Were the 1970s a golden era in movies? Many would argue so, but one wonders if the ’70s-fetishists remember that the same decade that gave us Taxi Driver and The Godfather also gave us Love Story and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In any event, it’s easy to agree that the particular dovetailing of social revolution and the influence of foreign films led to a renaissance in counterculture film, generally acknowledged to span from 1967 (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde) to, let’s say, November 19, 1980, when Michael Cimino’s disastrous, budget-busting Heaven’s Gate premiered, sinking not only a studio but an entire film movement.
The topic has been covered before, most notably in Peter Biskind’s excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (which itself spawned a documentary). But A Decade Under the Influence, a collaboration between filmmakers Ted Demme (Blow) and Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud) — the latter finished the project after the former died in January 2002 — is unabashedly a tribute, not reportage. The movie is a valentine from one generation of directors to another; among the off-camera interviewers here are Alexander Payne (Election) and Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), who may be as starstruck to be sitting down with such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as we would be.
The movie, organized into three sections (and lengthened by about half an hour for home video), carries a humble disclaimer at the end apologizing for the directors who had to be left out. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two of the more glaring omissions, though their respective hits Jaws and Star Wars, and the impact they had on American movies, are discussed. Michael Cimino is referenced, but a no-show. Woody Allen apparently didn’t want to sit for the camera either, though his erstwhile writing partner Marshall Brickman did. British directors who made popular American films, such as Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, are ignored, though John Schlesinger is mentioned regarding Midnight Cowboy, though perhaps only because Jon Voight was available for an interview. Also, except for The Exorcist, the just-as-groundbreaking horror movies of the ’70s are forgotten about (though there’s always Adam Simon’s insightful 2000 documentary The American Nightmare to pick up the slack). And why didn’t Ted Demme ring up his director uncle Jonathan for an interview? While not as visible or influential in the ’70s as some of the others here, the senior Demme did get his start early in the decade with Roger Corman (as did Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovich), and he made at least one acclaimed film during the ’70s, Citizens Band. Why a second-string director like Monte Hellman (presumably featured because he made two Jack Nicholson movies) is here and Jonathan Demme isn’t baffles me somewhat.
The people who are here, though, consistently fascinate. The former hotshot directors now sound rather humble. For a while, nobody was hotter than Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), and their success, according to Biskind’s book, turned them into egomaniacal monsters; these days they function almost as cautionary elder statesmen. The documentary, unlike Biskind’s book, gives less attention to hubris and lessons learned than to the contagious experimentation of the era. Studios had no idea what worked any more, so for a while, any director with an inexpensive hit under his belt had the keys to the kingdom and a blank check to pursue any project, however uncommercial. It ultimately led to Scorsese’s New York, New York, Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Spielberg’s 1941, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Regardless of the individual quality of these films — I actually think some of them are quite good, and Apocalypse Now is some kind of hallucinatory masterpiece — they were considered either financial flops or big risks that didn’t bring in a payoff commensurate with their costs.
Demme and LaGravenese are just as happy to let the directors bask in their past glories and reminisce about those crazy days. Some actors appear here as well; Roy Scheider weighs in on behalf of The French Connection and Jaws, Bruce Dern is typically intense and surprisingly funny (he does a sharp Jack Nicholson impression), Ellen Burstyn and Sissy Spacek make us yearn for the time when women like them were top box-office draws. Julie Christie seems to get a little too much screen time; I would rather have heard more from Pam Grier, and indeed, this documentary is very white, skimming lightly over the blaxploitation period and ignoring the emergence of black stars like Richard Pryor. (In the filmmakers’ defense, LaGravenese has said that they would’ve loved to have included more black filmmakers, like Melvin Van Peebles, but simply couldn’t get them.)
Unless you were alive back then and seeing every movie, A Decade Under the Influence will likely make you jot down some titles you’d like to get acquainted with. I’d seen John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, but clips from his earlier Faces and Shadows made me want to look those up. My curiosity was likewise piqued by footage from Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens and Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Other clips from movies I saw years ago, like Coppola’s The Conversation and Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, made me want to watch the whole things again. On a basic level, the film is both a scrapbook and a primer of ’70s movies, and should intrigue and guide the uninitiated.
The irony of the film is that its title is a triple reference: to Cassavetes’ classic, to the influence of foreign directors like Godard and Truffaut, but also to the influence of drugs. It’s been acknowledged that Ted Demme’s untimely death may have been cocaine-related, and maybe his friend and collaborator didn’t want to make drugs look cool by suggesting that some of the masters who made the classics under discussion here (like Scorsese, a major cokehead back in the day) couldn’t have been such energetic and bold directors without controlled substances. Biskind’s book gives the devil his due; the film shies away from the rampant, casual drug use that was as much a part of the milieu as sideburns and polyester. Still, as an affectionate document, and a chance to see some of the wizened warhorses reflecting on excesses and failures, this candy goes down easy.