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Easy Riders, Raging Boomers

The taint of the early 1970s was bad enough to even ruin the swank and style of Arthur Hitchcock's movies, as James Lileks once wrote:

One of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen is Hitchcock’s “Frenzy,” because you get the feeling that this is what he always wanted to do, and was finally able to do it because of the new post-60s frankness in cinema. It’s cheap and dank and smegmatic like no other Hitchcock film, and it’s depressing that he didn’t see how altogether smelly it was.

One of Bonnie & Clyde's biggest fans was the late Pauline Kael, who loved to champion the sort of pulpy low-brow culture that Quentin Tarantino has so profitably mined over the last twenty years. But as Robert Fulford wrote in his 2008 profile of Kael for Canada's National Post, it's nowhere near as much fun when that's seemingly the only type of movie being made:

Her part in the process began four decades ago when she wrote an article for The New Yorker defending Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 Warren Beatty film that treated two 1930s bank robbers with sympathy and raucous humour.Most critics found Bonnie and Clyde empty and trashy. The crusty old New York Times guy, Bosley Crowther, then one of the most influential American critics, decided that Bonnie and Clyde failed to meet his narrow, simple-minded, painfully respectable standards. It was too violent, and he thought the love story of its doomed, hare-brained title characters was "sentimental claptrap."

Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: "How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it."

She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond "good taste," moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?

Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. "Violence is its meaning."

She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.

When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and '80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: "Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline."

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. "It was fun watching the applecart being upset," Schrader said, "but now where do we go for apples?"

While the first two Godfather movies, Taxi Driver and Chinatown are near-universally regaled today as classics, many of the films of that period simply weren't that profitable. Concurrently, MGM collapsed, and its fabled backlot was broken up and sold off.  And the Young Turks who followed in Penn's wake eventually became as dissipated and exhausted as the old-timers they replaced. In short, Hollywood in the pre-Star Wars 1970s was a fallow time, as I've written before:

Not surprisingly, you can find similar stories of dissipation and overreach in a variety of industries just before they too experienced a tectonic plate shift. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documents the near collapse of the film industry twice within a single ten year period: first by the out-of-touch old fogies who ran the studio system in the 1960s, and then by the coke-addled youngsters who replaced them, only to be replaced as industry leaders in the late 1970s by two clean and sober hotshots named Lucas and Spielberg.

Or as a veteran director was quoted as saying in 1982 by the Internet Movie Database:

The movies have changed: there's now this wonderful storyteller Spielberg making benign movies that are enormously successful, while I'm known mainly for making movies about people shooting and cutting each other up. I love his work, but I could never make stuff like that.

But that's OK, Spielberg rarely can as well these days. And yes, that was a quote from Arthur Penn. Almost 45 years after his landmark (for better and worse) film Bonnie & Clyde, Hollywood is still churning out movies where the outlaws are the good guys and the bourgeois property holders are the bad guys:

And you cannot overestimate how exhausted and utterly predictable it's become.