A Decade Under the Influence
review by Nicholas Schager, 9 May 2003

A Decade Under the Influence, Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme’s loving ode to ‘70s filmmaking, transports us back to a time when American films were defined by more than their clever marketing strategies, fast food tie -- ins, and opening weekend grosses. A spry, reverential look at the decade that momentarily turned Hollywood on its ear, the film takes a straightforward approach to the material, interspersing passages from some of the period’s most important films (The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, M*A*S*H, The Last Picture Show, etc) with talking -- head commentary from the men and women who changed the industry. While it offers little that hasn’t been covered ad nauseum at some point during the past thirty years (much of it was recently documented in Peter Biskind’s controversial Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, itself the source material for a recent documentary on the Trio network), Influence nonetheless succeeds as a joyous piece of lightweight nostalgia.

A veritable who’s who of Hollywood greats   --  including Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Polly Platt, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, Paul Schrader, Julie Christie, Ellen Burstyn, and Bruce Dern  --  guide us through this festival of film clips, and most are surprisingly even -- handed in recounting how a bloated Hollywood system built on God -- like stars and elaborate spectacles fell out of favor with the counterculture that had gained prominence in the ‘60s. The civil rights, women’s rights, and anti -- Vietnam movements, coupled with the influence of the French and Italian New Wave cinema of the ‘60s, created a group of filmmakers, as well as an audience, that craved gritty, realistic films built around disenchanted, anti -- establishment protagonists; in other words, the exact opposite of traditional Hollywood entertainment. Influence opens with newsreel footage of the world premiere of 1969’s Barbara Streisand’s musical Hello Dolly, and the directors insert comical narration over the scene as a means of gently mocking the opulence of the era. Anyone who’s watched E! knows that the dream of forever doing away with such pageantry never truly materialized  --  stars continue to promote their shallow summer movie extravaganzas by staging lavish premieres for a celebrity-hungry public  --  but the point is effectively made that, for a short time in the ‘70s, it seemed as though a handful of young directors just might usher in a New Hollywood characterized by daring, unconventional, and highly personal films.

Yet as the filmmakers willingly acknowledge before the end credits, for all the great films and filmmakers included in this documentary, there are just as many conspicuously missing from its supposedly wide-ranging retrospective (American Graffiti, Serpico, Apocalypse Now). In some regards, this failure at comprehensiveness is a blessing, since at an hour and fifty minutes, Influence is long enough. Most everything is covered in some fashion, from obvious blockbusters like The Godfather and The Exorcist to more obscure (at least in terms of general public knowledge) classics like John Cassavetes’ gritty Faces and Hal Ashby’s hilariously profane The Last Detail. Half the pleasure of the film is simply sitting back and watching all-too-brief scenes from some favorite films  --  at the screening I attended, the famous Marshall McLuhan scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall had no trouble eliciting boisterous laughs  --  in pristine condition up on the big screen.

This being a loving tribute to the past, the film’s account of how these brash young mavericks (led by Coppola, who seemed to be the Napoleon of the ‘70s American filmmaking renaissance) stormed the gates of struggling studios such as Paramount Pictures is brazenly subjective. Even when an intelligent critical remark appears  --  more often than not courtesy of Julie Christie, who wisely opines that the decade was defined by exuberant male energy, leaving most women with a limited role in this revolution  --  there’s no doubt that the exploits of these now-legendary figures are meant to leave us in awe. While I have no qualms with the film’s decision to avoid the mud slinging and gossiping that characterized much of Biskind’s book, there’s a general sense of LaGravenese and Demme treating their material with kid gloves. It’s a film made by film lovers and for film lovers, shamelessly preaching to the choir at every turn.

Such an approach would be fine if not for the fact that the end of this era  --  caused by directors like Coppola, Scorsese, and Bogdanovich (among others) allowing success to go to their heads, the result of which was bloated vanity projects that bombed with audiences  --  wasn’t treated so perfunctorily. Even more casually discussed is the enormous paradigm shift in how studios approached the business in the wake of Jaws and Star Wars. Even though the widespread claim that Lucas and Spielberg single-handedly destroyed this pioneering movement  --  a claim not overtly repeated in this documentary  --  has always struck me as simplistic and vindictive, the failure to substantially address Spielberg and Lucas’ impact leaves one with the impression that the duo behind this documentary find these two heralded directors unworthy of inclusion in the ‘70s filmmaking pantheon.

These shortcomings, however, ultimately seem both unavoidable (including everyone’s favorite films, anecdotes, and viewpoints would probably result in an unwieldy ten-hour documentary) and only moderately important. For the most part, A Decade Under the Influence is an intoxicating trip back in time.

Directed by:
Ted Demme
Richard LaGravenese

Francis Ford Coppola
William Friedkin
Julie Christie
Polly Platt
Ellen Burstyn
Jack Nicholson
Paul Thomas Anderson
Steven Soderbergh

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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