Back to top

Hollywood Incoherent

Hollywood Incoherent
Narration in Seventies Cinema

Looking at iconic films such as The Godfather, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, and A Woman Under the Influence, this book reveals that the narrative and stylistic innovations of the 1970s opened a new era in American cinema.

October 2010
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
288 pages | 6 x 9 | 60 b&w photos, 11 tables, 2 graphs |

In the 1970s, Hollywood experienced a creative surge, opening a new era in American cinema with films that challenged traditional modes of storytelling. Inspired by European and Asian art cinema as well as Hollywood's own history of narrative ingenuity, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola undermined the harmony of traditional Hollywood cinema and created some of the best movies ever to come out of the American film industry. Critics have previously viewed these films as a response to the cultural and political upheavals of the 1970s, but until now no one has explored how the period's inventive narrative design represents one of the great artistic accomplishments of American cinema.

In Hollywood Incoherent, Todd Berliner offers the first thorough analysis of the narrative and stylistic innovations of seventies cinema and its influence on contemporary American filmmaking. He examines not just formally eccentric films—Nashville; Taxi Driver; A Clockwork Orange; The Godfather, Part II; and the films of John Cassavetes—but also mainstream commercial films, including The Exorcist, The Godfather, The French Connection, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown, The Bad News Bears, Patton, All the President's Men, Annie Hall, and many others. With persuasive revisionist analyses, Berliner demonstrates the centrality of this period to the history of Hollywood's formal development, showing how seventies films represent the key turning point between the storytelling modes of the studio era and those of modern American cinema.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: An Introduction to Narrative Incongruity
    • Chapter One. Poetics of Seventies Cinema
    • Chapter Two. Narrative Incongruity in Seventies Cinema
  • Part II: Modes of Narration in Seventies Films
    • Chapter Three. Narrative Frustration: From The Godfather to The Godfather, Part II
    • Chapter Four. Genre Deviation and The French Connection
    • Chapter Five. Conceptual Incongruity and The Exorcist
  • Part III: Incongruity's Endpoints
    • Chapter Six. Incongruity and Unity in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver
    • Chapter Seven. John Cassavetes's Radical Narration
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A. Best Films of the 1970s: Best Picture Awards, Critics Lists and Other Rankings, and Box Office Grosses
  • Appendix B. Study of Film Incoherence
  • Appendix C. Study of the Degree of Resolution of Film Endings
  • Appendix D. Study of Best Picture Lists and Incoherence
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Todd Berliner is Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he teaches American cinema, film narration, and film aesthetics. He was a Fulbright Scholar and founding chair of the Department of Film Studies at UNCW.


The film Nashville (1975) opens with a jolt. The Paramount Pictures logo, black-and-white and faded, initiates a quiet display of credits that gives way unexpectedly to a peppy advertisement for the film in the form of a late-night TV commercial for a country music compilation album. The commercial sounds so cacophonous and moves at such a blistering pace that spectators could not possibly make out half of the information it presents. A hawker's shrill voice-over clashes with brief song clips; album covers quickly scroll behind drawings of the principal actors, as the camera whips from one drawing to another; and the bogus commercial asks spectators simultaneously to read one set of text crawling up the left side of the screen and another set crawling down the right (Figure 1.1).

The segment is, in some revealing ways, an emblem for seventies storytelling. It displays the wry self-consciousness indicative of the era's filmmaking, but even more indicative is its combination of incongruous styles and narrative devices. The commercial fits neither with the subdued style of the credits that precede it nor with the narrative mode of the rest of the film, which never again addresses the audience directly or adopts the form of an out-and-out parody. Moreover, the commercial occupies a precarious position within the film, functioning paradoxically as credits for the twenty-four lead actors, an introduction to their characters, an advertisement for the movie, an advertisement for the movie's soundtrack album, and an advertisement for the movie as though the movie were itself a country-music album. The remainder of Nashville is less disorienting than its disjointed opening credit segment, but only barely; the film persists in straining the cognitive capacities of its audience. Although distributed by a major Hollywood studio, Nashville resists the clarity, formal harmony, and narrative linearity that had distinguished studio filmmaking for more than fifty years.

Under the studio system, the American film industry perfected a coherent narrative design that made Hollywood movies accessible to almost any filmgoer. Then, in the 1970s, a group of talented filmmakers set out to dismantle it. Film commentators have variously regarded the work of these filmmakers as a triumph of the artist, a failed political critique, or a display of self-indulgence, but most recognize that, during this period, the industry made some of the best movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

The 1970s marks Hollywood's most significant formal transformation since the conversion to sound film and is the defining period separating the storytelling modes of the studio era and contemporary Hollywood. Certainly, traditional narrative forms persisted during the period: Consider the popularity of Airport (1970), Love Story (1970), What's Up, Doc? (1972), The Sting (1973), The Way We Were (1973), Benji (1974), Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), and Star Wars (1977), each of which earned well in excess of $15 million in domestic rentals in its first run. At the same time, however, the mainstream American film industry released a group of films that challenged the narrative orthodoxies of its own tradition: M*A*S*H (1970), Patton (1970), Little Big Man (1970), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972), Deliverance (1972), The Getaway (1972), The Exorcist (1973), American Graffiti (1973), The Godfather, Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Shampoo (1975), Tommy (1975), All the President's Men (1976), Carrie (1976), Network (1976), Annie Hall (1977), and others. Such films are, in various ways, unusual for American cinema, yet each one also earned in excess of $15 million in domestic rentals in its first run, and many film fans and film commentators today consider them some of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Although $15 million may not sound like much today when profits for the most popular films are calculated in hundreds of millions of dollars, before the seventies the large majority of almost any year's top ten highest earners returned less than $10 million in domestic rentals. Even today, in dollars adjusted according to ticket prices, the seventies produced more of Hollywood's highest-grossing films than any other decade. And in terms of the quality and creativity of the output, the years 1970 to 1977 could rival any eight years in Hollywood's history.

