Cinema of Cynicism

In a 29-film series, Oak Street Cinema puts Hollywood's most complicated decade, the Seventies, onscreen

While madness as a byproduct of war has been explored in numerous movies, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is one of the few films I know that makes you feel that warfare can truly be maddening. One of the key lines is "Every man has a breaking point," and in this war, the participants must accept lunacy as the norm. As a tranquil green jungle flares into flame, as helicopters rise and weeping peasants run and the landscape explodes, you're alert to the likelihood of death at any moment. Several scenes are almost unbearable, as when harmless civilians are killed for no reason at all, or when a flock of helicopters amplifies "The Ride of the Valkyries" to "scare the hell out of the slopes," and the music soars while guns blaze and the dying drop.

Like a soldier, you hope desperately for a lull, for a breath of quiet, while knowing it won't last; you simply want a few minutes' peace. But when there is silence, you're ravaged by suspense, awaiting the next bullet or grenade--from what direction? After the horrific immensity of a battle, you become numb, as GIs do, and the war seems endless, as it did to them.

In this movie, Americans aren't evil--but our war is. Everyone suffers. No one is heroic. Given the superb war scenes, I can forgive the muddled and pretentious last hour. Lurching out of a tribute to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlon Brando as a crazed Green Beret colonel in Cambodia has little to do aside from croaking out "The Hollow Men" as though he knows he reads it badly. His speeches are burdened with a fuzzy moralism that undermines the concept of the military gone mad. No matter: Coppola has already given us a collective experience of the war, and I recommend seeing this picture soon after the distortions of The Deer Hunter.

Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter
Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter


The Vietnam movies take me back to the anguish of the spring of 1970, when two black students died of bullets and twelve were wounded at Mississippi's Jackson State, when the killings abroad accelerated and a good many young Americans felt endangered at home. After Kent and Jackson State, a Yale student told me, "Everything we thought and feared had come true. It felt like us against them: a personal attack on students and nonconformists. It showed that they were going to shoot us down if we got in the way." The campus slayings were, of course, accidental. But as a national milestone, Kent State caused many of the young to feel hopeless about change--that those who tried to alter society could very well lose their lives.

The late Sixties had been a festival of changes: in sex and music, design and dressing, ways of living and learning, convictions about war and peace. Caution seeped into many souls during the Seventies. But because making a movie takes at least two years (and usually longer) after its first conception, the liberated styles of the Sixties suffused the films of the next decade. Only the themes--as conspiracies build and assassins stalk their unwitting targets--were different. Expecting the worst, as in the brilliantly ominous Parallax View, was a ground note of the age.

Still, decades don't start on schedule, and that particular period seems like a series of three distinct eras. The beginning of the Seventies was an extension of the late Sixties (university strikes and antiwar activity), except that the civil-rights movement had lost momentum after Martin Luther King was murdered, and Black Power militancy was fading. Then Watergate, which some found heartening--because the crimes of our leaders were so dramatically exposed. Then the Jimmy Carter years: quite conservative but not confident. The movies were wonderfully diverse, but most of the best--even the comedies--were pessimistic, dispensing a dark view of this country and the experiences of its citizens. Look at Klute and The Parallax View and The China Syndrome and remember that All the President's Men was one of the few optimistic pictures of the time, offering the prospect of a ruined presidency as a source of hope.

As Jack Nicholson splendidly blows his stack at a waitress in a coffee shop in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, you realize that many of the Seventies films highlight rebellion against authority or at least contempt for it. Defiance of the law--as in The Godfather, Sugarland Express, or the sublime scene in Dog Day Afternoon where Al Pacino strides to and fro, waving a white cloth and yelling, "Attica! Attica!", baiting a crowd of cops with the memory of 43 Attica hostages and prisoners killed by New York state police--and the urge to unmask the corruptions of power (Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor) animate the anger that streams across the screen. The mutinous instincts are inherited from the Sixties, but hippie sentiments are scarce. Instead many of the characters possess a post-Aquarian cool: Even when they lose their tempers, cynicism blends with calculation and a letch for control.


"Where were you when Kennedy got shot?"

"Which Kennedy?"

"Any Kennedy."

That quick exchange in Arthur Penn's Night Moves mirrors the deadpan directness of the Seventies style: no blinking. The acute self-possession of some Seventies antiheroes--Gene Hackman abruptly confronting his wife's lover in that movie, Warren Beatty slipping into a new persona in The Parallax View, Jack Nicholson circling Faye Dunaway in Chinatown--conveys the you-can't-surprise-me attitude of the era. Nicholson himself provides some exhilarating surprises, as in Five Easy Pieces, where he moves smoothly between the role of a hardhat and an upper-crust pianist: How rarely you see an actor inhabiting two classes--and how few would be capable of switching. Here and in Chinatown he's at his mood-swinging best, both sensitive and truculent, and it's so rewarding to see him before he started doing his fish eyes (a lazy habit of the last decade).

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