More than four decades after the New Hollywood films of the ’60s and ’70s hit screens and became enshrined as a near-mythological period of artistic excellence in American cinema, the era’s attributes also become increasingly contrasted with current American cinema.
Nonconformity, provocation and experimentation were mainstream. Today, those qualities aren’t selling movie tickets but instead driving streamer subscriptions. And the big hits are all characterized by the packaged goods franchise hits that dominate box office to the almost total exclusion of personal cinema.
Which is a long explanation of why awards season is more essential than ever.
As someone who lived through and loved the New Hollywood films and filmmakers, this is the time of year when the hunger for the ambitious telling of difficult stories is sated.
In addition to Todd Field’s wonderful and already much-celebrated “Tár,” which has evoked positive comparisons to the best of New Hollywood giant Stanley Kubrick, there are at least three more films that I feel would have held their own back in the good old days of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Francis Coppola, et al. James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance” and Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” all have strong personal directorial identities and creative aspirations that demand viewer engagement, as opposed to promising theme park amusements.
David Ehrlich hits that confrontational aspect of “Armageddon Time” head-on when he writes, in his enthusiastic Indiewire review: “James Gray makes films that are meant to be watched, but they often ask you to meet them more than halfway…”
Countless New Hollywood films set out to explore unpleasant truths and examine flawed “heroes.” “The Graduate’s” Benjamin doesn’t have a clue about his future, while in “Shampoo” Warren Beatty’s George is untethered and Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea of “Five Easy Pieces” is cold and self-absorbed.
Gray raises the stakes in “Armageddon,” portraying an adolescent version of himself as craven, calculating and capable of a soul-crushing betrayal. Ehrlich lauds Gray’s cinematic handling of this tragic, haunting memoir, while invoking a creative genius mainstay of the New Hollywood: “Gray sees his own childhood through the murky shadows of [key Coppola collaborator] Gordon Willis’ camera.”
(An inspired Darius Khondji shot the film.) Cementing “Armageddon’s” linkage to that earlier era of Americana soul-searching, Ehrlich also finds its central dramatic conflict as worthy of “a coming-of-age novel like ‘A Separate Peace,’” the acclaimed 1959 John Knowles novel that also explored the fracturing of morality and youthful loss of innocence.
Comparing it to the work of one of the New Hollywood’s biggest cinematic inspirations, AV Club’s Jordan Hoffman celebrates this aspect of “Armageddon” as “energetic look at growing up, very much in the François Truffaut tradition” and RogerEbert.com’s Nell Minow invokes another New Hollywood influence from the European New Wave in her upbeat “Armageddon” review: “As in another autobiographical memory movie about schoolboys, Louis Malle’s ‘Au Revoir les Enfants,’ ‘Armageddon Time’ is the story of childhood innocence as remembered with regret and a sense of responsibility, with adult recognition of history’s vilest bigotries and injustices.”
“Vengeance,” Novak’s freewheeling, swing-for-the-fences crime comedy, could have come from the pen of a New Hollywood scribe such as novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane, whose “Ninety Two in the Shade” and “Rancho Deluxe” were both pungent satires of Red State mores and effective Woodstock Generation skewerings of the previous the Greatest Generation’s rapidly fading American Dreams.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman put it nicely, calling “Vengeance” “a head-spinning caprice” and it landed on his 10 best films of the year list. Gleiberman’s description of the film’s oft-kilter tale of a New York podcaster’s adventures in modern-day rural Texas is film kinfolk to numerous quintessential New Hollywood romps such as Altman’s “MASH,” Miloš Forman’s “Taking Off” and Ivan Passer’s “Law and Disorder”: “‘Vengeance’ makes up its own rules. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie, like a Preston Sturges comedy fused with … free-floating what’s-it-all-mean? dread of ‘Under the Silver Lake.’”
If the current American cinema is undergoing seismic shifts created by an explosion of diversity, there’s kinship aplenty in films that redefine our perceptions about identity, heroism, success, ideals of masculinity and equity while breaking barriers that blocked the paths of women and minorities and other disenfranchised voices to tell their stories.
But the New Hollywood didn’t open as many doors to female and minority directors as perhaps many wanted and most expected. It took #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo and other movements to loosen the stranglehold and create breathing room for new voices. Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” is more than just a sterling example of the realization of opportunities too long denied, it’s also a worthy heir to New Hollywood-era films including John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967) and John Flynn’s “The Sergeant” (1968) that both shined a disturbing light on the actual sexual complexities of life inside the Hollywood-simplified edifice of the American military.
Named as one of Variety’s 2023 10 Directors to Watch, Elegance Bratton was hailed by Variety’s Peter Debruge in contemporary terms that sound very much like the revisionism of the best of ’60s and ’70s Hollywood.
“There’s so much the movies get wrong — or else deliberately misconstrue — about the military” explains Debruge, “that Bratton’s film hopes to correct and expand on.” Invoking that god of New Hollywood’s name, Debruge concludes that “Foremost in audiences’ minds, no doubt, is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket.’”
Are movie theaters in danger of losing provocative filmmaking of the kind practiced by Gray, Novak and Bratton to the dominion of home entertainment platforms? Coming out of the pandemic, the theatrical space seems to be reconfigured as wildly welcoming for blockbusters and darkly forbidding for films that viewers “must meet half-way,” to invoke David Ehrlich’s praise for
Perhaps the best way to help ensure their survival is for the voters of awards season to remember them on their ballots.