What matters most about films of the seventies—what makes people remember them and return to them—is not so much their themes, politics, or cultural relevance, as previous studies of the period have contended, but their unusual manner of storytelling and the gripping, unconventional experiences they offer spectators. No previous studies have examined in depth the narrative design that defines this watershed period in film history. This book identifies the period's defining narrative strategies and explains their aesthetic contribution. It further sets out to demonstrate that the artistic achievements of the 1970s permanently expanded Hollywood cinema's narrative possibilities.

Narrative Perversity

Seventies cinema spotlighted the very disunities that previous generations of Hollywood filmmakers had labored hard to conceal. The period's startling disunity led movie critic Leslie Halliwell to write an essay on the "arrogance" of seventies filmmakers. Writing in 1977, the then-forty-eight-year-old Halliwell said about these young directors:

Steeped in the history of Hollywood's golden age, they have no idea what made it work so well, and as soon as they become successful they begin to despise their audiences and are concerned only to over-spend enormous budgets while putting across some garbled self-satisfying message which is usually anti-establishment, anti-law-and-order and anti-entertainment. (930)

The unsettling change in narrative design troubled many filmgoers. Americans of Halliwell's generation, those born before 1940 or so, had stopped attending movies in a routine way, replaced by college-age and younger audiences, many of whom sought out the very films that Halliwell derides. Looking back on the era in 2000, film historian David Cook (born sixteen years after Halliwell) comes to an opposite conclusion: "The results were often extreme, even explosive . . . but the industry has never produced better [films], not even during the studio system's golden age" (396).

A peculiar narrative design became prevalent in American cinema during the years 1970 to 1977. A majority of the most acclaimed films of that eight-year period—films that have tended to win industry and critical awards and appear on critic and fan lists—resisted some of the cardinal principles of "classical" Hollywood filmmaking, which, according to Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, include among other things "decorum, proportion, formal harmony, respect for tradition, mimesis, self-effacing craftsmanship, and cool control of the perceiver's response—canons which critics in any medium usually call 'classical'" (4). Several American movies from both right before that time (for example, Bonnie and Clyde [1967], Faces [1968], and The Wild Bunch [1969]) and right after (Deer Hunter [1978], Manhattan [1979], and Raging Bull [1980]) adopt narrative strategies prevalent during the period 1970 to 1977. The earlier group, however, presages a movement that hadn't yet taken hold in mainstream American cinema and the later movies are more isolated examples of a kind of film that starts to peter out about the time of Rocky (1976) and Star Wars (1977).

Influenced, in part, by Asian and European art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s—with its looser narrative structure, elliptical flashbacks, radical changes in mood, and emphasis on character ambiguity—seventies filmmakers, working within the classical Hollywood model, tested that model's flexibility by adapting the radical techniques of more truly subversive filmmakers to Hollywood's classical form. Indeed, a large number of the most successful directors of the period—among them, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Dennis Hopper, Sidney Lumet, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Pollack, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich—have named as influences the works of De Sica, Rossellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Visconti, Bergman, Godard, Resnais, Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut, Renoir, Buñuel, Ray, Kurosawa, and Ozu. These foreign filmmakers enjoyed a popularity among American audiences that surpassed even that of the Film Arts Guild, the art-house cinema movement, and the ethnic theaters of the 1920s and 1930s. "During the late 1950s and 1960s," Douglas Gomery observes, "the international art cinema reached an apogee" (Shared Pleasures, 189).

Many seventies filmmakers adopted narrational strategies popularized by these art-house filmmakers. David Bordwell has identified several features characteristic of the historical mode of narration known as "art cinema," and we see them exhibited in seventies films to an uncommon degree for Hollywood cinema. Deliverance, The Conversation (1974), The Godfather, Part II, and Nashville foreground the kind of narrative ambiguity regularly found in European and Asian art films, such as Rashomon (1950), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and L'avventura (1960). Their plotting is not as redundant, clear, or tightly constructed as is customary in Hollywood cinema, and story exposition is delayed and distributed more broadly across the plot; we consider these qualities more closely when we examine the narrative strategies of The Godfather, Part II in Chapter Three. The characters of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Wanda (1970), and Scarecrow (1973) slide passively from situation to situation in an episodic series of events, like the protagonists of Alfie (1966), Ray's Apu trilogy, and Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series. They lack clear-cut traits, motives, and goals, and character psychology often fluctuates from one scene to the next. Such films focus on what Bordwell calls the "vagaries of real life," loosening the cause-and-effect relationship between story events and dramatizing not just climactic but also trivial moments (Narration, 206). Like Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Lenny (1974), The Conversation, and Mikey and Nicky (1976), these and other seventies films also cue the spectator to perform what Bordwell calls an "inquiry into character," which he regards as one of the defining features of art-cinema narration and which "becomes not only the prime thematic material but a central source of expectation, curiosity, suspense, and surprise" (209).

Like art films, many seventies films flaunt their processes of narration. A Clockwork Orange, Nashville, Taxi Driver (1976), and Annie Hall, because they contain the kinds of narrative and stylistic idiosyncrasies found in much foreign art cinema (e.g., 8 ½ [1963] and Persona [1966]), create curiosity about their modes of narration and stimulate an interest in their stylistic devices that diverts attention from the films' stories (see Bordwell, Narration, 213). Such films, as we will see in Chapter Six, develop a more self-conscious narration by intermittently foregrounding the role of the filmmaker as the architect of the film's style and plot patterning. Films such as Annie Hall and The Godfather, Part II disorder their chronological events, and The Offense (1972) depicts scene fragments that only gradually reveal an event, so as to, as Bordwell says of The Conformist (1970), "tantalize the viewer with reminders of his of her limited knowledge" (210). Furthermore, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Day for Night (1973), Hollywood films of the 1970s "quote" previous cinema through a process of pastiche that not only makes the filmmaking more self-conscious but also reveals the filmmakers' own fascination with film history. We see this fascination exhibited in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), Herbert Ross's The Last of Sheila (1973), and Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977), which, as we see in Chapter Four, quote the Western, the private detective film, the whodunit, and the Hollywood musical, respectively, as well as in Brian De Palma's various quotations of Hitchcock in Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), and Carrie.

