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Uneasy Riders: Films of the 1970s

Faye Dunaway in PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILDFaye Dunaway in PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD 

Friday, July 27-------It did not seem like it at the time, but the films of a new generation of filmmakers in the 1970s truly did revolutionize the industry and save the studios from financial disaster. By the following decade, Hollywood was back to its old tricks of mounting blockbusters and lowest-common-denominator genre films. But for a period of about ten years (from 1967 to 1977, roughly defined by the release of Mike Nichol's THE GRADUATE and the unprecedented boxoffice extravaganzas JAWS and STAR WARS), as one long forgotten studio head famously remarked, "the inmates had taken over the asylum". Those inmates included such names as Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky and other risk-takers and rule-breakers.

The Museum of the Moving Image is celebrating this heady period with an on-going series entitled UNEASY RIDERS: AMERICAN FILM IN THE NIXON YEARS, focusing on the years 1970, when the former President was in his heyday, to 1974, when Watergate brought him to disgrace, ruin and resignation. The films made the mavericks of the Hollywood system brilliantly captured the growing anti-establishment mood of the country, as Watergate became a watershed political scandal and the Vietnam War finally began to wind down after years of student protests and a change in the national temperature. With a few exceptions (notably EASY RIDER, MASH, and a few others), most films of this era were more about personal expressions of protest and change, rather than political statements (how different from the film being produced in Europe, including the incendiary cinema of Godard, Bertolucci and others).

However, in this series, programmed by David Schwartz, the Museum's chief curator, casts the period as a kind of political coup, where a handful of European-influenced auteurs triumphed over a studio system overblown by its own greed, power plays and underestimation of its audience. Over the next five weeks, a series of 22 films will be screened, a mix of the era's most famous with others that are undeservably more obscure. The films all share a distinction of mirroring the the social and political tensions of that turbulent time in American history, which radically transformed the nation's cherished myths and brought in a cynicism to American life that continues to haunt us.

The series starts tomorrow with TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971), a brilliant and still controversial road move starring Dennis Wilson and singer/songwriter James Taylor (in one of his only film roles) as two disillusioned young men who take to drag race their 1955 coupe across America. The film, directed by Monte Hellman, who had made his name making westerns in the 1950s, is a kind of update of that genre, with the two racers as observant chroniclers of the frustrations, anxiety and depression at the heart of American life. Also on Saturday is a rare screening of FAT CITY (1972), a seedy boxing drama directed by the legendary John Huston. While it would be a stretch to call Huston part of the "new Hollywood of the 1970s" (since his career was firmly established in the studio system of the 1940s and 1950s), the inclusion of the director in this company is a nod to his status as a kind of "godfather of personal expression", one of the rare Hollywood directors who defied his producers and made films in his own way. Although set in the Depression era of the 1930s, the film captured the zeitgeist of corruption, cynicism and defiance of its day, Featuring a great cast that included Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and an Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell, the film was a major surprise at the Cannes Film Festival that year, proving that even established Hollywood directors were being influenced by the spirit of rebellion in the air.

On Sunday, photographer-turned-director Jerry Schatzberg will introduce his long unseen debut feature, PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD (1970), starring the then-hot Faye Dunaway (nominated for a Golden Globe for her intense performance) as a successful New York fashion model who and her downward spiral to ruin in a world of easy sex, hard drugs and a breakdown of social mores. This is a world that both Schatzberg, a successful fashion photographer, and Dunaway, a former runway model, knew very well.  This enigmatic film will be followed by a rare screening of WANDA (1970), a neglected masterpiece by actress/director Barbara Loden. In this gritty independent drama, Loden plays an abused wife who takes off with a charismatic drifter and becomes involved in his life of crime. The idea of "dropping out" of materialistic society and setting up one's own moral universe is very much in spirit with both the film EASY RIDER and the political-cum-philosophical nucleus of this wild and wonderful film series. For more information on future films, log on to the Museum's website: www.movingimage.us

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor

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The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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