In 1979, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Paul Volcker told the Joint Economic Committee that Americans must accept a reduction in their living standards to tackle inflation. Volcker was responding to a decade in which the promise of the post-war paradigm — typified by the Bretton Woods Agreement which established a new monetary order — came crashing with the onset of recession, stagflation, a stock market crash and double-digit unemployment. An OPEC embargo triggered the 1973 “oil crisis,” which quadrupled oil prices while Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were trampled under the expense of the Vietnam War. In an attempt to stem the inflationary tide, President Richard M. Nixon imposed wage and price freezes, ending the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, and with it the Bretton Woods system. Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and his pardon by President Gerald Ford only compounded the sense that the system was concerned chiefly with its own survival, and that its citizens should follow suit.
What is so strange about the New Hollywood renaissance of the 70s is that it took place at a time of acute crisis for the business. It was a signal of the industry’s weakness that these cracks in the veneer were not only permitted but encouraged, the first reflection of an instability that had seldom penetrated the screen, even during the Great Depression. There was a new audience that no longer wanted lavish diversions, but a cinema which spoke to their anxieties and adversities. The New Hollywood cinema of the 70s became a site of struggle; as people attempted to adjust to a new reality, they looked to the screen to echo their pain. The actors who emerged in this period didn’t look like stars — the characters they played mirrored the audience; they occupied a space as unforgiving as that into which the viewer stepped when the lights went up.
The margins of American life were expanded to admit a broader swathe of its citizens, but the old antagonisms had not disappeared; indeed, instability served to heighten them in New Hollywood. For the black residents of the Park Slope tenement in The Landlord (1970), conditions will only get more perilous as the decade progresses; the degradation they have endured will be extended into previously insulated areas as the economic climate worsens. But for people like Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), these disparities represent an opportunity to make his mark, and some money. Enders is the blasé face of gentrification — he first appears sprawled on the lawn of his lavish family home, woken by a black servant who has purchased the tenement, and intends to evict the tenants so he can satisfy his inbuilt need to “gain territory” in the “very chic neighborhood” of Brooklyn. Enders joins with other well-heeled hippies in their “urban renewal” project, drawing the ire of those who have historically occupied the area.
The Landlord captures a kind of rentier New Hollywood capitalism which conceives of capital as an occupation (in both senses of the word). Elgar is engaged in the active application of inherited resources, forever appreciating as new territories are gained, speaking the language of improvement while practicing a quasi-colonial effort to set an example for the benighted souls trapped in squalor. Elgar offers a more presentable face for generations of exploitation; he may emulate counterculture idioms and profess liberal values, but he can never be anything other than an emissary for his class interests. Elgar’s sister, Susan (Susan Anspach), admires Elgar for his “revolutionary” take on rent seeking but admits that she doesn’t “have the stomach” to integrate. Elgar’s family practices a form of liberal largesse which doesn’t extend beyond tipping the staff, speaking of “law and order” in reference to the “hoodlums” who occupy that “dreadful slum,” the Nixon-era rhetoric which foreshadowed the birth of the prison-industrial complex as a means of pacifying — and profiting from — the economically disenfranchised.
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Writer Bill Gunn has no illusions about the kind of white moderates who Martin Luther King regarded as the “great stumbling block” towards freedom, more devoted to “order” than to justice. Elgar belongs to a ruling class which takes pride in being a “good landlord,” allocating resources where it sees fit while taking care to leave the existing structures intact. Elite philanthropy sets out to ameliorate the worst excesses of the conditions it creates, just as Elgar does when he gets one of his tenants, Francine (Diana Sands), pregnant and tries to make it right by gifting her family the tenement. It is a paternalistic gesture from someone who is free to cast off a troublesome asset when it fails to yield the desired return. The Landlord never loses sight of this underlying dynamic; however close Elgar gets, his tenants remain an impediment to his ultimate aim, their lives are a canvas onto which he projects his designs.