One can easily overstate, however, the similarities between seventies cinema and the foreign art cinema that influenced it. The impact of art cinema on Hollywood in the 1970s is somewhat more complex than many scholars of the period have noted. Mainstream seventies films do not violate Hollywood classicism in the radical way that, say, Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad (1961) undermines classical cinema's insistence upon narrative clarity and logic or Ozu's Early Spring (1956) defies the Hollywood continuity system. Seventies Hollywood offers no equivalent of Kon Ichikawa's Odd Obsession (1959), with its self-conscious and minimally motivated freeze-frames, ambiguous character behavior, and perplexing, obscure plot. Seventies films by and large follow the protocols of Hollywood narration. They only intermittently make narration manifestly self-conscious, and, when they do, generally either genre or story events motivate the flagrant display of technique. As compared to art cinema, they also tend to make character motivations overt and comprehensible. And, although more cognitively demanding than traditional Hollywood cinema, most seventies plots do not tax viewers' memory, attention, perceptiveness, and analytical ability to the extent that foreign art films do. According to Bordwell, Hollywood selectively assimilated art-film practices and bent them to its purposes. "In Hollywood cinema," he observes, "there are no subversive films, only subversive moments" (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, 81).

Still, along the route of classical narration, seventies films inject incongruous devices that violate narrative unity but that never gain enough prominence to undermine the films' classical foundations. Hollywood films of the seventies, in more tempered ways than Marienbad, Early Spring, and Odd Obsession, challenge the harmony of the classical Hollywood model even more so than films noirs or the works of Hitchcock, Welles, or Preminger, films that, some scholars suggest, represent idiosyncratic deviations from the Hollywood paradigm. While stabilized by Hollywood's codified formal system of narrational devices, seventies cinema resists Hollywood's insistence upon efficiency, linearity, and conceptual harmony. Consequently, unlike foreign art cinema, which advertises its own idiosyncrasy and complexity, Hollywood cinema of the 1970s tends to nestle idiosyncratic and complicating devices within a familiar and stable structure. And whereas art films flaunt their violations of classical norms, seventies films commit surreptitious, intermittent, and often trivial infractions of their classical plot patterning. With the stability afforded by classical narration, they can risk a measure of narrational incoherence and still remain anchored to classical cinema's structure and purpose.

Classical filmmaking provides a harmonious form into which seventies filmmakers integrate a faint cacophony of incongruous ideas and narrational devices. The incongruities in seventies cinema keep viewers mentally alert as they attempt to integrate into their experience of a movie thoughts and emotions antipathetic to the movie's overt formal appearance and narrational purpose, even as such viewers, unlike many of their art-cinema counterparts, retain trust in the underlying coherence of the work before them. The quotation from literary critic Stephen Booth that begins this book attests to the aesthetic value of works of art that seem at the same time structurally stable and on the verge of collapse. William Friedkin made the same sort of point, albeit more crudely, when he said about his directorial work in the 1970s, "That's the thrill of filmmaking to me, the thrill of failure, potential failure. This may not work. Yeah, but if it does work it's going to be terrific" (A Decade). According to this line of reasoning, the Hollywood paradigm stimulates the most intense aesthetic excitement when pushed almost to its breaking point.

In a word, seventies narratives are perverse. They not only deviate from classical narrative norms more than Hollywood films from other eras, but their narrative and stylistic devices also threaten to derail an otherwise straightforward narration.

The word "perverse" normally implies a moral judgment, even in film scholarship (see, for instance, Smith, "Gangsters," 217 and Staiger, 2). Following Booth, I use the term here in its literal sense to mean turned around. Perversity denotes a disposition to act contrary to what is reasonable or expected. For Booth, perversity adds to an artwork "a usually gratuitous and potentially distracting and counterproductive extra system of coherence that rivals . . . the narrative, polemic, or other ideationally essential organization of the work" (Precious Nonsense, 37-38). Such systems range from common literary devices, such as rhyme and metaphor, to narrative and stylistic devices one encounters in cinema and other arts, such as stylistic patterning, narrative diversions, and other deviations from an artwork's substantive essence.

In the context of this study, narrative perversity means a counterproductive turn away from a narrative's linear course. Causal linearity—the principle of linking story events by cause-and-effect—is the governing principle of Hollywood storytelling. In a classical narrative, events are linked not arbitrarily (x and y) or chronologically (x then y) but causally (x therefore y), one story event bringing about another. Causality generates "linear" narratives because it organizes story events into lines of action (x therefore y therefore z). Perverse elements in a narrative threaten to undermine, interfere with, or distract spectators from a story's causal logic.

