Sunday, 1 March 2009

'70s Films That Don't Suck

The '70s was responsible for a lot of truly weird movies, most of which, like grotesque lab experiments, were contrived by drugged parents under watery inspiration. However, even a busted watch is right twice a day; here are eight films that the '70s clusterfuck served up whole.

Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick directs one film a decade. (Watch also--from strongest to weakest--The Thin Red Line, The New World, Days of Heaven). He specialises in calm, drifting storylines where characters' foibles are gradually revealed. Badlands stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a Bonnie and Clyde couple, minus the bank-robbin' and hootin'-an'-hollerin'. It's been described as a great American road movie, and the dusty vistas, quietly viewed through windows and doorways, paint a portrait of forgotten America from South Dakota to Montana that is as eloquent as any story committed to film.

Enter The Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee's greatest movie transports him to an island tournament which descends into a chaotic frenzy of kung fu kraziness. It was the first U.S. studio martial arts movie, so two American 'stars' are tacked on (John Saxon, a journeyman actor with 40 credits under his black belt, and Jim Kelly, A.K.A. Black Belt Jones), but it's Lee's movie. He wades through weapon-wielding minions in the Dr No-like underbelly of the island fortress, and the hall of mirrors finale is iconic. There is little to place the movie in the '70s -- the queasy film tint suggests Tokyo Story and the sheer exuberance has little in common with the decade of Straw Dogs and Dr Strangelove -- but is heady and thoroughly enjoyable in its simplicity.

The Exorcist (1973)
Max von Sydow took a break from Bergman films to serve as a supernatural spitoon for William Friedkin's The Exorcist. The director was fresh from The French Connection, and the muted brown and orange from that film are all the colour that grace the otherwise dark tale of satanic possession. That an almost one-room film can spin out into two hours is a credit to the Oscar-winning script and music of the production, and there are few moments where the tension lags. To lay out the plot is to detract from the viewing, depending as it does on mystery and borderline terror, but it must be said that the director's cut, released in 2000, includes ten minutes of grotesquerie that adds another layer of squirming pleasure to one of the best horror films ever made.

Blazing Saddles (1974)
The Mel Brooks canon is best described as a guilty pleasure. His oeuvre is overt parody: Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, History of the World: Part I; even The Producers is a satire of Broadway backstage dealings. It is no surprise, then, that his broadside at spaghetti westerns is a crass jumble of earthy humour. It is important to recognise, 35 years on, that it is not a racist, sexist film; it is a film about racism and sexism. Once the viewer has leaped this hurdle, he is free to enjoy the film on its own terms. The one-horse town's black sheriff, busty wenches and brawling mercenaries provide ample material to weave into the main narrative: the nefarious Hedley Lamarr plotting to drive out the townfolk in order to run a railroad through the area. Naturally, any narrative is thrown aside when Brooks sees an opportunity to mug for the camera (he himself plays both the Governor and an Indian chief). The story is bumpy, but there's a laugh for every bump.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
There's not a lot to say about Python films; either you get them or you don't. If you hadn't seen this film by the time you were 20, chances are you were cool in high school.

Pumping Iron (1975)
Before he broke out in Conan and The Terminator in '82 and '84, Arnold Schwarzenegger took a series of minor or embarrassing major roles in '70s films: an overdubbed 'Arnold Strong' lead the cast of Hercules in New York. His dominance of the Mr Olympia championship continued unabated, and director George Butler turned a camera on the coterie of musclemen, possibly hoping to cash in on the decade's love of freaks and iconoclasts. In Schwarzenegger he found the latter, showing Arnold as an ambitious and manipulative schemer, toying with his opponents and gliding effortlessly through contests, although his greatest onscreen moments are undoubtedly his discursions on drugs, gays, and how pumping iron transports him to the heights of sexual ecstasy. Hey, it was the '70s.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick laboured over this film, of the rise and fall of Thackeray's Irishman, in typically obsessive detail. And it's a good thing he did, as the groundbreaking lenses he used make the film as fresh and vivid as anything filmed today. The story is largely forgotten today, overshadowed in Thackeray's corpus by Vanity Fair (a worthy version of which was filmed with Reese Witherspoon in 2004) and bearing similar themes: social climber scales the heights of Napoleonic Europe, only to have their self-made success destroyed by personal demons. The cut and thrust of Lyndon's life makes for fascinating storytelling, well above the usual laziness offered up in the period-piece/bodice-ripping genre.

The Warriors (1979)
Lovable, brazen B-movie trash. A gang called The Warriors must battle their way from the Bronx back to Coney Island through a variety of rival gangs who seem to have escaped from an Adam West/West Side Story afterparty (The Boppers, The Baseball Furies, The Hi-Hats, The Gramercy Riffs, The Lizzies; I could go on). The film was re-released in 2005 to accompany the video game, and the plot feels very much like Double Dragon set to experimental music. It is being recreated in 2010 by Tony Scott (The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide) much like Death Race 2000 (1975) was recreated in 2008 (as Death Race), but like that original, is far purer at its unpolished, woolly-haired genesis.

All of the films above are guaranteed not to suck, but they're not 100% representative of the decade. The list below are a mixed bag -- they're a kind of '70s medicine, in that (the first time round at least) they're good for you without being automatically charming. But, dammit, you know you've seen a film after you watch them:
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Deliverance (1972)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

...and the following are films you should watch under no circumstances:

Straw Dogs
Last Tango In Paris

...just trust me on those. I suffered so you don't have to.

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