The Story of Film Column #10: Movies To Change The World

As we continue our walk thru Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film, we’ve now reached the 1970’s, one of the defining decades in cinema history. As we saw in the last column, an influx of talent from television, film schools and independent filmmaking had led to the birth of the “New Hollywood” movement in America. At the same time, major filmmakers continued to emerge from other countries, creating new and even more challenging cinema, with a group of maverick directors arising from West Germany and the New German Cinema movement.

Perhaps the two most well-known members of the New German Cinema movement would be the directors Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Wenders would first find acclaim with his Road Trilogy, which introduced his preoccupation with characters on often aimless journeys. Later films, such as Wings of Desire and the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, would solidify Wenders’ reputation. Werner Herzog’s films, often focusing on flawed protagonists with impossible dreams, would also find world acclaim. A prolific director of both fiction and documentary films, pictures like Aguirre: The Wrath of GodHeart of Glass, and Grizzly Man, would give Herzog a reputation as an accomplished, and somewhat eccentric, director.

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The Story of Film, Part 9: American Cinema of the 70’s

As we’ve seen in The Story of Film, while American cinema had been at the forefront of filmmaking for many years, over time, Hollywood’s movies had begun growing stagnant. The Production Code Administration still restricted what could be said, done, or shown in American movies. But by the early 1960’s, the PCA was losing its hold on the industry. The success of foreign films, which weren’t subject to PCA oversight, plus the studio’s new willingness to challenge the Code, led to the adoption of a movie ratings system in 1968. And the unprecedented success of independent film Easy Rider, actor Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, encouraged studios to take a chance on new directors, many of whom would make their mark on cinema history.

One of those new directors had locked horns with the PCA and emerged unscathed, successfully negotiating with the MPAA for his film’s release virtually intact. That film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was the first directed by Mike Nichols, and Nichols’ next picture, The Graduate, would be an even bigger box office success. Nichols would follow up that film’s dissection of youthful, suburban ennui with the star-studded war satire Catch 22 and the science fiction thriller, Day of the Dolphin, among others.

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The Story of Film Part 8: New Directors, New Form

Continuing our journey through The Story of Film, we move further abroad as a new wave of filmmakers emerges across the world. With the French New wave in full flower and major new filmmakers from Italy and Sweden, cinema was in an exciting period of growth, with new directors emerging from countries whose voices had yet to be heard from.

The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 had begun a political “thaw” in Communist bloc countries, which in turn began a blossoming of film culture within them. In Poland, the emergence of the Polish Film School, influenced by the Italian neo-realist film movement, would produce several influential directors including Andrzej Wajda, whose work focused on the social and political evolution of Poland and her people. Wajda’s War Trilogy of films (PokolenieKanal, Ashes & Diamonds) focused on the Polish experience during World War 2 and its aftermath, with characters struggling to survive and resist their country’s occupiers.

From the same milieu came director Roman Polanski, who had worked as an actor in two of Wadja’s films. Polanski’s first feature, Knife In the Water, was an international success about the psychological games played between a married couple and a young hitchhiker. Polanski would quickly leave Poland, choosing to work in Great Britain and America, where he would direct the critically acclaimed films RepulsionRosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown.

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The Story of Film, Part 7: The European New Wave

In last week’s column on Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film, we took a look at what was happening in world cinema in the United States, India, and Japan. But what was happening in Europe? Quite a bit, as we’ll see in this column. Some of the most famous directors in cinema history were creating masterpieces that would influence the evolution of film for decades to come.

In Sweden, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was first coming to prominence. Bergman had been directing since 1946, but it wasn’t until 1955 and the release of Smiles of a Summer Night, that he had his first world-wide success. Only two years later, Bergman’s films Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal would cement his status as one of the great directors. This was an incredibly fruitful period for Bergman that would also include the films The Virgin Spring and his experimental masterpiece, Persona. All these films would be influential, especially on our next group of directors.

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The Story of Film Part 6: Sex & Melodrama!

Moving forward in Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film, we’ve reached the mid 1950’s. By now, the rise of television in America was making a definite impact on Hollywood. Film-going in the US, which was at its peak in 1946, was declining, especially now that TV sets were affordable to the public. And television was going through its original “Golden Age”, broadcasting early, classic  sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, and high quality, dramatic anthology series written by people like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Gore Vidal, & Rod Serling.  But even with gimmicks like 3-D and the use of widescreen cinematography offering moviegoers something they couldn’t get on TV, Hollywood would never fully recover its lost audience.

Not that Hollywood wasn’t trying to find new audiences. When pictures like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause and The Blackboard Jungle, dramas about the “juvenile delinquency problem,” ended up appealing to teenagers as well, studios began looking for ways to tap into the “youth market.” Glossy melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession were marketed as “women’s pictures” to lure in female audiences, who were often surprised by the film’s tragic plotlines and social criticism. And while Westerns remained an audience draw, they developed a darker edge with films like Red River and The Searchers featuring flawed protagonists instead of shining heroes. Continue reading “The Story of Film Part 6: Sex & Melodrama!”