More than four decades after the New Hollywood films of the 60s and 70s hit screens and were established as a near-mythical period of artistic excellence in American cinema, the era’s characteristics also increasingly contrasted with current American cinema.
Nonconformity, provocation and experimentation were mainstream. Today, those qualities aren’t selling movie tickets but driving streamer subscriptions. And big hits are all characterized by packaged product franchise hits that dominate the box office to the almost complete exclusion of individual movies.
Which is a long explanation why awards season is more necessary than ever.
As someone who lives through and loves new Hollywood films and filmmakers, this is the time of year when the ambitious appetite for hard storytelling is sated.
Besides Todd Field’s wonderful and already much-celebrated “Tár,” which has drawn positive comparisons to Hollywood giant Stanley Kubrick, there are at least three other films that I think would have held their own in the good old days. Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Francis Coppola, and others. James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” BJ Novak’s “Revenge” and Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” all have strong personal directorial identities and creative aspirations that demand audience engagement, as opposed to committed theme park entertainment.
David Ehrlich hits on that conflicting aspect of “Armageddon Time” when he writes in his enthusiastic IndieWire review: “James Gray makes movies worth watching, but they often ask you to meet them more than halfway…”
Countless new Hollywood films set out to explore unpleasant truths and examine flawed “heroes.” Benjamin in “The Graduate” has no idea about his future, while Warren Beatty’s George in “Shampoo” is incoherent and Bobby Dupiah in Jack Nicholson’s “Five Easy Pieces” is cold and self-absorbed.
Gray bets on “Armageddon,” portraying a teenage version of himself as Kraven, capable of calculated and soul-crushing betrayal. Ehrlich praised Gray’s cinematic handling of this tragic, haunting memoir, invoking the core of New Hollywood’s creative genius: “Grey looks at his own childhood. [key Coppola collaborator] Camera by Gordon Willis.”
(An inspired Darius Khandji shot the film.) Cementing “Armageddon’s” link to that earlier era of Americana soul-searching, Ehrlich considered its central dramatic conflict “as worthy of a coming-of-age novel as a separate peace.” John Knowles’ acclaimed 1959 novel that also explores the breakdown of morality and the loss of youthful innocence.
Comparing it to one of New Hollywood’s greatest cinematic inspirations, The AV Club’s Jordan Hoffman hailed this aspect of “Armageddon” as “an energetic look at growing up, in the Francos Truffaut tradition,” and RogerEbert.com’s Nell Mino called for another. New Hollywood influences from the European New Wave in his rave “Armageddon” review: “Like another autobiographical memoir about schoolboys, Louis Malle’s ‘Au revoir les infants,’ ‘Armageddon Time’ is a story of childhood innocence remembered with regret and history’s worst bigotry. and a sense of responsibility, including adult recognition of injustice.
“Revenge,” Novak’s free-wheeling, swing-for-the-fence crime comedy, could come from the pen of a new Hollywood auteur like novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane, whose “Ninety-Two in the Shade” and “Rancho Deluxe” Both are sharp satires of red states and effective Woodstock Generation skewering of the fast-fading American Dreams of the previous Greatest Generation.
diversityIts Wayne Glaberman put it nicely, calling “Revenge” “a dizzying caprice” and placing it on his list of the 10 best films of the year. Glaberman’s description of the film’s cutting-edge tale of a New York podcaster’s adventure in modern-day rural Texas is a film cleanfolk of the myriad new Hollywood romps like Altman’s “MASH,” Milos Forman’s “Taking Off” and “Deservan.”: “‘Revenge’ makes its own rules.” . It’s a one-of-a-kind movie, like a Preston Sturges comedy mixed with … What does free-floating mean? ‘Beneath Silver Lake’ horror.
If current American cinema is undergoing an earthquake caused by the explosion of diversity, there is an abundance of kinship in films that redefine our notions of identity, heroism, success, masculinity ideals and equity, and break down the barriers that block the path of women and minorities. Disenfranchised voices to tell their stories.
But the New Hollywood didn’t open the doors to women and minority directors as much as perhaps many wanted and most expected. #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo and other movements are needed to stop the suffocation and create breathing space for new voices. Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” is more than a great example of the realization of a long-denied opportunity, it is a worthy successor to the new Hollywood-era films, including John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967) and John Flynn’s “The Sgt.” (1968) that both shed a disturbing light on the true sexual complexities of life inside the Hollywood-simplified edifice of the American military.
Named as a diversityIts 2023 10 Directors to Watch was hosted by Elegance Bratton. diversityIts Peter DeBruges in contemporary parlance that sounds like the best of ’60s and ’70s Hollywood revisionism.
“There’s been a lot of mistakes in movies — or deliberate misrepresentations — about the military,” explains DeBruges, “which Bratton’s film hopes to correct and expand.” Invoking that deity of the New Hollywood name, Debruge concludes that “foremost in the audience’s mind, no doubt, is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’.”
Are movie theaters in danger of losing the kind of provocative filmmaking pioneered by Gray, Novak and Bratton to dominate the home entertainment platform? Coming out of the pandemic, the theater space seemed darkly forbidding to wildly welcome blockbusters and invoke David Ehrlich’s praise for audiences “having to fill the halfway point.”
Perhaps the best way to help ensure their survival is for awards season voters to remember them on their ballots.