The best word to describe the ’70s would be chaotic. Various sociopolitical movements — including Civil Rights, women’s rights, anti-war, and sexual liberation — fought for assimilation within the national crucible during this tumultuous decade. The result was confusion, with Americans trying to find their own moral path along a road with many forks. During the ’70s, the divorce rate skyrocketed, the Cold War intensified, and Nixon’s mendacity increased. People may have been spending boogie nights on the disco floors, but the country’s overall mood was one of paranoia, pessimism, and dissatisfaction with elected leaders.
Bursting with ideas arising from the decade’s maelstrom, cinema in the ’70s exploded. Negative national sentiment gave rise to a body of films that challenged the status quo as never before. Advances in film technology gave filmmakers the ability to literally create new worlds and explore new realms of human experience. A looser ratings system allowed movies to display human sexuality with greater complexity and explicitness. The result was, quite possibly, the 20th century’s finest decade of film.
Of course this could have been a classic fifty but the five films chosen here are not necessarily the greatest films of the decade but each represent a seismic shift in our movie appreciation.
All the President’s Men (1976)
Most people know the general plot line of All the President’s Men. Two newspaper reporters, Woodward and Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively) are morally upright journalists sussing out Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal. A fascinating combination of idealism and cynicism, All the President’s Men places a nation’s outrage at its political leader within a satisfying cinematic framework in which truth is uncovered and the offender is punished. In a larger context, the film imposes a moral order onto a chaotic event (the fact that America’s president initiated a burglary and lied to the nation about it) and in doing so, reassures the viewing public that “the truth will out.”
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s brutal classic about a New York cabdriver-turned-psychopath is also a film about imposing order on chaos. Admittedly, cabbie Travis Bickle’s ideas of morality and punishment wouldn’t quite jibe with those of most sane citizens, but his mental disintegration is certainly analogous to the confusion of the times. Taxi Driver’s presentation of the rebellious anti-hero also marked a turning point in American cinema. No longer did films have to present a palatable, romantically agreeable lead character. Instead, cinema could probe the ugliness within the human psyche to an extent hitherto unimagined.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Tony Manero, the protagonist of Saturday Night Fever, is also trying to make sense of his world. A none-too-bright boy looking for a way out of his tenement-bound life, Tony (played with remarkable insight by John Travolta) only has to enter a nightclub and hear that familiar disco beat to settle the chaos in his head. On the dance floor, he’s a smooth Romeo who understands a woman’s needs; off it, he’s a mediocre lover and misogynist. Espousing homophobia and a hatred of women is Tony’s way of staving off the confusion he feels over the fact that the world is changing and there may be no place for him. And what happens to Tony when the music dies? You won’t find the answer in Fever’s laughable sequel, Staying Alive.
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
In contrast to the other defining films, Last Tango in Paris depicts characters purposefully pursuing chaos rather than trying to make sense of it. When widower Paul (Marlon Brando) pursues and seduces art student Jeanne (Maria Schneider) he is seeking oblivion. Their sexual “tango” is obsessive, cruel, and destructive. While relationships of this sort had been written about in books, never before had they been depicted so centrally and excruciatingly in mainstream cinema. Tango’s nihilism perfectly reflected the Zeitgeist of a world threatened by nuclear war. And viewers exiting the theater were rightfully shocked and upset by what they saw.
Star Wars (1977)
Moving out of the realm of social ills and into a bold, new cinematic future, Star Wars was probably the most influential film of the ’70s. Using technological advances in film effects, it depicted new worlds on-screen, the likes of which had never been seen. Who can forget that first look at the Death Star or the breathtaking aerial fight sequences?! Taking its cue from film serials of the ’30s and ’40s, Star Wars presented a blatantly clear good guys vs. bad guys paradigm. Looking at the film now, the plot seems resolutely old-fashioned and exceedingly militaristic, and The Force smacks of New Age philosophies, but Star Wars’ simple belief that right triumphs over might will always provide solace in a world that daily grows more complex.