New on Desk #87 — New Hollywood

It’s been a good week again; I’ve gotten work done, both writing and otherwise. Very little in the way of particularly pressing news, which means that I’ll use this opportunity to write about something reasonably non-obvious, yet relevant to my own life.

A summary history of American cinema

I noticed a couple of years ago that in my varied reading (some renaissance man autodidact inclinations here) I hadn’t quite ever gotten a solid handle on the cultural history of the art form of movie-making. Everything I knew was first-hand audience experience constructed of the random potpourri of movies I’d seen through my life! This is luckily the kind of lacuna in general knowledge that’s easy and fun to fix, so just a moment, I’ll throw down the basics in case you’re as ignorant as I used to be. I find that just knowing the basics, being able to contextualize a given movie within its cultural history, makes the entire art-form much more interesting.

First, my take on the topic is that you study American cinema if you want to get a handle on world cinema. So this is about American movies, which means Hollywood. We can discuss movies from other parts of the world another time.

Second, here’s the historical period timeline of American cinema. It’s simpler than you’d expect, particularly once I streamline the unnecessary trivia:

The early days at the beginning of the 20th century were characterized by experimentation and variety of form, as one would expect. Hollywood became the hegemonic center of the American movie industry pretty early due to its natural advantages and, slightly later, networking advantage. It’s more or less fair to say that movies became a standard cultural medium (as opposed to a weird novelty) by the 1920s or so, which means that we can start the cultural periodisation so beloved by arts history.

Hollywood Golden Age is an uncharacteristically long period of movie history, starting with the silent movies of the 1920s and lasting well into the 1960s — half a century! That’s not so long by early modern art history standards, but nowadays saying that a stylistic era continues for two generations just means that you don’t know what “stylistic era” means. However, with my layman’s understanding it actually seems like the concept of the “Golden Age” bears out pretty well: even before adding sound into the movies, American movies over this time period were essentially a fixed form: the tropes of a Laurel & Hardy comedy can be seen recycled and replicated in say The Producers (1967). Not much changes in between, aside from adding sound and color.

(That’s actually a really interesting thing, how come the Hollywood Golden Age was so… sticky. A topic for another time!)

New Hollywood was originally more of a name of a young punks artistic movement, but I think the way it’s sometimes used as the name of an entire period of film-making bears out just as well. The New Hollywood era lasted for two decades, starting in the 1960s and ending in the 1980s. What changed compared to the earlier era of Hollywood was basically that the constipated “dream factory” sentimentalism was replaced by understated psychological drama, social realism and a neutral, naturalistic camera. Alfred Hitchcock was a bit of a forebear of the direction Hollywood as a whole ended up going; chances are that your favourite ’70s movie is a fair example of New Hollywood, unless it’s Star Wars (itself a herald of things to come).

Blockbuster movie era began in the mid-’80s and ended… well, did it? At the time this appellation was more understood to be the name of a production strategy, of “going big or going home”, of penetrating a dense pop culture landscape and competing with TV by making movies into big events. Today, using the term as the name of an entire period, I can say that what changed since the last era was an emphasis on spectacle, focus on audience demographics, chasing genre trends and what can already be recognized to be modern-day camera work. The overall artistic theory of the blockbuster movie is very similar to the Golden Age Hollywood movie; both are understood as studio-mandated entertainment products more than artistic expression. It’s just that the cultural break from the ’60s to the ’80s meant that everything changed, so a pandering entertainment piece from the olden times uses different technical language and tropes compared to the more recent fare. Plus, the demographic thing makes this very different: Golden Age Hollywood tried for “all ages”, while the blockbuster movie tries for men/women aged child/teen/adult, and two of those on a good day.

Come present day, I would argue that we’re living in the final days of another fairly long-running stylistic period in Hollywood movie. The blockbuster of 2020s is essentially of the same make as the blockbuster of 1980s. The technology has crept forward, but same can be said for the Golden Age of Hollywood, while the underlying values and ideas of film-making remained stagnant.

… And that’s it! Wasn’t too complex, was it? Apparently the big picture history of the Hollywood movie can be summarized as “they’ve been doing it for a hundred years, and there was a generation-long pessimistic watershed period in the ’70s, but otherwise the dream machine has been pushing copium to the masses with admirable regularity!” Food for thought there.

(I dearly hope that if you’re the kind to read my weekly blather, I don’t need to explain why and how the stylistic disruption of New Hollywood movie-making coincides with a wider cultural watershed in American and world history.)

So what’s the topicality?

