In the book Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema it states that “the 1970s marks Hollywood’s most significant formal transformation since the conversion to sound film…” (4). Many revered films, directors, and other creatives came out of Hollywood in the 1970s. Films like Harold and Maude, The Graduate, and The Wild Bunch altered the way in which American audiences understood and interacted with film.
This change in film originated from the collapse of the studio system and the cultural environment of the 1960s, which was characterised by social rebellion, sexual and spiritual experimentation, political turmoil, and overall cultural upheaval. The youth were disillusioned and wanting to carve their own creative path. It took until the 1970s for American film executives to truly embrace a new approach to filmmaking that reflected the cultural changes. This led to the era known as “New Hollywood” and “American New Wave.”
Starting on October 12th, The Kiggins Theatre is showing Hal, a documentary about one of the most seminal directors to arise from the “New Hollywood” era!
Classic Hollywood and the End of the Studio System
To appreciate the “New Hollywood” style, it’s beneficial to understand what it was evolving from. Beginning in the 1920s, films were made using the studio system. This meant that a small number of major studios controlled the majority of filmmaking. Films were cranked out fast with most of the power laying in the hands of the producers. They were shot on studio lots with crews under long-term contract. An enormous amount of classic films spawned from the studio system, that’s why some critics refer to this as the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” These films created the rulebook for how a narrative should be created and portrayed on the big screen.
Generally, classic hollywood films steer towards a sense of narrative completion. Stories are presented logically in a space and time which mirrors reality. John Belton, a professor of English and film at Rutgers, describes this classic style as “largely invisible and difficult for the average spectator to see. The narrative is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to have no source. It comes magically off the screen.” Rules for basic genres were cemented and films rarely deviated from these conventions.
In the 1948, Paramount Pictures lost a landmark case against the United States government. The case revolved around the fact that the movie studios controlled almost all movie theaters, either by owning them outright or through contracts with independent owners. The court decision made this relationship between studios and theaters illegal, which effectively ended the Hollywood studio system. by making overall productions cost rise. As a result, many long-standing contracts for studio creative teams dissolved and film production slowed down immensely.
The end of the studio system paired with television’s quickly growing popularity meant that fewer and fewer people were coming to the movies. Beginning in the 1950s and pushing into the 1960s, Hollywood reacted by trying to give audiences an experience that television could not. Essentially, Hollywood films became all about spectacle. More money was spent on fewer films to make them extraordinarily opulent, vibrant, and hopefully, alluring to audiences. Techniques like Cinerama and Cinemascope were introduced alongside gimmicks like 3-D. The aspect ratio of films grew in size, making films feel larger than life. Grandiose genres like Epics and Musicals were especially popular during this time, exemplified by films like Ben-Hur (1959) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). However, movie ticket sales continued to drop and the extravagance of films grew out of hand. A infamous example of this costly way of filmmaking is the Historical Epic Cleopatra(1963), and is the only highest-grossing film to run at a loss due its outrageous production costs.
Entering the Age of “New Hollywood”
Throughout the 1960s, movie executives were having trouble connecting with their audiences. The cultural environment was changing and so was their target demographic. They were more educated, affluent, and filled with a new sense of nonconformity and disillusionment, caused by events like the Vietnam War. It took until the late 1960s for the film industry to finally start to catch up with the world around it. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America created a new film rating system that replaced the outdated Production Code. Now, more taboo topics like drugs or sex could be explored in film.
Two films created by young artists mark the beginning of a new age of Hollywood filmmaking. They are Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Both films deal with taboo themes like violence and drugs in graphic way. But, they also feature narratives that blur genre lines, are more existential and morally ambiguous, and are more non-traditional in structure. Both films were disliked by film executives, but turned out to be financial and critical success. Executives then realized they needed to give more creative control over to young directors. Thus begins “New Hollywood.”
Filmmaking in “New Hollywood”
Many renowned creatives came to prominence during the 1970s, making films that are still widely revered today. There are too many to name, but the list includes directors like Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian de Palma and actors like Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Mia Farrow, and Robert De Niro.
Notably, this was the first generation of filmmakers that were academically trained in film. Similarly, there is a heavier influence from foreign art film movements like French New Wave and Italian Neorealism in films from the 1970s. Because of the movement away from studio system, films were shot on location, adding a level of authenticity to films. Furthermore, films from “New Hollywood” tend feature a looser narrative structure which revolves around a protagonist, often an anti-hero, who deals with conflicts caused by modern society. Audience responses towards “New Hollywood” films are more uncertain as the narrative emphasizes irresolution over resolution. Many of the films from this time employed multiple genres and twisted them on their head to emphasize the changing identity of the Hollywood and the United States.
“New Hollywood” lasted until the early 1980s. It ended largely due to the success of blockbuster films like Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975). These films were massive hits and proved that more traditional ways of storytelling in film could bring in positive reviews and lots of money. However, the influence of “New Hollywood” still lasts today. The movement’s celebration of creativity and rebelliousness has been inspiring new filmmakers ever since.
The Influence of Hal Ashby
Starting on October 12th, the Kiggins Theater is showing the new documentary Hal. Itexplores the tumultuous life and influential works of Hal Ashby. Ashby is one of the most influential, and often overlooked, directors from the era of “New Hollywood.”
Ashby’s life started out rough. Born in Utah to a poor family, a young Ashby dropped out of high school and became a Californian bohemian in the late 1940s. Eventually, he got a job as an assistant editor in Hollywood which started his partnership with Norman Jewison. Ashby served as editor for many of Jewison films, but his greatest success in that partnership was receiving an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night. In 1970, Ashby made the move to director with his film The Landlord and from there, his career took off. He created a slew cinematic classics that help define the “New Hollywood” era.
His films explore societal outsiders, empathetically combining humor and tragedy, to celebrate the bittersweet truths of life and what it means to be human. His filmography includes cinematic staples like Harold and Maude, Shampoo, and Being There. Partly due to bad luck and partly due to bad decision making, his career fell off in the 1980s. And, at the age of 59, he sadly died due to pancreatic cancer.
A New York Times article states “Digging deep into the archives for rare and revealing material to accompany interviews with many of his collaborators and intimates, filmmaker Amy Scott packs a lot into 90 minutes with this insightful and warm look at an artist whose best work always revealed a heightened social conscience.” “New Hollywood” marks a time of important change in Hollywood where filmmakers, like Hal Ashby, were given more creative freedom than ever before. They changed the way Hollywood viewed filmmaking, connecting with their audiences in a way that had never quite been done before.
In understanding an artistic work, it’s important to know where the work is coming from– both personally and socially. After reading this post, I hope you have a better picture of what Ashby and his contemporaries were reacting to in making their movies and how they set themselves apart from the studio system. To get the full picture of Ashby’s personal life and the larger cultural moment he was a part of, come see the highly regarded documentary Hal at the Kiggins Theatre! It features interviews and footage with many great creatives like Ashby’s film partner Norman Jewison and actress Jane Fonda as well as wth contemporary directors such as Judd Apatow.
Get your advance tickets HERE and save up to $3 off day of show admission!