at a Theater or Drive-In Neear You
The Shadow Cinema
of the American '70s
By Charles Taylor. Bloomsbury. 208 pp. $27
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Reviewed by Sam Shapiro
nolead ends American cinema in the 1970s was an astonishment. The Conversation. The Last Picture Show. Klute. Nashville. Chinatown. Harold and Maude. Taxi Driver.
In Charles Taylor's Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, the '70s are identified in the opening sentence as the "last great period in American movies." His book is the latest in a growing library devoted to Seventies cinema, but it is less about the decade's classic films than its forgotten, forsaken ones.
For example, you will find no trace of Rocky, or even Raging Bull. Instead, an entire chapter is devoted to the mostly forgotten bare-knuckle fight film Hard Times. Taylor finds much to admire in this brutal Depression-era drama (starring the taciturn Charles Bronson), particularly its desolate, lonely images of the city.
This passage is an indicator of the author's reverence for "disposable B pictures" of the 1970s. Released by studios with little fanfare or support, almost all were received with critical indifference.
But not by Charles Taylor, who reevaluates 15 films with critical acumen and fanlike exuberance. He's Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold, and after finishing his book I was convinced of the many virtues to Floyd Mutrux's Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Robert Culp's Hickey & Boggs, and Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
In his preface, Taylor writes: "I want not just to describe the experience of seeing these movies, but to use them to unlock their time, to suggest what they managed to contain of America in the moment they were made."
The "road movie" was one way to convey how troubled and vast the country was. Taylor's inclusion of the hypnotic, meandering Two Lane Blacktop and the nihilist, existential Vanishing Point comes as no surprise. It's the section on Citizens Band, directed by the then-unknown Jonathan Demme, that made me especially wistful. This comedy about the nation's mid-'70s obsession with CB radios is a forgotten treasure. "The fate of Jonathan Demme's comedy," Taylor writes, "can stand as a tombstone for the era. Paramount, which had no faith in the movie, dumped Citizens Band into second-run houses and drive-ins on May 25, 1977, the same day Twentieth Century Fox began a cautious limited release of their new picture, Star Wars."
The stage was set for the "state of arrested adolescence in which American movies now reside."