The Last Great American Films? Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, The Exorcist.

Denying that the period retrospectively known as the New Hollywood (often bookmarked for the sake of conceptual bookkeeping with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) produced some of the greatest American films of all time is the worst kind of anathema to most students of the silver screen, and for good reason. For a brief, shining moment, it was possible to be both an artist (an artiste, in fact, or even an auteur if it so pleased you to be) whose work was celebrated in locally circulated underground film journals and, simultaneously, a commercially successful director who was, metaphorically, invited to all the best parties, and under these conditions young, ambitious directors could genuinely thrive.

Michael Shedlin, in his overview (“Police Oscar”) of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and subsequent interview with Friedkin, post-French Connection but pre-Exorcist notes that, in a statement bordering on the bleeding obvious,  “the great majority of commercial films are produced not to express a particular artist’s passions, but to insure immediate cash income to the producers,” and that, previous to the release of independent darlings like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, “to annoy the audience by rejecting or questioning its conception of reality [would have been] bad business, and therefore just [wasn’t] done.” (p. 1)

Shedlin niggles at Friedkin’s work and New Hollywood as a whole, but he’s right to amplify, of all things, the industrial aspects of filmmaking at the time: the studios had begun to lose touch with their audience, as detailed by Stephen Farber (no relation, sadly, to the great and now late Manny Farber), writing in 1970 of the financial crisis that struck Hollywood in 1969, not long before the release of the colossal box office flop, Tora! Tora! Tora!: “all the big bad movies are all losing money…almost all of the major studios have risked their futures on giant-budget films…that now will be lucky to recoup a quarter of their initial costs…they know they’re on the verge of an unprecedented financial disaster.” (“End of the Road?”, p. 3)

The New Hollywood was exactly what it claimed to be: Hollywood studios financially backing and distributing the films of young tear away film-makers with bright eyes and bright ideas, giving them budgets and industrial support to lend substantiality to their madcap schemes, as differentiated from the George Romeros or the Cassavettes, who received truly ‘independent’ financing and distribution. Talking of Easy Rider, specifically, Farber says, “none of these are Underground films…they are made for large audiences, with name actors, with very sophisticated Hollywood-level craftsmanship…[but] all are truly personal films in the sense that works by Bergman or Antonioni are personal films.” (p. 3.)

What films? How about Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Easy Rider (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973), Jack Nicholson’s break-out film Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Godfather (1972) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973)? All of these films showed America, by and large, as it had never been seriously and consistently depicted before, as a place without definition or certainty, riddled by crime, drugs and societal angst and American youth, in particular, as listless, unmotivated, desensitized, addled, angry and uncertain, a first for supposedly sympathetic protagonists in the mainstream American cinema: Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in “New Hollywood and the Sixties Melting Pot”, “a multifaceted redefinition of the American cinema was fully in progress that involved not only a re-consideration of what it had been, but also a great deal of thought about what it might be.” (p. 132)

As noted above, it is fruitless to try and deny that filmmakers and filmgoers both owe a great debt to the works of this period. It is not, however, nearly so fruitless to examine works of the time singularly and comparatively and come to the decision that, while they have much to offer, they are not the ideological be-all and end-all of America, nor, as has been claimed, the revolutions in filmic or societal commentary they might once have been considered.

Take, for instance, Easy Rider, the Hopper/Fonda/Southern co-production that launched, once and for all, the careers of both Hopper and Fonda with a kind of stratospheric velocity rarely seen, and I use this term advisedly, ‘nowadays’. Alongside Bonnie and Clyde, it spawned a series of increasingly more drug-addled road trip films, including Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (both released in 1971).

Featuring two classic ‘unmotivated heroes’, Captain America (or Wyatt) and Billy, who ride east in search of a good time, and who aimlessly discover hippie communes, ranchers, alcoholic lawyers, miles of pristine desert and, eventually, crazed gun-toting rednecks, Easy Rider works towards an overall indirect portrait of a fractured America (contrast this with Two-Lane Blacktop, wherein the film’s aimless protagonists never even conclude their race, the very crux of the film’s narrative!): in “The Allegory of Easy Rider”, Joe Lawrence references the film’s second act acid trip, noting “the orgy of the acid trip in the graveyard is America’s orgy as well. When Captain America says, “We blew it,” he speaks for twentieth century man.” (p. 666)

