No answer then
but the ache
of that wanting,
no answer then
but the innocence
of a growing
need to know,
— David Whyte, Who Made the Stars?
The period spanning the late sixties through the mid-seventies was one of the most fascinating in the history of mainstream Hollywood cinema. The industry itself was undergoing fundamental structural change. New technology was being incorporated into filmmaking practices. The literacy of the cinema-going public was enhanced by their informal small-screen education via television. A new generation of film school-educated writers, directors and cinematographers were beginning to find their feet and get personal projects backed by financiers. With them, they brought ideas and techniques developed away from the Classical Hollywood machine. These were introduced in the European new waves and the cinema of Japan.
Formal experimentation was but a vehicle, however, to explore questions of a cultural and ideological nature. Society was in flux, and the established military-industrial complex, as well as its supporting political infrastructure, was being challenged and questioned. This was the era of Vietnam, race riots, assassinations, Watergate, high-profile investigations, oil crises, economic stagflation and a counter-culture fuelled by popular music, drugs, feminism and youth disenfranchisement. From Bonnie and Clyde to Nashville, The Conversation to Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch to Chinatown, and Network to All the President’s Men our screens were filled with images of institutional corruption, impotence, gratuitous violence and futile attempts to make sense of things, to make a difference. The private investigator and reporter were our anti-heroes, doomed to failure and harm even before they embarked upon their quest for knowledge and understanding.
This was challenging cinema. Provocative, thoughtful, technically innovative and radically different from what had previously been served on the mainstream conveyor belt. Even saccharine fare like Grease could have an edge, weaving tales of teen pregnancy, simmering male violence and tribal belonging and alienation into its musical love story. But its release and popular success in 1978 really coincided with the death knell of mainstream experimentation. As a new decade dawned, independent filmmaking would become home to those who wanted to play with form and technique, or who were drawn to the more provocative material. The success of Jaws, Rocky and Star Wars pulled the mainstream in another direction, launching decades’ worth of franchise cinema and product tie-ins. The commercial imperative was supplemented by an ideological shift to the right, first confronting the term of the Carter administration then underpinning the policy and actions of the Reagan–Bush years.
It is intriguing to compare the sprawling chaos and mythical-psychological journey of Apocalypse Now, for example, with the simplified vision of Star Wars. Both borrow from archetypes and the examination of myth, fairy tale and religion by the likes of James George Frazer, Vladimir Propp, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Whereas Star Wars (and the later Indiana Jones series) returns to the style and content of the film serials of the 1930s, however, Apocalypse Now is more reliant on literary sources like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and an early treatment of it by Orson Welles. Francis Ford Coppola’s film is messy, anarchic, challenging. George Lucas’s is straightforward, apparently uplifting in its recycling of a Christ-like narrative, but politically unnerving. The empire is defeated, the monarchy is restored, and the victors are assembled in images that resemble the ordered masses filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will, a cinematic document of the Nuremberg rallies of 1934.
The Nazi message was one that boiled everything down to a simplistic essence. It promoted fear of otherness, the primacy of a certain kind of super being and the belief in a single right answer. That should be anathema for anyone with liberal tendencies, a fondness for diversity in all forms, a comfort with ambiguity and a reluctance to accept that there is any such thing as ‘right answers’. That such ideological undertones find their way into the original Star Wars film is disturbing. It is why I have never been able to share so many of my contemporaries’ passion for the film or for several other franchises that appeared in the subsequent decade.
Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
— Maya Angelou, Equality