Haunted by spirits of ’70s

Current films capture essence of past decade

Against a politically tumultuous backdrop, the 1970s ushered in a new age of maverick American filmmaking. Many of 2000’s best written scripts evoke that decade, in period detail and spirit.

In “The Virgin Suicides,” Sofia Coppola crafted a haunting adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel that was anthropologically correct but never campy, drawing from the work of photographer Bill Owens (“Suburbia”) and Nancy Steiner’s note-perfect polyester costumes.

“I loved ‘Dazed and Confused’ but I felt that had already been done. I didn’t want to make jokes about orange bell bottoms,” Coppola says. “I wanted the film to look more like I remembered the ’70s. I wasn’t a teenager until the ’80s so I remember them in an abstract, fragmented way. Like in faded photographs of my parents or of my brother and his friends going to Who concerts with their teen peach-fuzz mustaches.”

For writer-director Cameron Crowe, the ’70s were more personal; he based his comic coming-of-ager “Almost Famous” on his own teenage experiences as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone. But it wasn’t just the decade’s music that rocked his world; it was also the movies.

“I was 11 years old and my mom was taking me to see movies like ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ ‘The Graduate,’ ‘Medium Cool,'” says Crowe, “and there would always be some theater owner saying, ‘Ma’am, you don’t know the movie you’re taking your son to see. It’s rated R.’ And she would say, ‘I am a teacher and this is visual literature. I will cover his eyes during the promiscuous parts.’ She did and through her fingers was some of the most amazing filmmaking I’ve ever seen.”

Adapting “Jesus’ Son,” Denis Johnson’s short-story collection, scribes Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia (co-writers of the film with Oren Moverman) made a conscious decision to make a film that not only took place in the 1970s but captured a generation’s disillusionment spurred by events like Watergate and the Vietnam War. FH (Billy Crudup), a twentysomething heroin junkie, wanders through the Midwest looking for meaning.

Sticking with the ’70s

“At one point, we flirted stupidly with setting it in current times because we had somebody offering us money to do that,” says Cuthrell. “And we just realized, ‘Absolutely not!’ This is a character that could only live in the ’70s, the whole use of drugs and the innocence about it and the experimentation. The songs that he hears in his head and how completely out of touch he feels with the world. He doesn’t know how to be a part of it. He doesn’t see anything honest in it.”

In addition to these period pics, 2000 saw the release of several contemporary films that evoked the ’70s spirit of maverick filmmaking, including James Gray’s “The Yards,” Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich,” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”

Adapting Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel about Brooklyn junkies, Aronofsky resisted making a period piece, but ’70s touches abound, from his usage of cutting-edge film techniques on a low-budget to the iconic casting of Ellen Burstyn (“The Exorcist,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”).

“Since I was making a film about addiction, I wanted it to be timeless but I’m still hugely influenced by great ’70s directors like Roman Polanski,” says Aronofsky. “I really like the way he draws a line between objective filmmaking where you’re just watching the characters vs. subjective filmmaking where you’re really getting inside the characters’ heads.”

Many critics have championed these films as some of the year’s best and for most of these scribes, revisiting the recent past is far from over.

“There’s still more I’d like to say. It’s funny, I went to see Elton John last night and I was thinking there are whole other worlds of experience that are connected to those songs for me,” says Crowe. “And ’70s movies always felt to me like some achingly personal vision. They were freewheeling and reckless and that’s what was beautiful about it. There was recklessness in the audience, too. It’s not just nostalgia. I think people are aching for that kind of personal connection to movies.”

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