The reason I decided to write about this now is that with the darkening autumn nights the home theater has started showing movies again, and our theme has specifically been New Hollywood. Or, equivalently, “old American movies from the ’70s”. Cultural periods are not sharp lines, particularly at the beginning and end of an era, but the main reason why I think it’s entirely fair to characterize New Hollywood as a period instead of a movement is that at its apex in the ’70s you couldn’t apparently swing a stick in Hollywood without hitting some bitter cynic or young punk with a chip on their shoulder, in the process of filming one of these. The style is really obvious when you know to look for it, easily distinguishable from the Broadway-paunchy golden age or calculatingly commercial blockbuster.

(Really, I’m serious about learning yourself a bit of movie history. Most of us watch at least so much movies that we deserve to actually be capable of distinguishing between these three periods of Hollywood. It’s like being able to differentiate between trad and story game in roleplaying, a basic concept of what even exists out there.)

Let’s see, what have we been watching… at least (in no particular order)
The Conversation (1974),
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975),
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),
Clockwork Orange (1971) — I guess these are more “Kubric was a genius” picks
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
There’s been a bunch. Last year we watched fascist crime revenge fantasies (a specific genre of ’70s American movie), so there were several Dirty Harry (1971–88) and Death Wish (1974–whothefuckknows) movies.

Actually, I just asked my brother and we’ve sure been watching this crap over the last three years or so. Deer Hunter (1978) was quintessentially New Hollywood, but also so hopelessly boring that we had to quit halfway through. The Samurai (1967) is actually French, but totally enmeshed in this stylistic period. All the President’s Men (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), Chinatown (1974), Day of the Jackal (1973)… I suppose the remake of The Mechanic (2011) doesn’t count, although I expect the original (starring Charles Bronson!) totally would. The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Green Mile (1999) get honorable mentions for being basically New Hollywood style movies made a generation after that became unusual.

Stripes (1981) was also abandoned half-way through for being basically unwatchable. If you want to see New Hollywood go wrong in the twilight of the era, this is it. It’s like a bad TV sitcom, except it goes on and on and on, and the realist stylistic elements of New Hollywood do not go well with kitsch comedy. Makes me want to rewatch Police Academy (somewhat current in my childhood) to see if the genre was always that bad.

There’s sure more of these, but that’s what I could dig up immediately. The period has clearly been gripping us lately. Anyways, the point is that I’m totally an expert on New Hollywood movies now, particularly the neo-thriller department. So ask me anything about Charles Bronson, the hidden shame of America.

A capsule review on every New Hollywood movie ever made follows: as I mentioned in the historiography, the particular traits of New Hollywood compared to what came before and after are psychological drama, understated cinematography and social realism. Because we live in a society, I better define what these pithy phrases mean:

Psychological drama is when the characters in the movie don’t say what they think, so you have to project an understanding with your own empathy. The camera will probably watch the actors rather closely, but I wouldn’t look for hints in their faces or anything like that; usually they’re rather stone-faced, and I at least don’t care enough to play guessing games. So the best watching strategy is to project your own understanding of the cultural mores and guess at what the characters think and want. This contrasts strongly with the theater-influenced golden age Hollywood, where characters would make faces and shout their child-like motivations, and blockbuster era movies, where characters basically have more of a narrative role than an internal psychology.

Understated cinematography means that the camera is not pointed at anything in particular. Scenes are long, cutting is relatively sparse, the shooting happens in real locations (as opposed to a studio setpiece, as in golden age Hollywood). Music and such artificial elements are used sparingly. “Show, don’t tell” is some kind of absurd golden rule for these guys, so the camera work has lots of latitude between hamfisted and artsy, what with trying to communicate the story of the movie without just saying what it is. What it is not, however, is artificial; that’s basically what the movement was trying to escape, the orchestrated setpiece scene of old movies and TV production.

Social realism is having characters who are diffuse (not archetypal) and that look either mundane, ugly or weird. Except the women; they get to be generically pretty, with generally inconsequential roles. Sort of like the furniture, it’s also often similarly stylish. (Misogynism is both realistic and what these people liked best, so that worked out well!) The social mores and personal attitudes are sort of muted and underplayed, but intended to express real people living in the real world, rather than an overtly simplistic ideal reality.

In case it’s not clear, what with the thick layer of irony, I actually like New Hollywood movies. Some are boring and some are bad, but they’re usually bad in an incompetent way rather than being soul-crushing consumer state middle class propaganda, so things could be worse. Your average New Hollywood movie is made by a person entirely fed up with the Hollywood they grew up with, the golden age era, so they want to do better: more life-like, more original, more emotional impact. The rate of authenticism is unusually high in this watershed era of Hollywood movie, you could say.

