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The Decade When Movies Mattered

I had a dream about 1970s movies. There was that image from the end of Deliverance (1972), of the hand coming up out of the water – the corpse that refuses to go away. One hand. Where’s the other hand? I wondered. Zinger! It erupted from beneath the cinders on the grave of Carrie (1976), a hand to drag us down into the darkness.

But perhaps you were only in elementary school in the 1970s, and thus, in a country with contradictory impulses about sheltering its young, you did not attend to what was going on then. After all, it’s a fundamental right in the saga of psychic shelter that no one really has to notice things. The most up-to-date new frontier is knowing how to look the other way.

Who the hell is talking to you like this? How old is he? The author is 52, and he loved the decade of the 1970s and its movies. It was a time of travail and upheaval when the world took it for granted that grownups were born to take notice. We had movies then that you had to watch. The age gave us plots as intricate and unrelenting as The Sting (1973) and Chinatown(1974). Sitting in the dark watching the show kept you as wired as an air-traffic controller. If you weren’t awake you would miss some sudden glimpse or murmur:

  • In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle is guiding his yellow steel church through the scum when, just like a scrap of paper, a pale face scutters across his view; it’s a kid, a girl, Iris, Jodie Foster. Bickle is riveted by the second or so of that face and the scent of need. He’s seen a soul to rescue, and so the dementia of the plot begins.
  • In The Long Goodbye (1973), whenever anything remotely musical plays –-not just the movie’s theme, but a piano idling in a bar, a funeral procession in a small Mexican town, a doorbell in Malibu: it’s always a variant of the song “The Long Goodbye,” by Johnny Mercer and John Williams. The me- lodic phrase hangs in the air, like haze or the trade of lies in L.A. – it’s the sound of a game, and the click of fate closing. It tells you that so much in L.A. is set up, scripted, produced. There’s so little ‘there’ left – just lines, shots and locations.
  • In Shampoo (1975), an unruly symphony of unease comes out of George Roundy (Warren Beatty), sounds that are not words, but which say so much about the despair of ever making sense. There are groans, grunts, moans and sighs, as if to say, what the hell? You could close your eyes in Shampoo and just absorb the wealth of indecisiveness that Beatty brings to George’s hesitation.

The 1970s were full of such things: the way Al Pacino, in The Godfather (1972), notices that he is not shaking when he holds a cigarette lighter outside the hospital. It is the moment he recognizes his authority; Sissy Spacek’s narration in Badlands (1973), so affectless the whole story seems overheard on a night bus going from Amarillo to Memphis; that aimless first hour of The Deer Hunter (1978), filled with the day of the wedding so we grow more and more uneasy: where is this film going, and why are we going with it? And the end of Fingers (1978), with Harvey Keitel crouched naked in the corner and we’re saying, that’s how a movie ends?

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