Narrative perversities manifest as story detours and dead ends, ideological incongruities, logical and characterological inconsistencies, distracting stylistic ornamentation and discordances, irresolutions, ambiguities, and other impediments to straightforwardness in a film's narration, and they jeopardize an artwork's narrative and conceptual coherence. Narrative perversity adds something incongruous to an artwork—something out of harmony with the work as a whole. Alex's wit and love of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange run counter to the narration's portrayal of him as a sadistic thug. The stylishness of the cinematography in Taxi Driver seems, in some ways, unsuited to the film's otherwise gritty narration. The grandfatherly charm of John Huston's portrayal of Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974) undercuts his depiction as a depraved, incestuous child molester. The bizarre image of Elliot Gould dancing down the street after shooting his friend at the end of The Long Goodbye not only violates our image of Philip Marlowe from previous movies but also our sense of him here as a blundering and unsure private eye. In fact, the presence of the uptight, mumbling Gould himself adds a pointed incongruity to the private detective film. The injustice of our hero's imprisonment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is undermined by the fact that he is not wrongly imprisoned, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), or imprisoned for something minor, as in Cool Hand Luke (1967), but for five assaults and the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. Although the movie treats his crimes trivially, and spectators likely forget them soon after they learn of them, their inclusion in the narration gratuitously hampers what seems the film's essential goal of enlisting sympathy for a nonconformist facing an unjust system.

Although all narrative films employ a degree of perversity (without turns, there is no narrative), the relatively prevalent, pointed, and superfluous narrative perversities in seventies cinema do more than delay satisfaction and narrative resolution: They preclude the definitive and satisfying resolutions characteristic of more normative Hollywood movies. Counterproductive to narrative unity, linearity, and resolution, narrative perversities are exceptionally productive in creating the rich aesthetic experiences that have made seventies films among Hollywood's most treasured creations.

The Film Industry in the 1970s

Several industrial factors broadened the range of Hollywood's narrative and stylistic options in the 1970s and help explain why mainstream film narration took such a strange turn. Normally, I wait for the particulars of particular films to invite discussion of industrial changes, such as the industry's increasing reliance on series films and sequels (Chapter Three), changes in genre filmmaking (Chapter Four), the "blockbuster syndrome" and the rise of mainstream exploitation cinema (Chapter Five), the elimination of regulatory restrictions on the depiction of lurid material (Chapters Five and Six), the influence of "auteurism" on seventies filmmaking and the relaxation of limits on idiosyncratic expressions of a director's style (Chapter Six), and governmental and industrial incentives for independent film production (Chapter Seven). Presenting historical material in this way makes it less likely that readers will think they have a comprehensive grasp on the research concerning historical and industrial factors that influenced filmmaking trends in the seventies, research that is often speculative. However, some general factors have been fairly well established, mostly by David Cook in his extensive historical study of the period, and we can begin now to consider some of the large-scale industrial changes that helped create the conditions for seventies narrative innovations.

The most persuasive explanation for the artistic changes in studio filmmaking can be summed up in a word: insecurity. At the beginning of the decade, the film industry suffered an unprecedented financial crisis, and industry executives did not know how to respond. The "Recession of 1969" plagued the film industry, resulting in $600 million in losses for the major film studios between 1969 and 1971 (see Cook, 3).

The financial crisis had several causes. First among them, the major studios no longer controlled the industry through a system of vertical integration, which had been deemed monopolistic by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1948 case, United States v. Paramount Pictures. The case led to a series of "consent decrees" between the studios and the Justice department that forced studios to divest their holdings of theater chains and ended practices that inhibited independent production, such as "block booking," the practice, prevalent in the studio era, of forcing exhibitors to take blocks of studio pictures.

Second, the film industry saw a twenty-five-year decline in film attendance. Weekly attendance in the United States dropped from 90 million attendees in 1946 to an all-time low of 15.8 million in 1971, the decline particularly steep between 1956 and 1971 when weekly attendance fell 62 percent in just fifteen years (see Steinberg, 371). Meanwhile, ticket prices between 1956 and 1972 rose 160 percent, while the cost of living rose only 53.9 percent (Belton, 258). Audience demographics also changed dramatically. The baby boomers (those born after 1945) would, according to Douglas Gomery, "constitute the core movie audience of the 1970s," keeping theatrical exhibition alive and altering moviegoing behavior ("Motion Picture Exhibition," 398). As a group, baby boomers enjoyed more unusual film entertainment than their parents—darker, bolder, and more challenging, stylized, and eccentric. Clearly, the sensibilities of the typical moviegoer had changed when Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), which had a negative cost of $12 million, returned a domestic rental of $1 million, and M*A*S*H (1970), which had a negative cost of $3 million, returned a domestic rental of $36.7 million.

Finally, slow to respond to changing demographics in the late 1960s, the studios financed a large number of expensive, artistically conservative flops, such as The Bible (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), Sweet Charity (1969), and Battle of Britain (1969). Meanwhile, foreign films and offbeat American films, geared toward the youth market, returned surprising profits, including Blow Up (1966, $6.9 million in domestic rentals), Bonnie and Clyde (1967, $24.1 million), I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967, $19 million), The Graduate (1967, $49 million), and Easy Rider (1969, $19.2 million). Tino Balio notes that the number of U.S. theaters that regularly played art films rose from approximately one hundred to seven hundred between the 1950s and the 1960s (63). The increase in art-film exhibition during this period, Gomery notes, "represented a rare trend upward in movie attendance" (Shared Pleasures, 188).

The crisis conditions created financial and artistic opportunities. The film studios, low on cash but holding lucrative real estate (indicating temporarily undervalued shares), proved attractive for corporate takeovers by major conglomerates looking to diversify their holdings (see Cook, 301). Except for 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, and Disney, conglomerates had purchased all of the major studios one by one by the decade's end. The structural change in studio filmmaking altered the executive culture at the studios, which were no longer run by movie moguls, who had owned substantial shares in the studios they headed, but, as Thomas Schatz notes, by salaried employees, "one percenters" more readily replaced than their predecessors from the studio era ("Boss Men," 28). Compared to the veteran moguls, the executives, lawyers, agents, and bankers who now ran the industry had little knowledge of film production. Frustrated by rising debt and their own inability to gauge audience tastes, they began to rely on filmmakers to make executive decisions. Brought up on cinema and television, young directors seemed to know better the appetites of the baby boomers who now constituted the core audience.