The black experience of work was captured in two remarkable New Hollywood films which bookended the decade — Christopher St. John’s Top of the Heap (1972) and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). Black workers found themselves trapped in a double bind: they were condemned with equal vehemence for opting out or buying into the system. Conformity was no guarantee of acceptance, as George Lattimer (Christopher St. John) learns the hard way in Top of the Heap. Lattimer is one of the few Black officers on the Washington, D.C. police force; he is loyal, diligent and ambitious — he fights a group of Yippie-type white radicals who are literally tearing apart Old Glory. But when Lattimer gets passed over for the captain’s position, disillusionment sets in, and he understands that his prospects are circumscribed by his race.
Lattimer finds himself trapped between contexts, earning the opprobrium of both sides: he is branded a “Black pig” by one perp, a “brother” who has switched allegiance to “The Man,” while the badge does not guarantee the respect of his peers on the force. Lattimer must live up to the ideal of the exceptional Black man, he must be a paragon of virtue to be considered equal, all the time contending with the underlying dread of the violent Black man which the institution he serves sets out to inculcate in the public mind. Lattimer gets to the point where he leans into expectations; his indignation begins to get the better of him, and he succumbs to the worst version of himself that those around him are intent on projecting. Working so close to the center of the U.S. empire, Lattimer cannot help but see the disparities which flag up the contradictions in the system: the poor Black populations struggling cheek by jowl with the monuments which proclaim a universal freedom that seems nebulous at best. The flag is all that unifies these disparate elements, but its promises are becoming increasingly threadbare.
Read More at VV — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘The Bubble’
Top of the Heap has parallel New Hollywood narratives — one fantastical and one actual. While Lattimer works the graveyard shift, he dreams of being a famed astronaut preparing for a mission to the moon. But even in his dream life, the mission is shown to be counterfeit, little more than a patriotic pageant representing a promise endlessly deferred. Top of the Heap plays out like a companion piece to the Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon,” in which “The man’s just upped my rent last night / Cause whitey’s on the moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But whitey’s on the moon.” The grandiose schemes only serve to bring quotidian life into sharper relief. All that remains is to dream of approbation. Lattimer must narrow the understanding of himself, until it fits into the demands of the uniform. He is adamant that he “ain’t going out there to fight the Man’s war no more,” but necessity drives him back into the arms of the Man — even the dream version of himself is struck down by an assassin’s bullet during a hometown ticker tape parade in his honor. In the end, Lattimer experiences a dual death; the bullet reverberates, penetrating the veil between edifying myths and implacable truths, and achieves the fulfilment of his assertion that “America can wipe out anything.”
In the New Hollywood film Killer of Sheep, Stan (Henry G. Sanders) occupies another dehumanizing role on a different kind of killing floor. Like Lattimer, Stan is a cog in a machine which ruthlessly wipes things out, working in a slaughterhouse in which value is extracted from flesh with no less efficiency than the wars, prisons and low-wage jobs which suck up Black bodies like the livestock herded en masse to their deaths. Burnett’s editing is instrumental in underlining that the fates of those who live in the Watts area of Los Angeles have already been determined, most powerfully with a swift cut from children running to sheep carcasses strung up. Stan’s children are indoctrinated into the logic of Watts; the brutal credo of “kill or be killed” is “what life is about.” The expanse of vacant lots and disused factory buildings are a playground; the children pick through the remnants of an industrial center which has become isolated from wider economic life.
Strategies for survival must be devised, and Stan sees the possibility of access to life beyond Watts by fixing up an old car, the symbol of mobility and autonomy in U.S. life. He scrapes together the money to buy a new motor, but the plan is compromised from the outset when the motor is damaged. Moving in circles takes on the appearance of forward motion. Stan is derided by his friends for refusing to get involved in criminal schemes and thinking that he’s middle-class; they ask his wife (Kaycee Moore), “He’s worked all his life, what has he got?’ Killer of Sheep gives the lie to the idea of an equal playing field, the dignity of work and the promise of upward mobility, concepts that are central to American folklore. Stan has bought in to this mythology, refusing to believe that he is poor, comparing his lot to those even lower on the economic totem pole. Without ever being explicit, Burnett’s New Hollywood film draws a devastating parallel between the trapped animals and the denizens of Watts, where bodies are commodities fed into the machine, where kids’ destinies are decided at birth, where honest toil goes unrewarded.
