The Story of Film Part 12: Fight the Power – Protest in Film

In our last column on Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film, we looked at the rise of Hong Kong and Bollywood cinema, and the triumph of big budget, high concept blockbusters in Hollywood. More change was on the way in the 1980’s, with the rise of MTV and music videos making a huge impact on American filmmaking. Movies like Flashdance and Top Gun featured wordless action or dance sequences scored with contemporary music, blurring the line between cinema and music videos. But as Hollywood emphasized empty spectacle over story, an independent American cinema began to emerge to challenge “the bauble.”
     Filmmaker John Sayles began his career working for low budget filmmaker Roger Corman, writing films like Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars, using the money to fund his own smaller, character-driven films like Baby, It’s You, & Matewan. Writer-director Spike Lee financed his first film with arts grants, with the film’s success leading to bigger budgeted, studio backed films like School Daze and the critically acclaimed, Do The Right Thing. But the most unique director to emerge from the American independents was David Lynch, whose film Eraserhead became a cult favorite, leading to mainstream success with films like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet.

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The Story of Film Column #11: The Arrival of Multiplexes and Asian Mainstream

As we close out The Story of Film’s look at the Seventies, we focus on three major developments that would influence world cinema dramatically. First was the rise of Asian films in the world market, specifically the action and fantasy spectacles coming from Hong Kong. Second were the changes in Indian cinema, leading to the thriving industry known as “Bollywood.” Last was the arrival of the Hollywood “blockbuster,” which would permanently change American cinema.
Following Communist victory in 1949, Hong Kong emerged as the new base for Chinese cinema. By the 1960’s, the biggest film producers there were the Shaw Brothers who were responsible for a revival of the wuxia film genre, which took its inspiration from popular Chinese fiction chronicling the adventures of martial artists in ancient China.

The most beautiful and innovative wuxia of this period were directed by King Hu, who combined Japanese samurai films, Chinese philosophy, and Western film techniques, creating elegant masterpieces like A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn. Hu’s films featured gravity-defying fight scenes and strong female protagonists, and his unique style in films like Legend of the Mountain and The Fate of Lee Khan, would be a major influence on later directors.

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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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