At 75, Robert Altman remains one of our most enigmatic and inventive filmmakers. His penetrating, and sometimes quirky, vision pierces the thin skin of American culture, peeling away and examining the layers of false stereotypes, misunderstanding, and deceit that alienate individuals from their society. Altman's vision is nowhere more evident than in his films of the 1970s, currently being featured at a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
A Perfect Couple (1979)
A Wedding (1978)
3 Women (1977)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
California Split (1974)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Brewster McCloud (1970)
Altman's films, from M*A*S*H (1970) to A Wedding (1979), examined in various ways the failure of institutional structures--the Church, the military, political organizations, even country music--to provide any kind of moral and religious instruction, guidance, or authority. Altman's challenge to authority shows up in ineffectual chaplains and preachers (M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and in inept political figures (Nashville). Beginning with M*A*S*H, individuals find themselves cast into a world bereft of morality, in which they must create for themselves some kind of moral sensibility.
In the moral universe of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) from M*A*S*H*, the highest ethical standard is to performing surgery well to save lives. Military regulations are no guidelines for Hawkeye and Trapper, or for anyone else in the camp, since those rules can't be apply in their isolated medical camp, where the agonies of war are plain to see and arrive like a tide twice a day. Even authority figures, like camp commander Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) and the quasi-religious Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) abandon traditional moral instruction, instead creating their own standards when all normal standards are meaningless.
"I'm here if you need me, if you have any problems," Dago Red, the priest in M*A*S*H*, tells anyone who'll listen--which is nearly no one. Yet confronted with Painless Pole's fear of impotence and his suicidal thoughts, Dago Red turns to Hawkeye, asking him to talk to Painless. The company celebrates a "Last Supper" with Painless, giving him sleeping pills he thinks will put him out of his misery. After Painless "dies," Lieutenant Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) enters his "deathbed" and resurrects him through sexual intercourse. Although here sex replaces religion as a means of healing, the scene reinforces Altman's idea that traditional authoritarian structures fail to provide the moral vision necessary to cope with a meaningless world.
Altman wasn't alone in challenging the failure of traditional religious and moral authorities. In 1967, American film began to change radically as it confronted the inability of political and religious institutions to provide ways of coping with a society divided by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. With the demise of the studio system in Hollywood and rising influence of French New Wave filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut, a new generation of American filmmakers launched their own efforts to question prevailing moral standards.
Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was a groundbreaking film technically-the closing shoot 'em up was the birth of the slow-motion violent death-as well as thematically. The bankrobbers of the title subverted traditional views of good and evil to become folk heroes. Robbing banks was simply an expression of their rebellion, putting them on the side of the "people" against the "establishment." Penn's killer couple commenced a decade in which such characters, in the absence of any moral strictures, must fend for themselves, creating their own moral universes from the ambiguities of the world.
Other previous films had intimated that these ambiguities were out there--Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1969), Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but such questions dominated American cinema in the early and mid-'70s. Films like Nichols' Catch-22 (1970), Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971), Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and The Godfather (1972), and Altman's Brewster McCloud (1970) and Nashville (1975), and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) all depict the bleak despair of living in a morally ambiguous universe, alienated from community and other social structures. These films' characters respond nearly uniformly by fashioning for themselves their own moral systems.
By the end of the '70s, however, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, among others, had returned film to its glory days of the big-screen epic of good versus evil. Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and Spielberg's Jaws (1975) both depicted worlds in which the protagonists could vanquish evil, with a bounty of determination and a little luck. Evil, furthermore, has a recognizable face. Darth Vader or a great white shark unquestionably must be fought and punished. Goodness, embodied in wholesome types like Luke Skywalker, is unquestionably rewarded. Though some characters remained disenfranchised in mainstream society--Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa and John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever-the moral world they inhabited became more structured and more defined than the worlds of Yossarian or Hawkeye.
Their optimism has persisted well into the films of the '80s and '90s. By the '90s, new studio systems-Spielberg's Dreamworks, for example--had made a dramatic comeback. Directors are charged with producing blockbusters, so that their films have become more and more predictable. Even last year's Oscar-winner, American Beauty, praised for showing us an individual making tough, idiosyncratic moral decisions, returned in the end to stereotypes of goodness and light. To put it another way, whereas '70s heroes struggled to make sense of a senseless world in order simply to survive, our screen giants of the '90s end up patting themselves on the backs for surviving a crisis they've often created in their own minds and softened by reaching for the pot or the Prozac.
Independent filmmakers like John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, and, occasionally, David Lynch are fighting the good fight. But the decade-long stretch of relatively uninhibited creative genius of American film in the 1970s remains unparalleled. The period produced the most inventive American films since Chaplin's and Keaton's. Altman's films and others showed us what it was like to make our own morality in the face of moral meaningless. As Gram Parsons sings about his youth, the films of the `70s were for American cinema a "time much too short to be leaned against too long."