Evan Peter Smith
March 13, 2018
ity the modern film buff. Given the glut of sequels, remakes, and superheroes that make up the bulk of the contemporary movie-goer’s diet, it’s no wonder that film critic Charles Taylor is pining for the bygone days of artistry and storytelling, before “explosions, crashes, and constant displays of computer-generated imagery” were a blockbuster’s defining features.
In his delightful new essay collection, Opening Wednesday at Theatre or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s, Taylor explores the 1970s, the “third—and, to date, last—great period in American movies.” Take note that he uses the word “movies” in that sentence. Throughout Opening Wednesday, Taylor mostly eschews the word “films,” opting for the more casual layman’s term, which shows his sensibility. This is not a book that analyzes the underlying political symbolism evident in neo-realistic Italian cinema, nor one that sheds light on French new wave’s nihilistic tendencies or anthropomorphic motifs, or tackles any other fare typical of your serious film snob.
No—Taylor is writing about simple, fun, violent, childish, silly, movies. As the title of the book calls to mind, these were the campy B-movies that became popular in the 1970s, the “horror movies, biker pictures, nudie teasers, women’s prison pictures, moonshiner sagas” that were preceded a week or two in advance by local advertising campaigns that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and quickly disappeared after the movie had a short run at the local drive-in. The point of these movies was “to make money fast and get the hell out of dodge.” But thanks in part to the glorification of this cinema by directors such as Quentin Tarantino, this era of camp and exploitation has been going through a muted rebirth, as younger audiences are discovering the joys of movies that don’t require superheroes or special effects to elicit gasps.
Taylor sees movies today as “not so much movies anymore as packages put together by studio marketing departments in the hopes of spawning or sustaining a franchise and maybe selling a line of merchandize along the way.” The campy movies of the 1970s offer a clear counterpoint to our modern fare: what sensible marketing department would ever greenlight a film centered around a rural mob boss who drugs women into sex slavery and grinds up his adversaries into hot dogs, as Gene Hackman’s wacky character does in Prime Cuts? And where is the financial logic behind a film as muted and stoic as Two-Lane Blacktop, a race-car movie that features no racing and almost as little dialogue?
The logic is that there is no logic. These movies were made on the cheap, sold on the cheap, and often disappeared just as quickly—that is, before the era of VHS and later DVDs brought them back to life. Before then, however, these movies only lived on in the memory of those who encountered them—often at a drive-in or sleazy local theatre—and quickly fell in love, even if they weren’t quite sure what the hell they were watching. Taylor’s goal in this collection, at which he decidedly succeeds, is to capture that feeling encountered when one discovers a movie naturally, within the context of a specific time and a specific culture, and then explain how each film managed to contain a part of the American moment in which it was made.
This is where Taylor’s collection goes from being a simple love story to a by-gone era’s films, to a weightier historical analysis. Make no mistake, his criticism never veers off into the realm of graduate school style term papers—you won’t find him struggling to pointlessly weave historical context or political analysis into these essays. But neither does Taylor shy away from arguing that the moment in which each of these B-movies was made reflects the content and the perspective evinced by the film, even if the filmmakers themselves probably did not see things that way.
Take Prime Cuts, a 1972 movie directed by Michael Ritchie in which the aforementioned Gene Hackman dispatches his murder victims to the slaughterhouse, quite literally. As a local meatpacking magnate and crime boss in rural Kansas City, Hackman’s character deals in flesh—“cow flesh, girl flesh,” he says, “’s all the same to me.” As Taylor explains, the movie is rife with American iconography: county fairs, livestock, blonds in overalls, baked goods, clap-board houses and rolling countryside hills. “And every one of these bits of Americana is intruded on by violence or bloodlust or leering fantasy,” Taylor writes. Released three years after Nixon’s silent majority speech and with America still in the depths of the Vietnam War, Taylor argues that the film’s opening credit sequence, in which the camera shows human body parts casually being processed alongside cow carcasses in a meatpacking plant, captures the “manner in which the continuing deaths of American soldiers in Vietnam was being sold to the public in such morally untroubled terms.” Was this the intention of the filmmakers, or was the film intended as nothing more than a cheap, silly piece of trash as the critics of the time deemed it? Taylor does not dwell on questions of intent. Rather, he attempts to elucidate the effect the film had on viewers at the time. What was going through viewers’ heads, he asks, when they watched a movie like that?
“By then Americans could see the reality of the war in Life magazine’s weekly atrocity photo spread and in the footage on any nightly network news broadcast,” Taylor writes. “Prime Cuts brings home the mechanized slaughter of the war as packaged hot dogs.”
That the film was likely created and sold as a shock-comedy mobster film is beside the point to Taylor. No one can escape the time in which they live—least of all artists. And this notion drives Taylor as he wends his way through a bevy of strange, silly and often violent films from an era he so clearly loves. “The best genre movies…have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility,” Taylor writes. “That’s why it’s impossible to watch these movies now—despite the pulpiness, despite the obvious lashings of nudity and violence to satisfy the exploitation crowd—and not feel as if you’re being treated like an adult.”
That’s the real pleasure of Taylor’s collection. One can’t help but see, even as Taylor clucks his tongue and shakes his head at the absurdity of these films, a sly smile creep up on his lips, the look of someone who has just tasted something so wrong but so, so delicious.