Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
A Handy, In-Progress Guide to the Greatest Decade of American Filmmaking
The 1970s is widely regarded as the true Golden Age of film in the U.S., a time when shifting demographics and the loss of corporate control over several major studios let young, ambitious mavericks churn out ambitious, uncompromising masterpieces on a near-weekly basis. The Godfather and Taxi Driver are just the surface. Underneath the films that still resonate in mainstream culture is a veritable city of jaw-dropping films–some brilliant, some difficult, some pretentious, but almost all rewarding in some way. Some of these you've probably seen, others you might not have even heard of. Here begins a list you can use to navigate your way through this decade if you haven't started already, and enrich your knowledge of what's possible in feature films.
Writer-director Terrence Malick, Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek
Very complicated. Almost everyone agrees that it’s a great film; almost no one has seen it. Let me explain. So basically Terrence Malick is this soft-spoken Texan who went to film school then went out and made two movies (to aspiring filmmakers’ eternal frustration, this jump from film school to professional director is always elided in the popular histories) in the 70s (Badlands and Days of Heaven), neither of which were huge box office successes, neither of which won any prestigious Oscars (Heaven did win for Best Cinematography, but that doesn’t really count), and both of which are remembered as being very well-respected but sort of minor-key and seldom-seen. Legend has it that Malick then wandered the backroads of Texas bird-watching for the next 20 years, then emerged in Hollywood one day and found every actor there would do anything to be in his next film (The Thin Red Line). So Badlands apparently has an amazing reputation, and yet no one I ever mention it to has seen it. I almost have to get down on my knees and beg them to Netflix it. If none of my very geeky, movie-crazy friends have never seen it, how is it that a nut like Woody Harrelson (Sergeant Keck in Thin Red Line) did?
How it Holds Up:
Badlands is one of those movies that will at least partially ruin contemporary cinema for you. Badlands is so quiet, so delicate, so subtle, full of such slow-burning brilliance… Malick makes Ang Lee look like Michael Bay. A basic retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story, it’s very hard to describe this film’s appeal, to put Malick’s magic into words. That’s probably because Malick’s whole project is basically to capture those moments of the beautiful and the sublime that can’t be put into words. Malick cast two actors with very powerful yet very weird charisma: a young Martin Sheen and a very young Sissy Spacek (like Lolita young. This is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but Spacek in this movie reminds me of James Woods character in Casino’s description of the first time he saw Sharon Stone’s character over the phone on Stone’s wedding night to De Niro. He says something pervy about seeing a fourteen year-old long-legged colt walking down the sidewalk and his heart skipping a beat. Very creepy), sets up the situation, makes sure it’s shot beautifully, then gets out of the way. Spacek’s fourteen-year old innocent naïf narrates the movie, and there’s no attempt to make her smarter than the average fourteen year-old South Dakotan. Part of the beauty of the movie is hearing her charmingly clueless interpretations of the events. Malick’s writing of these characters, and Sheen and Spacek’s performance, remind me of an old comedy improv saw: playing someone dumb isn’t funny; playing someone dumb who acts as smart as their intelligence allows them is. They kill a few people so their forbidden love can flourish, then go on the run across the barren prairies of the Dakotas and the eponymous Badlands. Malick is the cinema’s answer to Emerson, Thoreau, and Rousseau, the celebrator of the Noble Savage, the piner for the Return to Innocent Nature. Badlands was his first, and, for me, most beautiful exploration of this classic theme.