In a classic “it’s the children who are wrong” moment, Paul Schrader has given an interview to Little White Lies in which he says that you can’t make an Important movie anymore because the movies are not considered Important anymore. The quote we are going to be examining is this one, reproduced in its entirety so no one can accuse me of taking anything out of context.
People talk about the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It wasn’t that the films were better or the filmmakers were better, it was the audiences that were better. It was a time of social stress and audiences turned to artists for answers. What do you think about women’s rights? What do you think about the war? The moment that a society turns to artists for answers, great art will emerge. It’s just that simple. It just happens. Back then, movies were at the centre of the cultural conversation. Bonnie and Clyde was smack in the centre, so was The Godfather. Now today, a great number of younger people, my children for example, do not think that movies are important. When audiences don’t think movies are important, it’s very hard to make important movies. That’s the difference.
Now, goodness knows he’s not wrong that a lot of people think of the late ’60s and early ’70s as a Golden Age of film. What I’m positing here is that practically everything else he’s saying is wrong. Not only that, it’s part of a mythos about film and its place in society that is still being used to silence women’s voices, minority voices, LGBT voices, in a way that involves several unspoken premises. The way it defines “real” and “important” movies is badly reductive, and it misses an important point about how society relates to movies.
His first and most obvious error is saying that young people then were more likely to think movies were important than young people now. Certainly it is true that there is a democratization of content; the article continues to discuss the democratization of criticism, but there’s more than that. The way we partake of media has changed so radically that it is simply not possible for any one cultural item to be universal. There are YouTube stars I’ve never heard of; there are doubtless TV or movie or music stars you’ve never heard of. When I was a child, we had more channels than most of the country—we had I believe seven channels you could regularly get without cable. Seven. These days, limiting a child to seven streams of curated content is practically considered a human rights abuse, by the child if no one else. My kid follows more than seven YouTube channels.
So no, no individual film is that important, because how could it be? But even without that, yes, okay. The time he’s discussing is before my birth; Taxi Driver and I are roughly the same age. But were Young People all definitely rushing to see Taxi Driver? It didn’t crack the top ten at the box office. In Search of Noah’s Ark did. Or, to make a more direct modern comparison, King Kong, which was the seventh-highest grossing picture of the year. Aren’t King Kong and Silver Streak (number eight) considerably more like the various superhero and Judd Apatow-style movies dominating the current box office?
Then as now, the box office conversation was considerably more likely to be dominated in most groups by the movies people actually saw, and while Taxi Driver spent a total of five weeks as number one at the box office and doubtless shaped conversation some, so did The Omen. Which is not one of the films we talk about when we talk about how the seventies were some mythic Golden Age of Film.
But beyond that, let’s be blunt, here. For the most part, the movies we do talk about are movies about straight white guys. I’m using 1976 as a search model here not because it’s technically of the era described but because Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, and five weeks of 1976 had the box office dominated by a movie that is for the most part a woman’s story—and those weeks are split between Carrie and A Star Is Born. There’s also two weeks of Robin and Marian. And while I grant you I haven’t seen all the movies, the racial breakdown isn’t much better; the closest we get is one week each of Next Stop, Greenwich Village and Silver Streak. And of course Next Stop, Greenwich Village is the only LGBT representation, which is the same as its black representation. Well, and there’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is in its own category, and I think someone from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might be in the institution for being gay, and there’s Chief.
In 2016, twelve weeks had a female-led film at number one in the box office. Twenty-one more had women as major characters, often in ensemble films without a single lead. Nine weeks, including crossover with the other films, were led by movies whose main character was a Person of Color, and eighteen more (give or take a few, depending on your standards) had casts featuring substantial ethnic diversity. Still not much in the way of explicit queer content, I grant you, but leaving aside “fan ships,” the forty years still made major changes in diversity.
There are exceptions both ways. Blaxploitation, for example. Shaft did spend five weeks as number one at the box office in 1971, the same year Sweet Sweetback spent three weeks there. Of course, that’s also the year that Love Story spent a total of nine weeks there. Which is ostensibly the story of a woman but is really the story of how important her death was to a straight white guy.
Love Story—not to mention King Kong and Escape From the Planet of the Apes and a whole lot of other extremely successful movies of the period we’re looking at—also disprove the narrative that the difference is all about “studio product, man.” After all, The Revenant spent a week at the top of the box office. And say what you like about Boo! A Madea Halloween, which I have not seen and don’t want to, but you can’t say it’s studio product. And it’s got a black female main character, even if that character is played by a cis het guy.
Were some great movies made in the ’70s? Yes. Absolutely yes. But by treating it as an unquestioned Golden Age, we do ourselves no favours. This goes beyond ignoring the turkeys; In Search of Noah’s Ark, okay, but 1976 also gave us Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, a movie with which I am morbidly fascinated but have not yet seen. It also speaks to an inherent assumption that the freedom for straight white guys to make daring movies was the greatest thing Hollywood could give us, even though those movies are in general soaked with racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Could you make Taxi Driver today? That’s an interesting question that ties into a whole lot of smaller discussions, and the only answer I have is “I don’t know.” But I’ll tell you what—I’m pretty sure you couldn’t make Moonlight in 1976. The movie that won Best Picture for 1976 was Rocky, where we’re cheering, let’s be honest, for a white guy to beat up a black guy. The movie that won Best Picture for 2016 had no white guys in it at all.