The studios sometimes recruited these new, youthful directors from film schools, where they studied film as an art form. Francis Ford Coppola studied at UCLA, George Lucas and John Milius at USC, and Martin Scorsese graduated from and taught at NYU. The new generation of American filmmakers sometimes emulated the artists of the French New Wave and other foreign filmmakers from the fifties and sixties, who had developed cinematic techniques and sensibilities strange to American film. The studios hired these new directors for relatively small salaries, compared to more established directors, and budgeted their films at B-movie rates. "These filmmakers," Cook says, "brought fresh, cost-effective talent to an industry embroiled in financial crisis and structural change, and, for a few brief years, the studio chiefs gave them unprecedented creative freedom" (6). According to Ned Tanen, head of production at Universal Pictures, the executives at Universal

said to the [young directors] who could not have gotten an appointment on the lot two weeks earlier, "It's your movie, don't come back to us with your problems, we don't even want to know about them." . . . [T]he studio left them alone because they thought they'd screw it up if they interfered, and the movies didn't cost anything. They realized that here was a fountain of talent. That's how, in the late '60s and early '70s, it became a director's medium. (Cited in Biskind, Easy Riders, 125-126)

The unusual change in studio culture accounts for why several directors, including Scorsese, consider the seventies "the last golden period of cinema in America" (Hirschberg, 92).

Together, the changes in the industry—the consent decrees, demographic changes, an industry recession, corporate buyouts, and a reliance on a new breed of directors influenced by television, film school training, and modern European and Asian filmmaking trends—created the conditions for a rare atmosphere of innovation and a new kind of mature cinema that enjoyed a brief popularity through the mid-1970s.

It would be difficult not to tell this story as one of the rise and fall of the artist in Hollywood because, by the end of the decade, the industry, now back on a firm financial and structural foundation, no longer relied on directors as a barometer of the tastes of the average filmgoer. Indeed, by the late seventies, the moviegoing demographic had again changed. A 1977 survey indicated that "57 percent of all movie tickets were purchased by those under twenty-five, a group whose tastes were inherently more conservative than those of the late 1960s counterculture" (Cook, 23). According to Richard Maltby, "by 1979 every other [movie] ticket was bought by someone aged between 12 and 20" ("Nobody," 24). The studios responded by putting the majority of their finances behind blockbuster films in genres that appealed to young audiences—science fiction, comedies, and action—so that films such as Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Animal House (1978), Superman (1978), Star Trek (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) increasingly dominated film production and the box office. Their success showed studio executives that blockbusters could generate more profit than anyone had previously suspected, and executives began to focus their energies and studio finances almost exclusively on the production of expensive movies that would draw huge rental returns, ensured in part by saturation marketing techniques. Marketing costs, for the first time, began sometimes to exceed negative costs, and marketing and distribution executives increasingly controlled studio policy. Films marketed to juveniles also enabled a lucrative ancillary market in product tie-ins, including soundtrack albums, games, toys, clothing, books, food, and candy, which also helped advertise the films; the merchandise sold the films and vice versa. By the end of the seventies, Star Wars had made more money in merchandise than at the box office (Maltby, "Nobody," 24). Ancillary merchandizing deals, for the most part, applied to children's movies and sci-fi and action genres. Few people would want action figures, games, and candy associated with Chinatown or Dog Day Afternoon.

By the late seventies, the cost of production had risen drastically relative to inflation, and studio executives felt pressure to make movies with wide audience appeal. By the end of 1979, the average negative cost of a movie was $7.5 million, nearly twice the figure for 1977 (Cook, 349). To recuperate costs, the industry relied increasingly on the successes of a few extraordinarily popular films. The number of feature productions dropped, and each year most major studios laid their money on five or six potential blockbusters. "Increasingly," James Monaco wrote in 1979, "we are all going to see the same ten movies" (393). Presale agreements with television and cable networks (and, after 1985, home video licensing fees) provided much of the production capital for Hollywood films and biased the industry toward genres that would attract TV viewers and away from the more slow-paced and complex films that populated theaters in the earlier seventies.

In such an environment, a smaller-budgeted movie, geared to make a modest profit with a niche audience, seemed hardly worth pursuing. Hollywood still produced a handful of artistically "mature" movies, and some of the filmmakers who had become popular in the early seventies had the clout to continue making them. In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now, Woody Allen made Manhattan, and Martin Scorsese was in production on Raging Bull. But, as Monaco notes, "By the mid-seventies, with costs escalating rapidly and the studios now solidly under the control of accountants and businessmen [films geared toward small audiences] were ruled out. Simply put, it's harder to make a profitable small picture than a profitable large one" (20). Once industry executives felt more secure in their ability to predict successful projects, they no longer gambled on relatively low-budget films with limited markets and limited potential for blockbuster success. Such films became increasingly harder to sell, as "event films" displaced the more innovative movies that only critics and the dying breed of routine filmgoers would attend. By the end of the decade, Hollywood had survived and solved its financial crisis, and its brief artistic renaissance ended.

Poetics vs. Cultural Studies

Despite the attention scholarship has already paid to seventies cinema, previous film scholars, using by and large the same methods (usually a variation of cultural studies and ideological analysis), have largely come to the same conclusions: In general terms, films of the seventies replicate or react to the ideological conflicts and social upheavals of the era. This study's revisionist account of seventies cinema adopts a text-based approach—one that focuses on the films as experiences for spectators—and thereby offers a new way of understanding the cinema of the period.