The way these movies specifically tend to fail is by having bad structural pacing and bad dramatic emotiveness. It seems like you can take any single one of these movies and somebody will like it because they got deep enough into it to project understanding, while somebody else disliked the premise or whatever, and ended up disliking it because it “missed the mark” or such. Like say The Conversation vs One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: my movie buddy liked the first one and disliked the second, and for me it was vice versa, and our critical arguments over why might as well have been identical. We both complained about our respective movies having a weak plot, and in both cases the entire movie, for good or ill, rested on character psychology. (In one case a mono-focused single protagonist in their personal gauntlet, in the other a wide ensemble cast in a shared hell, but still.)

Those are problems with realistic art in other mediums as well, by the way; realism as an artistic movement tends to fail (in specific works, I mean) by muting out the actual thematic structure of the work to such a degree that the audience loses the red thread of what they’re witnessing, at which point boredom sets in.

When New Hollywood dodges that bullet, though, why wouldn’t you like it? Why not like a movie that has believable characters with believable motivations? A movie that hasn’t been tailored to market? A movie that is often about real subject matter with fairly accurate presentation? A movie where date-rape is A-OK heroic behavior, kidnapping somebody is romantic, and being the girlfriend of the hero gives you 50/50 odds of being horribly murdered to “show, not tell” how serious things are.

That last bit is kinda a strong thoroughline. Not in every movie, but enough to notice. Take Three Days of the Condor, for instance; it’s actually in many ways a pretty cool agent thriller, I might well pick up the novel (for more reasons than it being mysteriously named Six Days of the Condor), but aside from the so-understated-its-muddy intro to the protagonist, the sexism was frankly distractingly heavy. The hero (a nerdy CIA office worker gets embroiled in internal agency conspiracy) has their girlfriend shot in the first act, kidnaps a strange woman in the second act, and forces them into sex in the third act. This is played as being terribly romantic while the characters joke about the rape. Some of the ’70s mores sure haven’t aged well, as I understand this was an entirely routine mainstream thriller movie in its time.

Not only New Hollywood, but also a new Hollywood sign

This entire head-twirling topic switch brought to you by a dumb word-play. It’s predicated on the fact that my sister’s restaurant “Hollivoot” is obviously a Finnish-vernacular spelling of ‘Hollywood’. Therefore, when I design a new roadside sign for the restaurant, I’m designing a “new Hollywood sign”. Truly, this newsletter is the apex of comedy. Better than Stripes, at least.

(Why is a restaurant in the back of beyond named “Hollywood”, anyway? That’s actually a moderately interesting little local history trivia tidbit: in the mid-to-late 20th century the municipality of Sonkajärvi was shortly a particularly favoured shoot location for Finnish movie industry, such as it was. I’ve never quite figured out why, but the trend was strong enough to cause a weird local movie industry craze, including re-naming the local pub “Hollivoot”. There were apparently plans for a movie theme park in the late ’70s, even. This is all from before my time, but the old craze still shows up here and there, including in the name of the restaurant.)

(I understand the restaurant used to be called “Sonkahovi”, ‘Sonka Court’, before the movie craze. Take that as you will.)

You’d think that my new Hollywood sign would look like the iconic Hollywood sign, but for some reason (a surfeit of good taste?) the restaurant’s never simply used a so-ersatz-its-legal reproduction of the Hollywood sign for its logo. I discussed the new entrance sign of the restaurant a couple of weeks back, so the design is already familiar from there. This one’s just bigger, and on the side of the road. The sign’s presumably going up sometime in the coming month; maybe I’ll get a photo of it when it does.

The gameless week

I usually write about my weekly gaming, but as it happens, there was none this week! No, not even vicarious Coup. The Monday crew were seized by seasonal rearrangements and skipped the week, while the Tuesday crew, who were supposed to begin a new adventure, had the relief in a flu, so that was that.

Hopefully the Coup continues next week. My nightmare scenario for this arrangement is basically that the campaign dies while I’m away.

State of the Productive Facilities

Muster

25%

CWP

78%

This week I finished CWP #7, Experience, and got CWP #10, Alignment, pretty close to the finish line. Taken all together this leaves me with over half of the CWP issues finished; accounting for the preliminary work done on the rest, I’m calling it almost four fifths done.

Muster has lain fallow in the meantime, but I’m feeling pretty good about my productivity here. Probably will finish the CWP stuff and send it to the backers first, then finish Muster after that. Get done with something.

That presumably means trying to finish CWP #10 early next week, then on to issue #17, Barbarian Class.

1 thought on “New on Desk #87 — New Hollywood”

  1. Nice overview about Hollywood. I was bored out of my skull by the first part of The Deer Hunter but the POW scenes more than made up for it – and musing about your observations, that first part may be necessary: these characters need to be grounded and must not be larger than life. I hope you got that far – and don’t worry about the last part. More boredom plus an unconvincing addiction to Russian Roulette that set my teeth on edge.

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