Which is all fine and good. Commercially, the film worked because it didn’t tackle such a colossally affecting issue from the front. Peter McInerney argues in “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam” that this is because, “the Vietnam war has never been susceptible to traditional Hollywood treatment. The industry didn’t know how to be prowar when we seemed to be neither winning nor right. And it didn’t dare to be antiwar, except tentatively…or by inference and indirection: M*A*S*H was about the Korean War and Catch-22 about World War II.” (p. 23)

Taking the broader view, you are forced to admit that you underestimate the effect of Easy Rider down through cinematic time and space at your peril: the image of a young and beautiful Captain America, all sandy blond locks, smiles, sunglasses and sideburns, astride his stars-and-stripes-adorned chopper, is a powerful one: Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, for example, unabashedly idolizes Fonda as a kind of faded icon of the carefree ‘60s, converting him into the logically jaded philosophical extension of his idealist Captain America character. Combined with archive footage of Terrence Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), The Limey is less a film than a touchingly penned cinematic love letter to a decade long since passed.

This, however, ignores the key fact that artistically and philosophically, Easy Rider is far less revolutionary a piece of socially aware filmmaking than most people presume and that, taken as a whole rather than as the sum of its parts, much like Midnight Cowboy, when you get down to the nitty and the gritty, there’s some glaringly crude work going on just below the surface and the Byrds/Steppenwolf soundtrack: Travis Brown Jr. in “On an Aesthetic of Highway Speed” characterizes it thusly: “it is barely changed in social message from The Wild One (1954), a bike flick of an earlier decade. The country’s still going to hell, mean people still abuse nice people, and kids still do the darndest things” (p. 26) David R. Shumway in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soundtracks…” laments, “Easy Rider creates a powerful sense of generational solidarity only to undermine and finally destroy whatever utopian possibilities such solidarity might offer. The film leaves us united in our anger and our difference from “them,” but without any hope that our difference can make a difference.” (p. 39)

The method by which we gain the film’s ending, on the other hand, particularly incenses Stephen Farber, who asks, “Why should we praise a hippie-oriented youth film that stereotypes its enemies…ruthlessly…? This film is as crude as the part of America it is attacking.” Easy Rider and its ilk may have created and subsequently divided public discussion on issues of drug use, youth culture, borders and frontiers and above all, politics, but that doesn’t mean that it’s to be congratulated for doing so: its methods are deeply suspect.

The Exorcist is an entirely different beast, and possibly poorer for it, even as it contributes overall to the body of work of New Hollywood. Coming before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) but after The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist takes one of the oldest cinematic forms, the genre of horror, and attempts to redefine it, both in terms of its explicitness (legitimizing by use of sheer monetary might the juicy splatterflick aesthetics of groundbreaking low-budget films like Night of the Living Dead [1968], Last House… and the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis [1963’s Blood Feast, 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs! and 1965’s Color Me Blood Red chief amongst them]) and its broad topicality, especially regarding religion (note also the later Fonda vehicle Race with the Devil [1975],  which deals with Satanists in middle America, a viciously ironic juxtaposition, and the early Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby [1968]).

However. ‘However’ is never a word one wants to hear, but in this case its use is justified. However, The Exorcist lacks, for all its slickness, a lot of what makes its brethren so interesting. It doesn’t have a true bone to pick like the other films, and enjoys its own carefully engineered and shot technicality to a degree far more pronounced than either of the other films already discussed, to the point where it actually overshadows its own vague ideology, which is all for the better: at its core The Exorcist is, metaphorically speaking, the extremely pretty but very simple child in amongst a family of wunderkind, speaking ideologically, ethically or morally. Friedkin himself says in his interview with Shedlin that, “I intend to do it as a straightforward, realistic film about inexplicable things…” (p. 9). Marsha Kinder, in “The Return of the Outlaw Couple”, takes that to mean that he set out to make a film possessing a “simplistic and reactionary” morality. (p. 9) Regan is a wonderful icon for the innocent-corrupted-from-the-inside, and if anything the true horror of the piece comes from her various journeys through the medical system at the hands of apathetic doctors and uncaring machines, but whatever the film is attempting to say is stymied and stultified by its impressive aesthetic, leaving you to be blown away by its looks but confused by its message, if it can be even said to have one worth discussing.

It is my firm belief, then, that Two-Lane Blacktop, of the three films under discussion, stands up to the test of time and ideological examination with far better results than when the same tests are applied to its kindred: this may be because the film refuses to espouse a distinct philosophical position, relying instead on its meandering to carry it through. Some might argue that the film catching in the projector gate, incinerating the film’s vision of America, is symbolically similar in its incendiary nature to the ending of Easy Rider, in which Peter Fonda’s custom chopper explodes and lies, burning, by the roadside as the credits roll, but I disagree. Rather, I feel that it symbolizes, in a manner very distinct of classic postmodern theory, a disdain for endings, a recognition that they aren’t useful or edifying, that America’s ending remains unwritten and that resolution or revelation isn’t to be found in the cinema, or at the very least in Two-Lane Blacktop, which is refreshing in an era of films so overtly political in nature and artistic disposition. Visually and aurally, it offers the least, choosing instead to reside inside a non-descript kind of minimalism. Again, refreshing: we’re discussing a film that has nothing to say, a rare beauty.

Having described three New Hollywood darlings in quick succession, one must then go on to recall the film brats all struck out, individually and then largely as a collective, inconveniently doing so in the face of the seemingly unstoppable blockbusting machines created by Lucas and Spielberg. The end result of the cumulative failures of Heaven’s Gate, Cruising, They All Laughed, One From the Heart, Apocalypse Now (1979) was that the studios wrested back control from the young guns, chief amongst them Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola. Roll on, the Eighties and innumerable sequels to solid Seventies properties (More American Graffiti [1979], for instance).

The following is, in a line, the totality of the argument for the last great American films being made during the industrial lifetime of New Hollywood: New Hollywood died and American film makers have been (apparently) pathologically incapable of making such films since then. It is, by its very nature, a theory for the deranged alone. What of Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Requiem for a Dream (2000)? How is it possible to discount out of hand the considerable body of work belonging to the Coen Brothers, masters of the art of bringing Americana to the big screen, or Stanley Kubrick’s latter works, such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) or even Eyes Wide Shut (2001), or octogenarian Sidney Lumet’s strikingly vicious Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)? How is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the maddened Daniel Plainview in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) any less captivating or complex than the sum of Robert DeNiro’s screen time in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film that Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance, doesn’t have a lot of time for and dismisses as “a violently Calvinist, racist, sexist, and apocalyptic wish-fulfillment fantasy, complete with an extended bloodbath, that is given all the allure of expressionist art and involves very few moral consequences for most members of the audience.” (p. 151)

Films such as I have listed above, and many others far beyond the scope of this short essay, are clearly as worthy of close analysis and celebration as anything the drug-addled children of the Sixties ever put together. To draw a line in the sand where the year 1979 slipped over into 1980 is the most arbitrary thing in the world: when America ceased to collapse in on itself at the end of the Seventies, as it failed to do a decade earlier and again a decade before that, it called as it always has for a new body of cinema to deal with that fact, and to discount all the cinematic work that has taken place in this new space, this new fractured America, is to do all of cinema a gross disservice.

Works Cited

American Graffiti. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford. DVD.

Bates, Robin. “Connecting to Film History through Writing.” Cinema Journal 39 (2000): 83-89. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Brown Jr., Travis. “On an Aesthetic of Highway Speed.” Journal of Architectural Education 30 (1976): 25-27. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34 (1981): 16-25. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Easy Rider. Dir. Dennis Hopper. Perf. Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson. DVD.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Linda Blair, Mercedes McCambridge, Max Von Sydow. DVD.

Farber, Stephen. “End of the Road?” Film Quarterly 23 (1970): 3-16. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Horwath, Alexander, Noel King, and Thomas Elsaesser, eds. The Last Great American Picture Show : New Hollywood Cinema in The 1970s. New York: Amsterdam UP, 2004.

Ingebretsen, Edward J. “Staking the Monster: A Politics of Remonstrance.” Religion and American Culture 8 (1998): 91-116. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Kinder, Marsha. “The Return of the Outlaw Couple.” Film Quarterly 27 (1974): 2-10. JSTOR. La Trobe Library.

Lawrence, Joe B. “The Allegory of “Easy Rider”” The English Journal 59 (1970): 665-66. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

McInerney, Peter. “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam.” Film Quarterly 33 (1980): 21-32. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Michaels, Walter B. “The Road to Vietnam.” Modern Language Notes: Comparative Literature 94 (1979): 1173-175. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Shedlin, Michael, and William Friedkin. “Police Oscar: “The French Connection”: And an Interview with William Friedkin.” Film Quarterly 25 (1972): 2-9. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. Keyword: “the exorcist”

Shumway, David R. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia.” Cinema Journal 38 (1999): 36-51. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Two-Lane Blacktop. Dir. Monte Hellman. Perf. James Tayler, Warren Oates. DVD.

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~ by Martin Kingsley on July 14, 2010.

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