'Michael Clayton,' 'Gangster' triggers nostalgia

Seventies American cinema has been invoked in more than a few instances lately by critics who see flashes of that era’s maverick spirit in many of the current crop of Oscar hopefuls.

In his review of “American Gangster,” the New Yorker’s David Denby described the film as “a descendent not just of ‘The French Connection’ (1971) but of the raucous blaxploitation romps of the early ’70s.” In their raves of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum and USA Today’s Claudia Puig both referenced Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” for, as Schwarzbaum put it, “its elegiacally fatalistic tone.” And in his critique of “Michael Clayton,” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted: “In a throwback to the 1970s, when master directors Sidney Lumet (‘Network,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon’) and Alan Pakula (‘Klute,’ ‘The Parallax View’) thought moral inquiry was part of the job, this gripping thriller simmers with tasty provocation.”

What is it about the ’70s that inspires such reveries? For one, directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman and Woody Allen had achieved name-above-the-title importance, while the first generation of film school upstarts like Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, George Lucas and Brian De Palma were reinventing the medium with their personal visions. In addition, so-called journeymen filmmakers like Lumet, Hal Ashby and Michael Ritchie made movies that grew in stature over time.

“When you talk about those films, you’re talking about so many kinds of films,” says “Michael Clayton” writer-director Tony Gilroy. “But that whole era … everything I know about moviemaking, most of it comes from there — from sitting in a movie theater.”

Gilroy’s burned-out lawyer Michael Clayton is a spiritual descendant of Lumet’s alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in 1982’s “The Verdict,” just as the film’s Arthur Edens, a brilliant trial lawyer who suffers a mental breakdown, recalls “I’m mad as hell” newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Lumet’s “Network” (1976).

“I don’t know if those films were in the back of my mind (while making “Clayton”), but they’re certainly in the DNA of my imagination,” Gilroy says. “I’m 50, so the ’70s is the heart of my parietal lobes closing up. That’s when I was watching the most movies, and that’s when I was probably the most easily influenced by what was happening.”

Lumet, who turned down an interview request, would be the first to disparage the notion that the period was anything special, or that Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, which placed a film’s authorship squarely on the director, should be taken seriously. “I don’t know what all the big geshrei is about, the big noise,” Lumet told American Film magazine in 1982. “All the auteur theory did was make what had been natural self-conscious.”

Much of late ’60s-’70s cinema might have been self-conscious, but much of it also constituted a radical departure from studio polish of previous decades. The best expressions of the era, as Peter Biskind noted in his history of the period, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” was character-driven, defied conventional narrative, eschewed technical perfection and pushed the boundaries of language and behavior.

The films were also steeped in moral ambiguity and populated by everyman actors who bore little resemblance to their matinee-idol forebears. “These were often films without heroes, without romance, without … anyone to ‘root for,'” Biskind wrote.

For anyone who’s seen “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Margot at the Wedding,” all these characteristics apply.

In “The Assassination of Jesse James,” Brad Pitt is not dashing in the mold of Tyrone Power, who played the outlaw in a romanticized 1939 version of the legend. Pitt’s James is paranoid and untrustworthy, surrounded by sycophants who fear for their lives. There is no gunslinging or pivotal showdowns; most of the killing we see is people getting shot in the back.

“It’s different from your usual John Ford type of Western,” explains helmer-writer Andrew Dominik, “It’s not a simple morality tale. I was trying to imagine the people as realistically as possible.”

Dominik asserts that his reasoning for creating an anti anti-hero had more to do with staying true to the source material (Ron Hansen’s novel), but also resisting preconceived notions of what a protagonist should be. “I generally think characters are created like political campaigns these days,” he says, “like these people (should) have values we agree with. That’s never been interesting to me in cinema. It’s not necessary for a character to be likable.”

Dominik acknowledges that the parallels between his movie — with its meditative, melancholy tone and deliberate pacing — and those of Malick and the Robert Altman of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” are not far afield. “I admire all of Terry’s films, and McCabe’s circumstances are very similar to Jesse James at the end of his life. But I wasn’t thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to try and make a film in the style of Terrence Malick.’ I just liked the book and Ron’s use of language — he wrote a book that is just as concerned with the mundane as the dramatic.”

Dominik says he was more conscious of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975). “‘Barry Lyndon’s’ got that sort of detachment and obsession with mortality,” Dominik says. “It asks you at times to stand outside the story, and to examine things from a more objective perspective.”

Just as Dominik cast Pitt in “Jesse James” against type, so did Gilroy harness George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” a movie from which, he says, “We’ve wiped (away) every molecule of sentiment.”

“So much of what’s behind Michael Clayton is squandered opportunity,” Gilroy says: “the idea that someone with those kinds of looks and that kind of charm were of no use to this character anymore. And the tension of George playing that — he was almost ahead of me in that regard. He knew that that was the prize, to dismantle and show all the rust on the persona that he spent so much time building up all these years.”

Disillusionment also lies at the heart of “Margot at the Wedding,” writer-director Noah Baumbach’s drama about sibling rivalry and failed expectations. His characters bring to mind the talky, neurotic New Yorkers who populate Woody Allen’s “Interiors” (1978) and “Manhattan” (1979).

“I’m interested in how people who have a way with language can in some ways abuse that,” Baumbach says. “And Woody Allen was the most unique in writing these movies about articulate, intellectual New Yorkers — people dealing with psychology and neurosis in a kind of battlefield of human interaction.”

Baumbach’s film also explores, as Allen did in “Manhattan,” how writers can draw from real life in ways that are potentially injurious to loved ones, and the responsibilities that play into crossing the line between fact and fiction.

“In some ways, when you write a writer, you have to invent two different lives: who is the character and what is their work drawn from,” Baumbach says. “And I think that Woody Allen was very deft at playing with what the audience expected or thought, and kind of turning it around or reinventing it. Philip Roth dealt with this also in literature, that if you write in a way that feels personal, and if you also write about writers, you’re going to in some ways be faced with the expectations of what is real and what isn’t, no matter what you do.”

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