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The New Hollywood of the 1970s

May 4, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many American filmmakers sought to revolutionize Hollywood cinema. For the past several decades, American films were built upon prestige and spectacle, drawing millions to see wondrous images and famous faces on a gigantic screen.

Largely influenced by the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, a new batch of American filmmakers created a movement called the “American New Wave” or “New Hollywood.” This movement defied the nostalgic standards of yesteryear and created a more innovative and artistic style of filmmaking. With the meteoric rise of television and inflated production costs, studios were in a state of financial ruin when this movement was beginning to form. Coupled with the disbanding of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1967, these filmmakers had a golden opportunity of artistic freedom and expression.

Two of the most prominent filmmakers in New Hollywood were the Italian-American duo of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. They modeled their filmmaking process around the auteur theory and did whatever they could to break and reshape the rules of Hollywood. The two films that broke new ground were Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972 and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976. These two films challenged Old Hollywood storytelling through their use of social messaging, complicated central characters, and attitudes towards on-screen violence.

The incorporation of social messaging within movies had been around for some time in Old Hollywood, but it was often lightened for audiences. Stanley Kramer spoke about societal issues in many of his films, such as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Despite being released right around the time of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, these films were geared towards older generations of moviegoers, the ones that would better respond to conventionalism and star power.

While he revered Kramer, Martin Scorsese didn’t follow in his footsteps when it came to telling his story. Taxi Driver is set in the authentic 1970s version of New York City, filled with pimps, prostitutes, drugs, and murder. In a voiceover, the central character, a lonely taxi driver named Travis Bickle, describes his nightly routine: “Each night, when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the c** off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.” Travis is just a cab driver, and only about three feet separate him from his passengers. And yet, somehow semen and blood end up on his seats. Our imaginations can only run wild with the disgusting things he witnesses every night.

Seeing these horrific events nightly slowly pushes Travis to his breaking point, which he was already a bit too close to due to the undiagnosed PTSD he carries with him since his discharge from the Vietnam War. He has no contempt for his fellow man and only sees them as the worst versions of themselves. In one of his monologues, Travis describes the cities residents as ”animals coming out at night – whores, skunk p*****s, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” This quote shows the mental downfall of Travis and how he decides to take matters into his own hands.

Scorsese, and screenwriter Paul Schrader, give the audience an honest and unsensitized depiction of what New York City is like. Gone are the days of the glimmering bustle of New York in films such as Guys and Dolls and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Taxi Driver, along with other New Hollywood films like Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection showed New York as a cesspool of crime and villainy that no decent person should visit, let alone live in.

Also set in New York City, albeit a few decades earlier, was Coppola’s The Godfather. Adapted from the novel by Mario Puzo, Coppola steeps his film into the rich Italian immigrant culture, one filled with hardships and stresses the importance of family. Vito Corleone is a character that is given immense psychological development. Many of his actions are done to protect his family and strengthen his relationships with the other crime families. He still can be considered a villain, as he orders men to be killed and works in illegal enterprises.

With Brando’s method acting, Vito was an unprecedented authentic depiction of Italian-Americans, distancing the image away from the Tommy Gun swinging depictions in earlier films such as The Public Enemy and Scarface. There could also be an argument made that Coppola’s new image became a harmful stereotype, as The Godfather became immensely influential in how Italian-Americans were portrayed in future films.

Similar to Vito, it’s difficult to place the character of Travis Bickle on the spectrum of hero and villain. He takes a complicated journey from an outcast to a killer, with almost everything being under the surface. Scorsese and Schrader avoid what director Sidney Lumet called “the rubber-ducky moment,” a phrase that stemmed from the television specials of the 1950s where characters and their motivations could be easily explained. For example, a person’s rubber ducky was stolen as a child and that’s why they became a deranged killer. Lumet criticized this moment for being too simple and preposterous, as nobody’s personality and persona could come from just one experience.

Scorsese and Schrader never simplify Travis as a character. Film essayist Matt Zoller Seitz (2016) noticed the initial complexity by writing: “There is nothing spontaneous or natural about this man. He’s deeply damaged, maybe by the war, maybe by his childhood; we don’t know exactly what his problem is, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.” We never truly know what Travis problems are, and we never know exactly what is going on inside his mind. Based on his monologues previously mentioned, we can only imagine what Travis sees and thinks about.

