The Pursuit of the Great American Movie
First published March 1980
Richard Maxwell

New Year’s Day 1980 was special in several respects. For one thing, it was probably the first New Year’s ever when both Brenda Starr and Little Orphan Annie were in the hands of Middle Eastern sheiks. For another, it marked the end of what may be the most abused decade in American history. Looking back on the last ten years, we are likely to reflect that America itself is becoming a prisoner of the Middle East—or at least of circumstances beyond control. Fortunately, as in many times of economic travail, the 1970s have been a good time for the arts. It would be overly simple to say that social crisis precipitates aesthetic creativity. This formula is helpful only if it frees us from a collective end-of-decade hangover.

The problem for students of nov­els, say, or movies is in grasping just how art functions in a bad time. As the economy collapses, we demand more from the arts: we embrace with new fervor the traditional American search for a definitive, all-encompassing masterpiece. This impulse is a mistake. Masterpieces sneak up; they don’t come when called. The pursuit of the Great American Novel brought forth one bloated production after another this year. The pursuit of the Great American Movie—my main concern in this essay—brought forth Apoca­lypse Now, a film whose aspirations are sufficiently suggested by its title. Apocalypse is not very frequently a mode in which art can flourish.

Even in its technical sense, the word “masterpiece” is a problem­atic basis for aesthetic judgments. It establishes itself in the English lan­guage by the mid-seventeenth century, signifying “a production of art or skill surpassing in excellence all others by the same hand.” Several broad definitions extend the reach of this narrow one, with its emphasis on craftsmanship and in­dividual accomplishment, but for the term to have any meaning at all it must be used sparingly. In addition, it should probably be confined to the description of works created in and through one human mind. On both these counts, the con­cept of the masterpiece is almost useless to the habitual filmgoer. Going to see movies is a process—a search in which we are rewarded by brilliant fragments and exhilarat­ing continuities from one work to another, rather than by definitive, unified products.

Moreover, we seldom know just who is responsible for the excellence of what we enjoy. There has been a growing acknowledgment that the originally European concept of the genius-director doesn’t apply all that neatly to the American scene—or, often enough, to the European scene either. Writers, cameramen, editors, and special-effects experts have all found a place in the lime­light. Even actors and actresses have made a comeback. Film, to sum up, is still a prolific and usually a collaborative art. The quest for master­pieces leads to Apocalypse Now. If we forget masterpieces for the moment—if we let them arrive on their own—we receive in return a more fluid and more satisfactory notion of cinematic accomplishment.

We approach then—with a certain amount of trepidation—that most tempting form of criticism, the ten-best list. Any reader of newspapers and magazines has encountered, by this time in March, half a dozen lists of the ten best films of the decade. Typically, the critic will begin his summary by reciting some “trends” of the 1970s; disaster films and science fiction will probably dominate. Then he or she will plunge into a list of masterpieces, a list—most likely—having little to do with the account of trends. The films in the list, like comets or other astronomical visitations, will appear magnificent but cold and remote: beautiful visitors, passing through on their way into textbooks.

I will confess that I am on my way to a ten-best list of my own. My only excuse is that I intend to praise not so much individual films as the context, tradition, and spirit that con­tained these films—that made them possible. The question of how one sees an object (aesthetic or other­wise) is closely wrapped up with the question of what category one chooses to put it in. Jorge Luis Borges cites “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suck­ling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (1) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.” These categories break up the world of animals and rearrange it before our eyes. I cannot promise to do so much for seventies film but I shall try.

(a) We should first drink—since this is a festive essay—to the survival of several old masters, neither of whom made a masterpiece in this decade, both of whom enlivened it immeasurably. Alfred Hitchcock, who had not made even an interest­ing film since The Birds (1963) came up with Frenzy and The Family Plot—in which good scripts and good actors allowed him to exercise his talents once more. The more con­sistent Luis Bunuel produced The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. To see these films—all of them attaining a consistent excellence—was to be in touch with the very sources of western cinema. There won’t be many more decades with good movies from directors who have been working since the 1920s.

(b) Secondly, we can acknowledge the partial (but still surprising) resurgence of detectives. Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, Art Carney in The Late Show, and Richard Dreyfuss in The Big Fix were all convincing embodiments of the 1970s sleuth; so—to extend the definition of “detective” a little—were Dustin Hoffmann and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men. The bias of these films towards the hard-boiled stories was pretty strong, but there were also wonderful tributes to the classical texts. The two Christie adaptations demonstrated the dependence of the genre on traditional comic plots and character types. A suc­cession of Holmesian pastiches thrived on period detail, satire, and superb Dr. Watsons.

