April 10, 2000
Volume 52, No. 28
Cook outlines the good, bad of 1970s Hollywood
BY STACIA BROWN
While art may or may not imitate life, it certainly imitates politics. According to film historian David Cook, author of Lost Illusions: A History of the American Cinema 1970-1979, American movies made in the 1970s parallel the decade's political and economic upheavals.
From anti-Vietnam protests in 1970 to Ronald Reagan's ascendancy in 1980, Cook's book traces the social and cinematic history of an era that gave moviegoers everything from A Clockwork Orange to Star Wars.
Lost Illusions' central premise mirrors its title: '70s-era films reflect the rise and fall of two illusions. First was the illusion of a liberal political majority fueled in part by anti-Vietnam and anti-Nixon sentiments. The second was that American movies could maintain the political and psychological intensity exhibited in the "Hollywood Renaissance" of 1967-75.
Cook, who directs Emory's Film Studies program, confesses a certain attachment to the Renaissance years. "It was an extraordinarily passionate, political time," he said. "People in my generation who went to see Bonnie and Clyde were so stunned at the end that they couldn't leave the theater."
Cook initially resisted the invitation to research the 1970s. "I wanted to write about the '60s instead." But editorial persuasion prevailed. The result? Cook's book, which is Vol. 9 of Scribner's 10-part History of the American Cinema series, explicates both the meteoric rise of the corporate blockbuster and the haunting loss of American "auteur" cinema.
Chapter 3, "Manufacturing the Blockbuster," argues that three '70s-era films dramatically and permanently altered the American movie scene. The Godfather (1972) was the first. Prior to its release, Cook said, studios considered a film successful if it made $10-$15 million. But The Godfather made $86.3 million in its first year, and studios learned they could earn enough from one film to sustain themselves for several years.
The second was Jaws (1975). Steven Spielberg's now-legendary film opened to unprecedented promotional hype, with studio executives aiming to create a national "Jaws consciousness" by opening day. Their efforts succeeded--the movie earned $129.5 million in its first year of release.
The third film was Star Wars (1977), George Lucas' sci-fi tale of good versus evil that confirmed the arrival of the blockbuster hit by making $193.8 million in one year. It also marked the birth of mass merchandising in film, with Lucas selling his Star Wars logo on toys, games, lunchboxes and even clothing.
But at the same time that films such as Jaws were being mass-marketed, directors such as Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick were continuing the renaissance. From 1967 through 1975, these younger filmmakers pushed the limits of form, content, and eroticism like no other American directors who had come before.
Cook is particularly appreciative of Kubrick's work. A Clockwork Orange (1971), for example, was one of several films in the waning years of Vietnam to focus on the nature of violence itself. Clockwork was more complex than others, he wrote, in that it made "a Nietzschean connection between art and violence, suggesting that they spring from the same irrational source."
But even Kubrick's genius could not withstand the economy of the blockbuster. The idea that independent filmmakers could survive financially and artistically within the dawning of the Reagan era's "capital-intensive production context," Cook wrote, "was doomed to fail from the start."
For Cook, uncovering the connections between political history and aesthetics has been a lifelong pursuit. Educated in English literature, he came to Emory in 1973 and began his career in the English department teaching lyric poetry, Victorian literature and the history and aesthetics of film.
"There were no graduate courses in film when I was a student," he said. "So I would squeeze film studies into my literature classes. If I took a seminar on Joyce, for example, I might write a paper about Joyce's ownership of Dublin's first movie theater. Or I might discuss the fact that he came very close to collaborating on a film version of Ulysses with Serge Eisenstein."
Fortunately for today's Emory students, film lovers no longer need to squeeze their cinematic interests into another discipline. In 1990 Cook established Emory's Film Studies program, at the time the only undergraduate major of its kind in the Southeast.
The program encourages students to develop a thorough knowledge of the cinema's history as a dynamic form of cultural expression and to become critical, philosophical and aesthetic thinkers.
While his research has left him with strong personal opinions about the quality--or lack thereof--of various '70s films, Cook resists taking potshots at the blockbusters. "I'm a film historian," he said. "I view movies like Star Wars as milestones in the history of cinema. They changed the landscape of American film."
And for those who might mourn Hollywood Renaissance films such as Kubrick's, be patient: History, Cook said, tends to repeat itself. "In the history of innovative film movements across the world, such movements rarely last more than five or six years. They simply cannot sustain themselves beyond that length of time."
Auteur cinema is all about novelty, he said. And novelty, even in the form of a radical political statement, is inevitably conventionalized--and eventually parodied.