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Music is used to striking effect, most notably that of Paul Robeson. The dignity of the performer’s voice, and the ideals he sings about in “The House I Live In” serve as a condemnation of the images that accompany it. The sound of Robeson intoning his love for America’s freedoms and opportunities over shots of children dismantling a derelict building for lack of anything better to do strikes a particularly poignant note. But Killer of Sheep is not a sentimental New Hollywood work; it never strains to be virtuous; it takes great pains not to pander to the cliché of the “downtrodden poor.” There are no heroes or villains here, simply people doing what they have to do, and trying to retain their humanity in the process. Robeson’s voice strikes a doubly chilling note when one considers what America did to him, and what it is doing to the people of Watts.
The uncertainty created by a looming recession was already beginning to become visible in Save the Tiger (1973), in which Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon) tries to guide his struggling apparel business through hostile economic waters. Stoner is a figure at odds with the world he helped to create, squaring off against obsolescence, and surveying the breakdown of all that he has built with a resolute front in the face of gnawing regret. On the surface, Stoner leads a life of comfort in the New Hollywood film, living in a Beverly Hills mansion that looks down on the smog-swathed chaos of Los Angeles. But no-one is exempt from the anxiety that was plaguing the country, the dawning awareness that the life to which many Americans had become accustomed could no longer be sustained. This bred its own paranoia and dread among those who should have felt the most secure — Stoner is beset by nightmares, and laments that he “could’ve been a ball player.”
Stoner belongs to a generation that expected the world when they returned home from the war, and feel let down with where they ended up. They long for a lost ideal, wrapped up in the nostalgia of what America used to be in their eyes — Stoner says “I used to get goosebumps every time I looked at that flag.” Material comforts do little to allay the character’s suspicion that he took a wrong turn somewhere; he picks up a young hitchhiker, Myra (Laurie Heineman), who rides up and down the Sunset Strip all day, and he envies her aimlessness. But Stoner cannot shrug off his obligations and step off the treadmill in this New Hollywood movie. As with the denizens of Watts in Killer of Sheep, Stoner does what he has to do to sell his company’s new clothing line and keep the company afloat — be it hiring “illegal wetbacks,” arranging sexual favors for prospective buyers or hatching an insurance scam to burn down one of the company’s factories.
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Stoner presides over his diminishing fiefdom, and must decide how many casualties he is willing to take down. Life seems to have been stripped of its jouissance, reduced to the imperatives of making ‘”another season.” Everything that had sealed over the wounds of the past are being picked away at, and Stoner yearns to return to what Myra describes as “a place of remembered beauty,” like the tigers who are so easily caught in that cherished space. The tiger stands for something majestic that is under threat. Stoner feels everything that leant his life meaning being upended by complexity — the character’s partner, Phil Greene (Jack Gilford), reminds him that “When we were kids, all the choices were simple, life was simple.
Greene’s may be a trite view, but it buttresses the belief that the gathering storm clouds had made adversaries of “the people in the middle who made the country work,” creating conditions in which “the government has another word for survival, and it’s fraud,” as Stoner describes it. The old rules of engagement no longer apply. Stoner survived the shooting war, only to witness the things which underpinned his life give way. The signifiers of wealth become millstones; the margins have become too tight to afford anything but the barest form of survival. Stoner longs for the smell of the ocean, to be in love with something again, to salvage something of value from the wreckage of the vessel he’d steered towards the American horizon.
