Jun 1, 2017

Book Review--Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s
Charles Taylor
Bloomsbury, 2017

From the moment I heard of it, I looked forward to reading Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s. I both love and abhor the gritty, bold and honest cinema of this decade. So far it is the only truly adult era in the history of American cinema (though the pre-codes often came close) and for that reason the films produced then have a unique elation, grime and forthrightness that makes them endlessly intriguing. In a new book, Charles Taylor writes about several of the lesser known or underappreciated movies of the period, while lamenting the loss of the creatively adventurous mid-level budget film and the communal experience of seeing memorable films in theaters.

Though dedicated film fans will recognize several of the cult classics in this book: like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), even the most devoted seventies aficionado may find a few surprises. While I enjoyed reading Taylor's analysis of the films with which I was familiar, it was a special thrill to learn about titles like Winter Kills (1979) and Cisco Pike (1972), which sound intriguing, and are full of celebrated actors, but somehow never made it across my radar.

Perhaps the best thing about Taylor's analysis is that he gives everything its proper due. He doesn't make claims for Godfather-level greatness when discussing these movies, but he does find their worth, both in pure entertainment value and the social commentary they offer. He discusses the shock value of Prime Cut (1972), while acknowledging what it has to say about the frustration and despair of the Vietnam era. Moments are allowed to exist for the thrill of it, but underlying themes of gender politics, injustice and the like are folded into the analysis.

Taylor believes that many of these 'B' flicks have captured some of the best of cinema. For example, while Pam Grier never reached the cinematic heights that she should have, he acknowledges that she did elevate exploitation programmers like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) with the majestic force of her personality. He argues that her charisma and free-wheeling acting chops are more compelling that the carefully calibrated machine work of the likes of Meryl Streep.

It is also encouraging the way Taylor can celebrate 'B' cinema while also acknowledging its casualties. As much fun as exploitation can be, it often takes women, people of color and other marginalized groups as its victims. He finds room to appreciate the films, while also condemning the humiliations they inflict. In an unusual, and laudable move, he also relies heavily on the words of female critics to support his views.

These films become much more than drive-in fodder when you realize how they forced audiences to recognize the complications of life and the irrationality of human behavior. Taylor finds the beauty and horror in that messiness and ultimately mourns the loss of the mirror they held up to an audience, and how we are now more often scattered in private homes in front of television screens instead of gathered in a theater, discovering cinema together.

I was reluctant to finish this thoughtful analysis; it was such a pleasure to read. It draws on art, music and society to not necessarily give the films more meaning, but to show how they were born. It is a beautifully-crafted, loving, angry and perceptive collection of film criticism.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of the book for review.

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