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DVD Review: A Decade Under The Influence

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In 2003 the Independent Film Channel produced a nearly three-hour long three-part documentary called A Decade Under The Influence (a nod to the 1974 John Cassavetes film A Woman Under The Influence), about American cinema during the 1970s. The general posit of the film, co-directed by Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese, is that the 1970s were a ‘tweener period between the collapse of the old Hollywood film studio system and the rise of the Lowest Common Denominator summer blockbuster mentality, ushered in by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, that destroyed the template of directors having control and authorship of their works.

Now, anyone that has even a passing interest in film, American or otherwise, cannot disagree with this premise. The problem is that the documentary itself is all style (including a great opening musical track) and no substance. In short, it’s an MTV-like hyperreal and scattershot take on the films from that decade, which were anything but hyperreal and scattershot. Imagine Steven Spielberg bemoaning the loss of Orson Welles when his career is the utter antithesis of that man’s. Hypocrisy is a word that floats to mind. That or an ironic streak beyond sharp. Go with the former, people!

The film starts out with an homage to the European greats of the 1960s, who helped inspire the younger Americans. It also has the usual 1970s crowd of filmmakers, from greats like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese to once-greats like Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby, to has-beens like Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin, to never-weres like Monte Hellman. And there are some classic clips from Easy Rider, The Godfather, Bonnie And Clyde, Chinatown, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, The Graduate, Annie Hall, Network, and others, but it’s all perfunctory, surface, and vain. Not a single film nor scene is really looked at, analyzed, put into a blender and studied for why it worked, why it worked in the context it did, nor why such scenes are absent from the films of the Peter Jacksons and Michael Bays.

This is because there is not a single film critic or historian to counterbalance the non-stop critical fellatio these filmmakers give each other. Yes, critics and historians can be as blowhardy as this filmmaking lot, but at least it would have been wind from another direction, and one more in tune with the public. This film lacks any real insight and is too fawning, as if a study of a small group of adepts who have a secret they don’t want others to know. The problem is that their secret is well known and their acting like they can keep it is just plain silly.

Then there are the choices of what sorts of films and directors are looked at. Is the ridiculously overrated Bogdanovich really a more important filmmaker from the 1970s than the never even mentioned George Romero? How about Melvin Van Peebles, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, or Alan Pakula? Of course, these inclusions and exclusions are subjective, and the film cannot run forever. And it does get some props for mentioning the godfathering effect Roger Corman had on the careers of actors like Bruce Dern and directors like Scorsese and Coppola.

But, overall, it is sea spume that never gets into the deeper currents of the art, nor even the vast undercurrents of the times (although the usual off the rack clips of Vietnam, Women’s Lib, Black Power, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and Watergate are recycled).

As example, we hear Coppola talk about his 1974 film The Conversation being influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup, but we never get a comparison of the two films — not even a scene or discussion of the tangential points. A critic like Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert would likely have remedied those sorts of shortcomings. But, as with many possible fruitful avenues it could have gone down – such as viewing the decade through the lens of a dozen or two key films, and analyzing scenes for what they meant and how they expressed their points – the whole film fails. It lacks the substance and edginess that it claims for its very subject matter, even though some good insight is provided by, of all people, the British actress Julie Christie.

Other flaws in the film are the assumptions it makes about the decade. Yes, overall, better films were made in the 1970s than are made today — a quick comparison of the nominated Oscar films ends that discussion. But the bulk of the films – and certainly the bulk of the top box office hits – were more of the same crap that we see today. Yes, Jaws and Star Wars accelerated, or, indeed, started the trend toward mindlessness, but it was there with Love Story, A Star Is Born, and The Exorcist. And Blaxploitation films, the X rating, and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson revenge thrillers (Dirty Harry and Death Wish) were more the norm. Goofy Burt Reynolds comedies were also huge hits, yet comedy is one of a few key genres of film that is never discussed, save for Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

The documentary seems to focus only on ‘serious’ films. Aside from The Exorcist, directed by Friedkin, and the damning (rightfully so) of the moronic Star Wars, there is very little said about science fiction and horror in this era. Yet, some of the most influential and great films were in those two genres — Romero’s Martin, Night Of The Living Dead, and Dawn Of The Dead, the Planet Of The Apes series (was there any more relevant portrayal of race in America, ever?), the Charlton Heston classics Soylent Green and The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, Halloween, Last House On The Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Alien, to name just the most well known — are overlooked completely.

Then there is the smugness. Don’t get me wrong — guys like Coppola and Scorsese made great films in that decade, and while Scorsese’s only gone downhill in the last decade, Coppola’s artistic drought is nearing thirty years since Apocalypse Now. And while Scorsese is not totally condemnatory of modern Hollywood, Coppola seems to buy in to the ‘Evil Suits’ theory of American film destruction.

No doubt that that is mostly to blame, but many of these young directors got big egos and vanity took over, resulting in critical and financial disasters like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, or the crash and burn personal lives of filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich (whose career never recovered) and Roman Polanski (whose career did). The only person in the film who even comes close to telling these truths is a production designer from Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Polly Platt, who blames the loss of the edginess that the 1970s films had on just this fatness and sassiness, claiming that the young auteurs, especially, got old, rich, and lost touch with the very things they and their films once were icons for.

The DVD, put out by IFC, comes in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer. The images are great in all the interviews, but the film clips vary wildly in quality. There are some bios of the folk involved in the project, and some extra interviews with people like actor Roy Scheider, and directors like Altman and Sidney Lumet, but they are just longer takes of two-second quotes in the film. Some have a few anecdotal gems, but most deserved their spot on the cutting room floor, for they add no insights to this profoundly vapid and uninsightful film.

A Decade Under The Influence is a so-so attempt to reveal the depths of a subject better left for a ten or twelve hour PBS documentary by one of the Burns brothers. That’s because the two directors of this film are too soft and intimately related to the subject matter (as example, Ted Demme’s uncle, Jonathan Demme, was one of the young 1960s auteurs).

A more objective approach to the film was needed, and this lack of objectivity is the underlying problem that results in all the film’s aforementioned problems. In short, while they are the symptoms, a lack of objectivity is the cause, and the best documentaries always strive for objectivity, lest they become Michael Moorean agitprop. And that’s a fate and storyline as bad as any lame Hollywood suit could brainstorm.

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