Blue Collar (1978) unfolds on the precipice of the neoliberal cliff. Like Save the Tiger, this New Hollywood film offers a window into an industry about to be radically reshaped, with manufacturing jobs being outsourced and the influence of unions waning (union membership in the U.S. was over 20 million in the late 70s). Old certainties were being stripped away, and this was felt no more acutely than in Michigan, where a safe union job was regarded as a birthright. Blue Collar follows the travails of what Jack Nitzsche’s theme song describes as the “hard-working, fucked-over man,” constructing automobiles at a Wayne County factory. Ezekiel “Zeke” Brown (Richard Pryor) owes back taxes to the IRS after filing a false claim, Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) can’t afford to pay for his daughter’s braces (despite working two jobs) and John “Smokey” James (Yaphet Kotto) is a “two-time loser” fresh out of Michigan State Prison.
Read More at VV — Know the Cast: ‘CODA’
These are men stuck in a poverty trap — despite going out for 73 days to secure a raise, inflation is beginning to bite, as Zeke tells his union rep: “Wages ain’t the problem no more; it’s the fuckin’ prices.” Pressed and squeezed into a desperate state, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey conceive a desperate plan: to break into the union safe. Inevitably, the caper leaves them little better off, and provides cover for a trail of union corruption — the cover-up turns out to be worse than the crime. The union is seen as another layer of management; the workers are urged to “be reasonable” in unreasonable times by shop steward Clarence Hill (Lane Smith). All the while, they are being pitted against each other in the interest of undermining solidarity and keeping everyone on the production line: “Lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the white against the black, to keep us in our place,” as Smokey describes it to his conspirators. Unity is the workers’ most potent weapon, but the tenor of the times militates against it.
The “Oreo Gang” stumble upon the depth of the alliance that fuels capital at the expense of the rank and file — a form of socialism for the few, and rugged individualism for everybody else. As manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas in greater numbers, the worker held even less power; capital could stretch the atomized neoliberal subject as thin as it pleased in the name of “flexibility.” Class allegiance still binds the workers in Blue Collar, but the experiences of workmates like Smokey and Bobby Joe (Ed Begley Jr.) vary wildly according to race. Zeke understands that, as the heat intensifies on the Oreo Gang, he does not have the privilege of “thinking white” like Jerry, assuming that further chances will be afforded. Zeke will “pick the ass I wanna kiss” in the New Hollywood film while calculating “when to stand up, and when to look the other way.”
Zeke is appointed as the new shop steward, looking for protection within the system, while convincing himself that he can chart a reformist course. Smokey is a revolutionary, and has to be extirpated; he is killed in a mysterious workplace accident, but his warning of divide and conquer rings true at the film’s conclusion. Jerry and Zeke exchange racial epithets and trade blows, representing competing sides of the establishment: the FBI and the union brass. Blue Collar was part of a cycle of New Hollywood films which spoke to a loss of faith in institutions, chiming with a wider sentiment that power had become unaccountable. In hindsight, the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater, helping to lay the groundwork for the Reagan revolution.
The New Hollywood movement abounds with stories of characters trying to find a way back from the margins of American life, penitent dropouts waking up to the new reality of the 70s. In Scarecrow (1973), misanthropic ex-con Max Millan (Gene Hackman) and kind-hearted former seaman Francis Lionel Delbuchi (Al Pacino) are drifters traversing a hostile landscape in pursuit of a new dream: to set up a carwash business in Pittsburgh. Solutions are now being sought from within the establishment; the promise of a stake in the system and consistent work now has the ring of spiritual victory. But the dream is as illusory as the one of liberation that had tantalized a previous generation of seekers. The promise of being welcomed back into respectability is forever fixed on the horizon, no matter how fast Millan and Delbuchi run towards it. The vicissitudes of the market come as a shock to Millan after “nine years of planning” from his prison cell; Millan and Delbuchi must adjust to material conditions, feed on the system’s jetsam, knowing that the burden falls on those least equipped to bear it.