Previous studies—most notably David Cook's Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979 and Robin Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan—have speculated as to why Hollywood produced so many artistically innovative films in the 1970s, but none of them has adequately explained the films' innovations. The concentration on cultural history causes scholars to see the "Hollywood Renaissance" of the 1970s in mostly ideological terms and to emphasize the films' politics and cultural contexts. Such studies examine the impact on American cinema of the antiwar movement, the drug culture, the Watergate scandal, and other cultural events of the period and see the blockbuster successes of the middle and latter part of the decade as the reflection of an encroaching Reagan-era conservativism. One film scholar says that "the aesthetic trends of the [1970s] corresponded rather directly to conflicting ideological currents" (Lev, 185); another, that the "blockbuster spectacles" of the late seventies "return to the cultural myths of the pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate era" and reflect "the conservative politics that underpinned society during the Reagan-Bush era" (Man, 3); and a third, that "the blockbuster syndrome returned Hollywood to its bedrock profile of reactionary ideology and capitalist greed with a newly sophisticated emphasis on commodity packaging" (Cook, xvi). Equating artistic value with progressive social values, several cultural studies of the period end up disparaging some memorable movies—such as Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)—and inevitably extolling some dull ones, such as Joe (1970) and Go Tell the Spartans (1978), that reflect ideas the critics consider important. The "blockbuster spectacles" of the mid- to late seventies indicate changes in narrative strategies, more than ideological changes, occurring in Hollywood cinema. In fact, two blockbusters of that period—Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979)—far from reflecting "reactionary ideology and capitalist greed," contain liberal critiques of capitalism and government almost as forceful as those in the so-called "social criticism" films of the earlier part of the decade, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Chinatown (1974). Cultural and ideological analysis may demonstrate the ways in which seventies films respond to the ideologies of the time, but it threatens to foul up aesthetic analysis.

Indeed, analyzing ideology and culture does not much account for the attraction of one film over another. I have seen no compelling evidence that a film's ideology and social relevance influence its popularity or acclaim over decades. All movies can be said to reflect their social climate (even by ignoring it). The Graduate, Little Big Man, M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tackle the same left-wing social issues—the generation gap, the Vietnam War, violence, racism, abuse of authority—as The Trip (1967), Catch 22 (1970), The Strawberry Statement (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), yet the films in the second group have not drawn many viewers since their initial release or earned much praise from critics, scholars, or film fans. The films in the first group are valued and (not because) they tend to lean politically to the left. Liberal films, moreover, do not appear to attract the culture's interest more than conservative ones. Filmgoers and film commentators express aesthetic admiration for many films with conservative ideologies, including Sunrise (1927), Triumph of the Will (1935), White Heat (1949), and Die Hard (1988). By the same token, if Francis Ford Coppola could take a book by Mario Puzo commonly regarded as pulp (even by Puzo) and, with minimal thematic changes, turn it into what most commentators and filmgoers consider one of the best movies of the decade, then ideology and social relevance cannot be fundamental to artistic value.

In short, ideological and cultural analysis does not explain why some films draw more affection, attraction, and admiration than others that offer essentially the same ideological content. Narrative and stylistic analysis, by contrast, can help explain the ways in which individual movies function as works of art. The two scholarly books devoted to the narrative and stylistic strategies of contemporary American film, Kristin Thompson's Storytelling in the New Hollywood and David Bordwell's The Way Hollywood Tells It, deal only in passing with the narrative innovations of the seventies. Bordwell notes the ways in which directors from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s explored "oblique and ambiguous storytelling," albeit in a more tempered way than the foreign directors who inspired them (72). He focuses primarily, however, on narrative devices popularized during the 1990s: "paradoxical time schemes, hypothetical futures, digressive and dawdling action lines, stories told backward and in loops, and plots stuffed with protagonists" (73). Thompson, too, focuses on more recent American cinema (her most distantly released case study is 1979's Alien). She does say in her introduction that the "youthquake/auteurist films of the period from 1969-1977 or so were not harbingers of a profound shift in Hollywood storytelling but a brief detour that has had a lingering impact on industry practice" (4). And she's right: Such films were a brief detour and have had a lingering impact. However, the route of the detour and the quality of their impact have yet to be explained.

Both Thompson's and Bordwell's studies adopt a neoformalist approach. In an earlier work, Breaking the Glass Armor, Thompson defines neoformalism as "an approach to aesthetic analysis" that studies "how artworks are constructed and how they operate in cueing audience response" (6). Neoformalism, she says, is not itself a method (which, following Boris Eikhenbaum, she defines as an "instrument" for answering questions), but rather an "approach" or "principle" that "allows us to judge which of the many (indeed infinite) questions we could ask about a work are the most useful and interesting ones" (7). Hence, neoformalist critics use a variety of methods, depending on the particular questions posed by particular artworks. Adapted to film analysis from the works of Russian Formalist literary theorists, neoformalism regards art as "set apart from the everyday world" since, in the everyday world, "we use our perception for practical ends" (8). Although artworks cause us to employ the same perceptual capabilities that we use to interact with the everyday environment, with art we employ them for what Thompson calls a "playful," rather than practical, interaction.

Although this type of analysis runs contrary to some trends in contemporary film theory, it addresses key aspects of the cinema that many contemporary approaches neglect. Political, historical, and ideological analysis, although potentially useful in understanding how movies function within culture, cannot answer myriad fundamental questions about cinema that neoformalist film analysis addresses directly, the most fundamental being, "How does a film construct an aesthetic experience?" Neoformalism does not regard audiences as passive recipients of artworks and other cultural forces, such as marketing and ideology, but rather acknowledges that audiences engage actively and selectively with works of art. Film scholars sometimes write about viewers as though they could not distinguish between the works of art they like and the ones the culture tells them to like. If viewers were indeed so undiscriminating, then one would expect most Hollywood movies to make money in theatrical release (most do not) because the same cultural forces promoting profitable films also promote unprofitable ones. Neoformalism studies the ways in which artworks stimulate spectators to perform mental operations. Film spectators, according to this approach, form mental models—they draw inferences and make predictions—that they continually revise based on information provided by the film as it unfolds, a type of cognitive activity that E. H. Gombrich calls "the interplay between expectation and observation" (Art, 60). Active and creative, the viewer constructs a story based on stimuli from the film, anticipating events and rethinking hypotheses and inferences as the plot progresses. Neoformalist film analysis sets out to explain the interaction between the film, which provides the stimuli, and the spectator, who converts the stimuli into an aesthetic experience.

