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Decade Under the Influence, A

Docurama // R // September 30, 2003
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jason Janis | posted September 25, 2003 | E-mail the Author
the Film:

Directors Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme have cast an affectionate eye to the seismic shift that resulted in the "New Hollywood" in their rollicking IFC documentary A Decade Under the Influence. It is, essentially, an unabashed and infectious tribute to the films and the individuals who shaped them during the late sixties through the end of the seventies. It should be noted from the outset that although the version presented here (180 minutes) is more fully formed than the theatrical version (which was considerably shorter), Decade firmly remains more a self-described "love letter" than an exhaustive reappraisal of the era. As such, those who would bemoan a purported lack of more detailed analysis would be missing the forest for the trees.

Succinctly put – and, more importantly, as intended – A Decade Under the Influence is a celebration of an energetic and hugely important era of American film, made by enthusiastic fans for those with similar interests.

Whether or not one is familiar with many of the movies noted within the film or with the particular "New Hollywood" period (it is virtually impossible not to be familiar with a good deal), it will prove difficult not to be seduced. Moreover, Decade boasts a likely and commendable by-product: exposure to, and a reminder of, many lesser-known titles that the filmmakers have generously included. If it happens to engender a sense of exploration for those not acquainted, or a desire to revisit titles not seen for some time, it will have already accomplished one of its major goals. (I can think of a dozen movies I already want to revisit since watching it.)

The filmmakers cover the overall catalysts for the movement succinctly and effectively: the Cahiers du Cinema crowd and the auteur theory; the formal, narrative and thematic influence of foreign filmmakers screening stateside (such as Antonioni, Bergman, Bertolucci, DeSica, Fellini, Kurosawa and the French New Wave in general); the path paved by American mavericks such as John Cassavetes (to whom the title nicely tips its hat); and the later successes of Roger Corman and the film Easy Rider. It then focuses on Hollywood proper.

As these elements synthesized, and the studios' bloated productions failed to captivate the public – the film begins with footage from the premiere of Hello, Dolly! – both the older guard (with figures such as Altman, Lumet, Penn) and the new one (Bogdanovich, Coppola, DePalma, Hellman, Scorsese, Spielberg) capitalized on the opportunity with amazing cooperation from the establishment. Deals were struck in which the filmmakers were bestowed unprecedented creative control, provided budgetary concerns and constraints were adhered to. The executives willingly and eagerly deferred to the new guard's "expertise" with the burgeoning new audience, and for a few years, it appeared as though the directors could do no wrong.

Mirroring the uncertain social climate, the filmmakers began tackling once taboo subjects, head on and without apology or reservation. They examined drug use, racism, sexuality, realistic violence, the disenfranchised and otherwise marginalized. Expressly political films that were highly critical of the establishment also became more prominent, and as William Friedkin states, "moral ambiguity" became a modus operandi. Many of the filmmakers, young and old, were ensuring that art began to more accurately imitate life.

This is not to suggest that this group – if it can be referred to as such – worked with unanimity. The artists covered a wide spectrum of concerns, thematically, formally, and otherwise, and began to reflect the prominence of questioning and the diversity of the nation as a whole. It was hardly perfect, and in all fairness, not entirely inclusive. The period was a largely masculine one (and a white one at that) that did not afford many actresses the same freedoms (Julie Christie likens the era to that of boys being let out of school, and Ellen Burstyn summarizes that most of the roles available to women were "the whore, the mother or the wife.") Decade only alludes to the blaxploitation movement, but as the filmmakers have noted, they had difficulty in arranging interviews (at least Pam Grier is featured, as is a brief clip from Foxy Brown).

The relinquishing of power by the studios could have only lasted for so long, and as the decade waned the newly minted summer blockbuster – along with marketing establishing a stronger foothold – began to signal the death knell of the era. Director controlled productions that spiraled out of financial control, such as Heaven's Gate and Apocalypse Now, contributed as well. Some of the filmmakers acknowledge this irony – albeit in a summary manner – and it could be fairly argued that more incisive exploration was warranted since many of the parties responsible were already in place. However, as noted above, Decade is much more concerned and enamored with the triumphs of the period than its failures: it is kind, reverent, and unapologetic in this approach. And there is nothing at all wrong with that.

A Decade Under the Influence is presented in three parts, as it aired this past August on IFC: I) Influences and Independents; II) The New Hollywood; and III) Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Each hour-long segment crystallizes the topic at hand, with the commentators providing greater context in an overall tone of fond reminiscence and nostalgia rather than one of regret or maudlin sentimentality.

Among those interviewed, as it is worth noting:

Robert Altman; Peter Bogdanovich; Marshall Brickman; Ellen Burstyn; Julie Christie; Francis Ford Coppola; Roger Corman; Bruce Dern; Clint Eastwood; Milos Forman; William Friedkin; Pam Grier; Dennis Hopper; Sidney Lumet; Paul Mazursky; Sydney Pollack; Jerry Schatzberg; Roy Scheider; Paul Schrader; Martin Scorsese; Sissy Spacek; Robert Towne; Jon Voight.

Lastly, understanding the nearly impossible human scope of the era and the confines of their project, the filmmakers end the documentary with a wise apology for those unavoidably - and regrettably - omitted.

the DVD

Video: Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, A Decade Under the Influence looks quite good. The interviews featured are handsomely lit by cinematographers Clyde Smith and Anthony Jannelli, and most of the archival materials (photographs, news footage, etc.) and film clips are in good to very good shape. Details, flesh tones, and contrast levels appear correct throughout, and its general appearance - for a feature shot on video - is smooth.

The inspired opening title sequence deserves a special mention – very nicely done.

Audio: A Decade Under the Influence includes a DD 2.0 stereo mix that is also well rendered. Commentary and dialogue remain easy to hear throughout (questions posed by the interviewers are seldom heard). The soundtrack, which features a few songs from the era (such as the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," and the perfect use of Rhinoceros' "Apricot Brandy"), is also given a good treatment.

No subtitles are included.

Extras: Included in this release are brief filmmaker bios and additional interview footage with Altman, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Friedkin, Hellman, Lumet, Scheider, Schatzberg, Schrader and Haskell Wexler. All are brief and last a few minutes.

Final Thoughts: A Decade Under the Influence is highly recommended to all film enthusiasts of any age group. It is a fun, energetic, and informative ride through a crucial period in American film. Decade's enthusiasm for its subject is highly contagious, and if you can accept the ride for what it is, its omissions – if viewed as such – are entirely forgivable.

For further discussion regarding the film's logistics, thematic concerns, and ambitions, an interview with Producer and Director Richard LaGravenese can be found here.

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Highly Recommended

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