(c)    Horror films   had   a   good decade too: Jaws—I almost hate to admit it—was a pretty good film of its kind; Carrie, Night of the Living Dead, Don’t Look Now, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Halloween, and (probably) Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu were even better.1 A horror film can be anything from high art to lowest-common-denominator gore. Why not both at once? As a lover of Jacobean tragedy, I find myself believing now and then that the horror film is on the verge of finding its John Webster or its Cyril Torneur.

(d) In the 1960s, the two Richard Lester-Beatles films looked like a fluke; in the 1970s rock ‘n roll powered American Graffiti, American Hot Wax, Saturday Night Fever, The Buddy Holly Story (with Gary Busey’s superb performance), and Rock ‘n Roll High School. These films do not define a genre: they are not musicals or even “youth” films. Collectively, nonetheless, they are a memorable tribute to the survival of energy in a mass society.

(e) and (f) The two American directors who developed styles of lasting worth in this decade were Woody Allen and Robert Altman. It is probable that both men produced masterpieces; more essentially, for the identity and experience of the whole decade, they man­aged to produce strings of excellent works—films that were idiosyncratic and original, yet seldom repetitious. (For what it’s worth, my own favorites were Allen’s Love and Death and Altman’s Thieves Like Us.) Altman’s career faltered a bit towards the end of the 1970s, while Allen’s picked up. We can expect both of them to make it through the 1980s with honor.

(g) I suppose I must put at least one individual film on this list. My choice for best film of the decade is a movie practically no one in this country saw: Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. This Swiss (French language) film was released in 1976, a year or so past the center of the decade. Jonah is a comedy about politics, and es­pecially about radical politics in the aftermath of the 1960s. Tanner makes this subject more urgent and vivid than it has ever seemed in film. It is hard to imagine a director infusing Brecht with sentiment or pulling off Godardian tricks with a light, entertaining touch, but Tan­ner does both. Most important, the community of weird characters here created actually embodies a kind of hope for our culture.

(h) Back in the 1920s and 1930s German movies were of central importance in the development of film; now they are again, thanks to state and audience support for Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. I want to see more of this stuff. For the moment, it is enough to acknowledge the miraculous revivification of a tradition and an industry.

(i) This was also the decade when we began to get access to good films from places like Cuba and Senegal. On the whole, American film distributors did not do a very effective job in the 1970s; we must at least give them credit for making available the movies of Ousmane Sembene, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, and other talented directors from exotic or inaccessible places. The 1970s—in however disorganized a fashion—held out the possibility that American audiences might start to perceive film as a truly international art. The technology of the next ten or twenty years may well speed up this process.

(j) My last category is my most complex, and so I can only hint at its significance. In the nineteenth century, the historical novel was a way of imagining what was almost unimaginable: the interaction between individual yearnings and the fate of whole civilizations. For the first time, in the 1970s, there were some great films —great individually and as a group—that carried on this enterprise. The Conformist, Barry Lyndon, and The Man Who Would Be King come to mind immediately. Each of these films is based on a strong work of narrative fiction; each exploits the possibilities of ironic spectacle as perhaps only the cinematic medium could have done. Extraordinarily, two musicals belong to this group: Cabaret and Hair. Adding Broadway show tunes to a spectacular meditation on modern history might seem a very peculiar thing to do. For some reason, the strategy worked. Apocalypse Now, I suspect, might be usefully seen as a lesser member of this group—lesser because it tries too hard. Masterpieces don’t direct your attention to their masterfulness, or, if they do, it’s at a considerable risk.

In spite of myself I have circled back to the idea of the masterpiece. This idea is, of course, useful in its place. Looking back at a given period of time, however—particularly a period we have experienced—we are likely to realize that artistic vitality stems less from isolated works than from the way these works prefigure, amplify, and answer to one another. Thinking in terms of many different categories—genres, national traditions, individual careers, distribution patterns, interrelationships among the arts—may help us to remember just how extensive the cinematic success of the 1970s was. Thinking in these terms may also make us a little more patient as we search for masterpieces—and a lot more willing to see lots of movies.




1. I don’t dare put my personal favorite any­where but in a footnote, but if you ever get a chance to see a Canadian production titled Cannibal Girls, go right ahead. You won’t regret it.



Richard Maxwell was a long-time contributor and, briefly, editor of The Cresset.  During his eminent career, he served in the Valparaiso University English Department and later taught comparative languages at Yale University.  He died at his home in New Haven, Connecticut on 20 July 2010. A memorial fund in his name will support exceptional student work in comparative literature. Donations can be sent to: Yale University, c/o Alison Coleman, PO Box 2038, New Haven, CT 06521-2038.

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