Read More at VV — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘CODA’
Millan and Delbuchi know deep down that they can never return to the old ways; they must learn to become ridiculous in the eyes of regular folk, they must turn their bodies into a risible spectacle as a mechanism of survival, and a concession of defeat. Their journey inevitably leads them back to prison, the gravitational pull of the poverty-to-prison pipeline which sucks up cheap labor and serves as a microcosm of the outside. It is a plight which Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) in Straight Time (1978) understands all too well. Dembo is released from prison after six years in the New Hollywood film, and is cast adrift in a world where “it’s what you’ve got in your pocket that counts.” Dembo is determined to find “a decent job, a decent place to live,” but the pipeline requires a constant stream. The possibility of becoming “a bone fide member of society” is undermined at every turn by a parole system — embodied by M. Emmet Walsh’s oleaginous parole officer — which offers the narrowest of route to rehabilitation. Dembo sees no means of ingress into the economy and he crosses the divide, jumping parole and plunging back into his old life. It is easier to face the iniquities of the criminal world than to contend with the job market.
In 92 in the Shade (1975), Tom Skelton (Peter Fonda) is the feckless young man from a wealthy family who “enjoys water sports” and decides it might be fun to become a fishing guide in the Florida marina where he lives. But Skelton discovers that the waters of Key West are not uncontested; he is stepping on the toes of two veteran guides — Faron Carter (Harry Dean Stanton), who is settling into stolid domesticity and has to prove something to himself, and the irascible Nicholas Dance (Warren Oates), whose “sharpness” mirrors the character Oates played a year earlier in Cockfighter; a man driven to excel in a field where the rewards can be scant and the risks are manifold. The setting of 92 in the Shade presages the ruthless grinding of the gig economy. Precarity sets in motion an ever-escalating game of sabotage, revenge and intimidation, and life becomes a fight for “who gets to fish and who gets to cut bait.”
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What ensues in the New Hollywood film is a kind of class war Western; the fresh-faced cowboy rides into town, and squares off against the grizzled old gunfighter. The dilletante battles the working stiffs, but Skelton understands that he can always cut bait if the heat gets oppressive; he has the leeway to retreat back into the margins; the urgency is all with the Florida sportsmen eking out their living. Skelton is bankrolled by his grandfather (Burgess Meredith), buoyed by his family’s real estate fortune, following a family lineage of outré enthusiasms. Skelton’s father (William Hickey) frittered away family money making defective blimps; he tells his son that “even my whorehouse was a flop.” Fonda’s New Hollywood character is informed by his father that “maybe you can’t be saved either”; he is on a course to inherit the family curse, reaching for a flawless failure.
For all its rebellious spirit, the New Hollywood was a boy’s club. There were exceptions like Barbara Loden and Elaine May, but writing and directing was a steadfastly male domain. While Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was written and directed by men, Martin Scorsese’s 1974 drama anticipates the string of 80s films which dealt with the issue of women entering the workplace in greater numbers; it was a step towards a female-centered cinema that addressed the concerns of professional women. When Alice Hyatt’s (Ellen Burstyn) husband dies suddenly, she and her preteen son (Alfred Lutter) must set off in search of work. Alice tries to make her way as a singer, but ends up working as a waitress. She meets Dave (Kris Kristofferson), who offers her the chance to become a wife again. The tension in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore hinges on the title character’s ambivalence — she is determined to make her own way, but knows that options for women are limited.
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The café where Alice waitresses is populated by an assortment of unorthodox women who cannot, or will not, fit into traditional family structures, from the foul-mouthed Florence (Diane Ladd) to the highly-strung Vera (Valerie Curtin). Alice must decide whether she wants to join the ranks of these self-contained women or surrender her hard-won independence. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore tiptoes towards affirming the former, but ultimately chickens out; its dénouement seems aware of its own contrivances, and sets out to parody them with its soap opera histrionics, as Alice falls into the arms of Dave. “Can’t I have everything?” Alice wonders. It is a question countless other women were forced to confront as new vistas of possibility began to open up.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.
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