliant, (Mean Streets) baffling (Missouri Breaks), hilarious (Blacula) or all three (Harold and Maude). Wedged between the reign of dictatorial, postwar Politburo-style studios and the benevolent despotism of the Lucas/Spielberg era, was a brief sliver of time when the country’s id was allowed to run amok. Voices once marginalized suddenly had three-picture deals. And once-thematically regressive but technologically forward films like Star Wars and Close Encounters demonstrated the new generation’s capacity for commercial success, it was all over. Best of all was that this rampant individualism made its presence felt on everything from cars to baseball uniforms.
Nowadays we’re blasé about the forty-something dude with the dangly earring and ponytail, or the middle aged goth chick, but the 70s were the first time the excesses of the cultural moment bled into every nook and cranny of society. I’m warmed by the fact that my dad — a moderately conservative Greek immigrant in his late 40s- — went to work at a luxury car dealership each day sporting bushy sideburns and taupe-colored bell-bottomed suits. And speaking of the cars… wow!
Seventies cars are emblematic of the individual expression that colored that era — and mirror what was being projected on cinema screens. As great as those auteur flicks were, I share Hogan’s obvious reverence for that time’s oddities and misfires. Films like Joe, the right-wing revenge fantasy that’s a sort of an unsexy Taxi Driver, or They Might be Giants, the story of a deluded man who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, are quirky spasms of idiosyncratic charm. Others were just spectacularly ridiculous expressions of a failed personal vision; celluloid equivalents of automotive experimental cars like the Pinto or the Pacer. A gander at the product line of any major American auto manufacturer would reveal how far away from button-down decision making the culture had come. Witness the plethora of idiosyncrasy-mobiles in a fever dream palette of olive greens, canary yellows and ubiquitous sienna orange with names that made them sound like cowboys or South American soccer stars — Duster, Maverick and Volare. Try getting those monikers through a modern-day focus group. Current fleets look like a Stepford Wives collection of corporate sameness — all predictably aerodynamically and technologically gentrified. And the names… Notice how financial services companies, pharmaceuticals and cars all seem to have been named by the same humorless market-savvy cyborg? The soothing vowelly tones are a lullaby for creativity… Altria, Ambien, Sentra…
Not even the notoriously staid sports world was immune, as uniforms started featuring Crayola color combinations. But those beautifully garish hues that once adorned athletes have given way to merchandise-friendly grays and blacks. The Houston Astros’ rainbow unis and the purple/yellow combo that graced the backs of the LA Lakers and hockey’s Kings are history. Somewhere along the way a marketing genius figured muted tones would sell better, I suppose, and flat, market-tested efficiency eclipsed eccentricity. Sure, there are always throwback jerseys. But that’s kind of like naming Dodge’s character-deficient new car the Charger, or cramming a bunch of 70s songs onto the soundtrack of your pre-fab, Sundance-approved indie film.
Which brings us to the current crop of independent filmmakers; the ones who so often cite those same films from the 70s as their inspiration. Now I won’t pretend that there aren’t some great individual voices making American films — Alexander Payne and Todd Solondz among others — but pervading too much of that middle zone between the hugely commercial and the unseen fringe is a stultifying sameness of vision that afflicts much of Starbucks-laden America. The Garden States and Napoleon Dynamites are like so many Urban Outfitters dotting the landscape, a new commercialized, packaged hipness with a formulaic appeal that is largely foolproof. Entertaining? Undoubtedly. But independent? I’m not sure. The images that come alive off the pages of Hogan’s book suggest something that would alarm the current studios and their cadre of spontaneity-killing publicity machines.
The era Hogan’s tome lovingly captures appears at once dated and surprisingly vital. It’s Gene Wilder torturing monstrous little children in Willy Wonka, Robert Altman single-handedly toppling the western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and beautiful ridiculous Karen Black — her 70s career, a roller-coaster ride between high and low culture — from Bob Rafelson’s devastating Five Easy Pieces to the star-encrusted spectacle of Airport 1975, as the stewardess flying the proverbial plane. The cultural distance covered by the decade was unprecedented, and its sense of fearless exploration, probably unrepeatable.