More broadly, we can (following Aristotle, Igor Stravinsky, the Russian Formalists, and others) define the study of the form and construction of artworks as "poetics," which seeks to describe and explain the design of artworks and their effects on perceivers. This research project is in part an instance of what Alexander Veselovsky called "historical poetics," which traces the course of development of artistic forms or, as Bordwell defines the term, explains "how artworks assume certain forms within a period or across periods" (Bordwell, Poetics, 13). Mainly, however, this study sets out to explain the peculiar attraction of so many peculiar films coming out of Hollywood during the seventies. In the pages that follow, then, we seek answers to the following key questions: First, what principles govern the narrative strategies characteristic of Hollywood films of the 1970s? Second, why have these principles come about at this moment in Hollywood history? Third, what effects do some exemplary films of the period have on people watching them? And fourth, why might people value such effects? Wherever we are, we will always be working on at least one of these four questions.

Normative vs. Non-Normative Spectators

This study, then, endeavors in part to explain the interaction between, on the one hand, a film's narrative and stylistic devices and, on the other, the common mental activities of its spectators. Inevitably, the question arises whether—given the apparent variety of responses to films and the presumption that, as Janet Staiger says, "each spectator is a complex and contradictory construction of such self-identities as gender, sexual preference, class, race, and ethnicity" (13)—scholarship can say anything at all about the shared experience of a movie. It can. At the very least, it can offer informed speculation. When discussing films, we rarely acknowledge that much of what we experience at a movie is practically indistinguishable from what the person sitting next to us experiences: We generally perceive the same figures, objects, and settings; we often laugh, gasp, and scream in the same places; and we typically understand more or less the same story. I am referring here to elementary aspects of cinematic experience; however, film scholarship has time and again demonstrated how films guide spectators toward complex mental processes. Indeed, although in Perverse Spectators Staiger denies the validity of "normative descriptions" of spectator responses, her use of the term "perverse" admits some form of a normative response: Perverse responses must turn away from something. If one can describe a perverse response to a film, then one can describe a normative one.

The film industry itself banks on the assumption that millions, if not hundreds of millions, of viewers from a variety of backgrounds will have a particular, predictable experience of a new film, just as theme park owners bank on the assumption that a number of park patrons will have a particular, predictable experience of a new roller coaster. No one would bankroll such an expensive enterprise as a Hollywood movie without some assurance that the movie could at least guide the responses of its spectators. Although the industry accounts for variation in spectator responses, targeting individual films to subsets of the world population, it also assumes a likely amount of cognitive sameness, particularly within a demographic. A filmmaker, moreover, could hardly design a movie if spectators' experiences were so varied that they responded in largely indeterminable ways. From scriptwriting to post-production, filmmakers must assume that large numbers of spectators will perform a foreseeable repertoire of similar mental activities—including highly complex activities, such as story reconstruction, hypothesis testing, inferential reasoning, and emotional engagement—in response to cinematic stimuli. That assumption makes industry filmmaking, and every other commercial artistic enterprise, possible.

A colleague once accused me of excluding non-dominant, non-normative experiences in my scholarship. I instinctively sought to defend myself against the accusation, until I realized that she was right. I do sometimes exclude non-dominant and non-normative experiences, just as scholars such as Staiger sometimes exclude the dominant, normative experiences that I want to illuminate in this book. Any degree of specialization is exclusive. My specialization here offers a way to understand the means by which a movie stimulates shared experiences for spectators.

If filmmakers can create an experience for people, then scholars can study it. Although, as William Paul says, "determining exactly what an audience might be thinking is always a tricky thing" (73), art theoretician-critics (including neoformalist, cognitive, and reader-response critics) have devised methods for understanding the ways in which works of art cue spectators to perform mental activities. According to Thompson:

The analyst's task becomes to point out the cues and . . . discuss what responses would reasonably result, given a knowledge of backgrounds on the part of the viewer. The neoformalist critic thus analyzes not a set of static form structures . . . but rather, a dynamic interaction between those structures and a hypothetical viewer's response to them. (Breaking, 30)

Her reference to a "hypothetical viewer" will likely raise some eyebrows: For some people, it might seem impossible to reconstruct viewers' experiences in any confident way. Although a reconstruction might remain speculative, scholarly speculation is not the same as guesswork, and the risk of flaws in an analysis of spectator experience does not undermine the endeavor. "In accounting for the effects of history on spectators," Thompson says, "critics need not go to the opposite extreme of dealing only with the reactions of actual people. . . . The notion of norms and deviations allows critics to make assumptions about how viewers would be likely to understand a given device" (26). Understanding an art form's historical norms (such as Hollywood's customary narrative strategies) allows the scholar to determine individual artworks' obedience to and deviations from standard practices.

Other types of research also aid analysis. Accounts of film receptions—movie reviews, box office statistics, contemporaneous essays, trade reports, marketing information, anecdotal reports of audience reactions, and empirical studies—help guide, advance, complicate, and confirm analyses. Cultural history, industrial history, auteur criticism, genre research, and research on modes of film production and exhibition enable us to understand spectators' expectations of a film, the conditions under which they view it, and the conventions that help guide their responses. Psychology research helps us understand the workings of the mind and the ways in which people typically respond to a controlled stimulus, such as a movie. Together with this book's central activity—the analysis of narrative and stylistic devices—such methods can help us reconstruct some of the moment-to-moment experiences that attend an individual film. "In the spirit of reverse engineering," Bordwell says in his study of modern American cinema, "I want to tease apart the finished films and see what strategies of plot and visual style govern their design" (The Way, 17). Film scholars have done little of this type of historically informed "reverse engineering" on even the most thoroughly studied Hollywood films of the 1970s. Consequently, the methods used in this study reveal fundamental aspects of seventies cinema that scholarship has left previously undiscovered.

