Tuesday, July 9

Random Cinematic Year in Review - 1974


By Emery Snyder @leeroy711



Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use letterboxd.com to determine the actual release year.

1974

1974 turned out to be a year of reconciliation and retribution in a couple of very notable ways. We were only one year out of the decade long conflict in Vietnam and Americans seemed to be ready to start cleaning the slate. And on May 9th, The House of Representatives began the impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate Break-In. After years of insisting on his innocence, Nixon eventually chose to resign in August in order to avoid the embarrassment of a trial and conviction. Although his successor would pardon him of all wrongdoing, Nixon's legacy would forever be tainted.

Later that year in October, the sports world would hand out its own brand of retribution in Kinshasa, Zaire. Heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali would attempt to regain his championship title. He faced and undefeated George Foreman and was a 4-1 underdog. Ali had his title stripped in '67 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam conflict.

Known as the greatest sports event of the 20th Century, Ali unveiled his “rope-a-dope” technique, dodging Foreman’s strikes, tiring him out. Late in the 8th round, Ali knocked Foreman out, becoming only the 2nd boxer in history to regain his title.

As usual, the cinematic world served as a reflection of these social queues. Risks were being taken, new and unique stories were being told and the techniques developed would serve to change the landscape of film (especially American film) for the decades to come.

NOTABLE FILMS


DARK STAR 
Directed by John Carpenter


Please notice that this is a list of “notable films”, which does not necessarily mean ‘great’ … or in this case, even ‘good’ films…. And while there are plenty of adjectives to describe John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s low-budget sci-fi student film, insignificant isn’t one of them. I would make the case for anyone interested in the modern history of horror/sci-fi to watch this. This is an opportunity to witness the genesis of what would become two of the most important voices in genre film. Watch it with all the knowledge and affectation for everything that has been created and/or influenced by Carpenter and O’Bannon. Because the last thing that I want to do is imagine a world without Michael Myers, the Pork-Chop Express, Xenomorphs or brain-eating Zombies. 


YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN / BLAZING SADDLES
Directed by Mel Brooks


I grew up with both of these films. As I would later grow into my cenefilia and all its more discerning (snobbish) tastes, I would come to be more dismissive of BLAZING SADDLES’ humor as juvenile. But a recent rewatch had me laughing like I was twelve years old again… Still juvenile, but also a bit genius. I still think that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the better film. But it is a testament to Brooks’ fortitude and talent that his two best and most iconic films were released in the same year.



PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
Directed by Brian De Palma


I like to imagine that this is an accurate depiction of American life in 1974. It's not, but it's a lot of fun to think that this is was served as run-of-the-mill entertainment back then. It’s absolutely insane and insanely watchable. This is such a perfect blend between the magical realism of 70's rock-opera and what was quickly becoming De Palma's signature Hitchcockian flair. 



THE GODFATHER: PART II / THE CONVERSATION
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola


I won’t say too much about what may be the most famous trilogy in cinematic history. A lot of fellow cinefiles prefer the second GODFATHER. It’s a more epic tale with arguably more compelling performances. Personally, I still prefer the first GODFATHER but, I actually think THE CONVERSATION is better than any of the Corleone films. This taut, semi-political spy thriller is light on frills and heavy on the paranoia.


If there is anything you can say with certainty, it’s that the 70’s were great for Coppola. GODFATHER (’72) and APOCALYPSE NOW (’79) along with these two, make four masterpieces within seven years. The vast majority of filmmakers will never even make one.


THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE

Directed by Joseph Sargent


At some point, I’d like to write more about films shot on location, in major American cities in the 70’s. In San Francisco, we got INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (’78) as well as the aforementioned THE CONVERSATION. Neo-noir like Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (’73) as well as Mark Robson’s disaster flick, EARTHQUAKE (’74) brought the streets of Los Angeles into every cineplex in the U.S. And New York got plenty of work as well with films like Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (’76) and Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (’71). There are so many other examples. But for my money, Joseph Sargent’s subway heist thriller that pits hijacker, Robert Shaw against seasoned detective, Walter Matthau in this tense standoff may take the NYC cake.


The thing that you hear most about this film is the referential fact that Quinten Tarantino borrowed the idea of a gang using colorful pseudonyms to protect their anonymity for RESERVOIR DOGS (’92). Not enough is said however about how well developed this ensemble of characters is. It’s filmmaking like this that has been reverse-engineered by our 90’s indy darling directors to the greatest effect.


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Directed by Tobe Hooper


It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this low budget horror film. Its cultural influence has been sighted in writing about everything from American industrialization to feminism to vegetarianism. And on a technical level, it is full of small, yet significant camera movements that filmgoers recognize now as the language of visual storytelling; but were in fact, quite groundbreaking in the mid-70’s.


A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Directed By John Cassavetes


Gena Rowlands’ performance is among the greatest ever committed to film. This is one of ten she made with her writer/director husband, Cassavetes. Mabel (Rowlands) is the devoted wife of Nick (Peter Falk). In spite of her best efforts, her emotions keep betraying her, twisting her mind in and out of a boiling pot of love, rage and insecurities. This likely remains the most raw and honest depiction of mental health ever committed to film.


ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL
Directed by Werner Fassbinder


Like the social commentary in most of Fassbinder’s filmography, this one is way ahead of its time. Its message is still progressive today. And the struggles faced by our two main characters are still unfortunately relevant today. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem give magnificent performances as ill-fated lovers, constantly butting heads against culture, age and taboo. This film seeks to cause you pain by humanizing those society has left out of the equation.  


BLACK CHRISTMAS

Directed by Bob Clark


Everyone loved to invoke Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (’60) when discussing the history and influences of slasher cinema. I’ll give credit where it’s due. PSYCHO was revolutionary, in more ways than one. But today’s slasher film has a lot more in common with Bob Clark’s criminally underrated horror/thriller about a sorority house under attack during the Christmas break. I don’t think there has ever been a creepier film. Everything from the POV camera to the voice on the phone creates an inescapable atmosphere of dread and tension.


CHINATOWN
Directed by Roman Polanski


“CHINATOWN” is my ‘go-to’ answer to the question: “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” I’ve watched it and will continue to watch it many times in my life. So, there’s quite a bit I could say about it, but I’ll keep this brief and within the context of this post. Polanski’s masterpiece also perfectly reflects the era of American cinema in which it was released. Only six years after the abolishment of the Hays Code, this neo-noir harkens back to the Hollywood stories of the 40’s for the technical inspiration required to tell a story with subject matter as dark as its tone. It was almost as if the great techniques, developed by Lang and Wilder in decades past had often been squandered on neutered stories. The seventies were different though. Topics once thought forbidden or too taboo became fair game, allowing more freedom for the storytellers.

I watch CHINATOWN about once a year or so, often curious about how well it will hold up to my evolving tastes. I am always surprised at how I still respond to it. I’ve stopped expecting to outgrow it.

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