Even if we don’t always know everything that’s happening internally, Scorsese does give us glimpses from time to time. The famous mirror scene is an example of Scorsese using his directorial toolkit to illustrate Travis, but not explain him. Using disjunctive editing, a radical departure from classic storytelling, and a technique reminiscent of the French New Wave, Scorsese breaks up the flow of the scene, separating the viewer from Travis. Travis practices confronting someone with a gun, pointing it at his reflection, and uttering incomplete sentences. In his article, "The Last Temptation of Travis Bickle," author Andre Caron (1997) described this technique as a “sudden distancing process in order to separate the viewer from Travis.” The only conversation Travis can hold throughout the film is with himself, and even that is just fragments of threats and taunts. With the cut-up editing, the viewer is disoriented and begins to mirror the paranoia that Travis has in his head.

In the mob genre, there are no two more complicated characters than Vito and Michael Corleone. Before them, the genre was populated with more stereotypical and one-dimensional representations by the likes of James Cagney and Paul Muni. Vito Corleone was an immigrant of the United States looking to make a name for himself and secure a future for his family. He doesn’t see the mafia as a glorious lifestyle. He doesn’t want his youngest son, Michael, to be involved in the family business. Michael initially doesn’t play a part in the family and has no intention to do so. At the beginning of the film, he describes his father’s actions to his girlfriend as “that’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Throughout the film, Michael becomes more and more embroiled in his family affairs. After his father is gunned down in the street, he takes it upon himself to enact revenge on those responsible.

The restaurant scene is the moment that marks Michael’s transition from innocent war-hero to mafia murderer. Michael meets with Sollozzo and McCluskey in a restaurant. Like Scorsese does in his mirror scene, Coppola uses character-driven editing to not explain Michael, but to give us bits and pieces of his thoughts. As the two men try to excuse their actions, Coppola cuts to a close-up of Michael as he stares at his opponents. He has a personal grievance with the men and a sense of duty to his family, but he still doesn’t know if should go through with the action. The sound of a corkscrew and wine bottle being opened add to the tension bubbling in

Michael’s head. After some short conversation, Coppola recommits to the close-up of Michael, now slowly zooming in and overtaking the dialogue with the sound of an oncoming train. At this moment, Michael makes up his mind and commits to the deed, pulling out a gun and killing both men. With the power of sound effects, dialogue, and editing, Coppola doesn’t fall into the easy rubber-ducky trap, as he instead slowly exhibits Michael’s transition and demands the audience to feel the pathos behind his actions.

Finally, both Taxi Driver and The Godfather feature moments of extreme on-screen violence, often committed by the main characters. They are both unflinching in execution and don’t shy away from the horrors. In Taxi Driver, Travis acquires his weapons through an illegal dealer. He buys more guns than a person could need, including many that are much more powerful than he requires. To him, the ends justify the means. Being a vigilante and having illegal access to firearms doesn’t mean anything if he has good intentions. While there can be an argument for that mode of thinking, Travis also doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his actions, so long as they are deemed bad in his eyes.

After a few outbursts here and there, the film culminates in a shootout at a brothel. Scorsese lingers on the scene with slow pans to show the aftermath but also uses quick edits when guns are being fired. The scene is brutal, with an extreme focus on the physical damage being done to bodies, and the mental damage being done to Iris, who witnesses the whole thing.

Unexpectedly, the media portrays Travis as a hero who took matters into his own hands and saved a girl from prostitution. As the viewer, we know that Travis isn’t a prototypical hero and his actions aren’t ones to admire. This cycle of violence and interpretation goes back to the social messaging Scorsese and Schrader instill into the film. There is a disconnect between the true story and the one printed. Who is to blame for this disconnect, the readers of the paper, or the publications glorifying the disturbing act? The answer is both. The audience (the viewers included) crave violence with a morbid attraction. The media lives to meet that demand, writing stories depicting heroes and villains. Scorsese and Schrader emphasize that violence is inherently evil and that it doesn’t solve the worst problems in the world. No character’s situation is improved after the events in the film, as Travis feels empowered to commit more acts and Iris is forever scarred, both physically and mentally.

The Godfather came a few years before Taxi Driver when auteurs were experimenting with the relationship both Hollywood and audiences had with violence. Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, and Straw Dogs broke into the mainstream, with their heavy use of screen violence being one of the central elements of their success.

The violence within The Godfather does not sensationalize the crime lifestyle. Each death is stripped of stylization, often being shown in gruesome fashion. For example, the garrote scene has Luca Brasi’s eyes popping out of his head, and Sonny’s ambush leaves him in a bloody mess. Finally, the ending follows the massacre of several high-ranking mob bosses, including one being shot in the eye and another being gunned down in bed. None of this violence is played to be heroic or produce good consequences, similar to Taxi Driver and the films mentioned before.

Taking a page out of their European contemporaries and defying the methods of their Hollywood elders, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese became two of the most respected filmmakers of the New Hollywood movement. Because of their attitudes towards violence, character development, and social messaging, the pair revolutionized the role that a director played in the filmmaking process and the connection audiences had with cinema.

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