Chapters, Films, and Filmmakers

In the following chapters, I examine seventies cinema's characteristic narrational strategies. Throughout the book, I use the term "seventies cinema" to signify not all films of the decade but rather a popular and prominent subset of films of the period 1970-1977 that helped expand Hollywood's narrative options and that seem to define the era for many filmgoers and commentators; the term is an abbreviation. The same principle applies to my use of the term "seventies filmmakers," which generally refers to a group of mostly writer-directors who helped shape the period's narrational strategies, most notably Woody Allen, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese. Many other directors and screenwriters of the era, however, often worked in the same vein, namely Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, Paddy Chayefsky, Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse, Arthur Hiller, Milos Forman, Sidney Lumet, Terrence Malick, Paul Mazursky, John Milius, Mike Nichols, Alan Pakula, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski, Bob Rafelson, Michael Ritchie, Nicolas Roeg, Paul Schrader, Robert Towne, and others.

Continuing the introduction to narrative incongruity begun in this chapter, Chapter Two explains and illustrates the principles that distinguish the narrative strategies that develop and become prevalent in seventies cinema. Chapter Two also addresses why people might value incongruity in a narrative, particularly when watching films made within a tradition devoted so fully to organic unity? Finally, the chapter offers some empirical evidence that cinema from the 1970s deviates from Hollywood narrative norms (including classical standards of coherence and resolution) more than films from other periods and that a majority of the most highly regarded films of the decade, according to a variety of independent ratings, exhibit narrative incongruity to an uncommon degree.

Whereas Part I of this book describes the characteristic principles of Hollywood narratives in the 1970s, it does not explain seventies cinema "narration": the process of "selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver" (Bordwell, Narration, xi). Each of the three chapters in Part II examines a key mode of perverse narration in 1970s cinema, modes that I abbreviate as 1) narrative frustration, 2) genre deviation, and 3) conceptual incongruity. To see, in a vivid and detailed way, how each mode operates, each chapter examines a key case study that illustrates the narrative mode in an exemplary way. Rather than systematically analyze a random sampling of films, it seems to me most useful for understanding narration of this period to engage in close, illustrative, revisionist analyses of films that readers likely know, that film fans have demonstrable affection for, and that film scholars have already shown interest in.

The three films under primary consideration in Part II of the book—The Godfather, Part II, The French Connection, and The Exorcist, each a model of seventies narrative design—achieved popular success and also received a great deal of critical attention at the time of their release and in subsequent years. In the context of the popular trend of sequels in the 1970s, Chapter Three studies the sequel to The Godfather in order to illustrate the peculiar tendency of seventies cinema to frustrate straightforward narration and to refrain from fulfilling narrative promises in conventionally satisfying ways. More conventional sequels of the seventies, such as Magnum Force (1973) and Jaws 2 (1978), attempt to outdo the pleasures of the original films, but The Godfather, Part II systematically eschews the sentiment, suspense, excitement, clarity, and narrative momentum that helped make the first movie so widely appealing. Chapter Four studies the tendency of seventies narration to exploit and modify conventional genre devices in order to create unsettling and unresolved narrative incongruities. The chapter examines Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and other films, but it focuses primarily on The French Connection, which uses the familiar conventions of the police detective film to mislead spectators into expecting conventional outcomes. Chapter Five studies the ways in which seventies narration intensifies conceptual incongruities already present in some traditional Hollywood scenarios. The Exorcist, the chapter's principal case study, creates conceptual incongruities that violate the film's "high concept" and impede linear narration. The chapter also traces the genealogy and evolution of conceptual incongruity in Hollywood cinema, from its ancestry in films of the studio era, particularly in studio-era crime films and horror films, to its narrative descendants in recent Hollywood cinema.

What are the limits of seventies narrative design? Part III offers two answers, one for classical Hollywood films and one for films uninhibited by Hollywood's strict norms of narration. The answers come by way of examining the work of two directors, Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes, whose films embody the narrative strategies this book sets out to explain. Neither director would have found funding, distribution, or a market for his idiosyncratic work had not industry instability in the 1970s and a popular taste for challenging and unconventional film entertainment created a brief period of support for narrative and stylistic transformation in American cinema. Chapter Six studies the ways in which the films of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver, test the parameters of the classical Hollywood model. Taxi Driver flirts precipitously with narrative and stylistic incoherence, at the same time that formal patterning holds together the film's incongruent pieces and inspires confidence in its underlying structure and harmony. Whereas Scorsese rides along the edge of Hollywood classicism, John Cassavetes leaps right over into radical cinema. Chapter Seven examines Cassavetes's uncompromising films, especially A Woman Under the Influence (1974), which show us the extreme, and some of the commercial hazards, of the narrative design that characterizes American films of this period. In Cassavetes films, we see what narrative perversity looks like when severed from classical Hollywood's stabilizing structures.

Together, these chapters demonstrate the centrality of this period to the history of Hollywood narration and the lasting impact of seventies modes of narration on contemporary Hollywood film. During the 1970s, more intensely and prevalently than ever before, narrative perversity became a leading strategy for Hollywood filmmakers. Now part of Hollywood history, the strategy that shocked many critics and audiences in the 1970s has become an established and accepted narrative tradition.


“This will undoubtedly become an essential book for future scholars of Seventies Hollywood.”
Film Comment


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse