CINEMA: Not Sucking In The 70s


BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I couldn’t be more delighted than to speak this Saturday June 2nd at an all-day event at the Princeton Public Library while screening a quartet of politically-themed films from Hollywood in the 1970s. The program was selected by a high school student from the Princeton area and is billed as “70s Cinema Fest For Teens” Much of my affection for these films stems from the fact that I was a cinema-obsessed teen when these film were first released. It was their seriousness of purpose that convinced me that “watching movies” could be more than just a passive time-killer, but a way to decipher the monumental forces of the world around us. These ground-breaking films helped define the style of 70s cinema and as comedies, thrillers and dramas that entertain as much as they educate, each containing lessons that still reverberate.

The program starts at 11:00am with Martin Ritt’s dramedy on the Hollywood blacklist, The Front. In 1976 Woody Allen was still a popular comedian, drawn in a weekly syndicated newspaper cartoon with his game-changing hit Annie Hall still a year away. In The Front, Woody plays a diner clerk who poses as a screenwriter to sell blacklisted writer’s work. It was the first look at the more serious actor Allen would become but the film serves equally as an intimate look at the damage caused by the Blacklist.. Allen may be at the story’s center but the film is haunted by Zero Mostel’s last screen performance as tragic entertainer Hecky Brown, exuding that desperation that could be both comic and bone-chilling.

Returning the socially-conscious writers of the blacklist era to the Hollywood talent pool in the 1960s certainly was encouraging to filmmakers who were politically-driven, and the trio of films following The Front are politically fearless as they attack the temples of power. Each is also explicitly about the world of work. At 1pm All The President’s Men screens, and while the media has disemboweling investigative journalism, we get the classic tale of two lowly working stiffs who through dogged detective work unseat a cheating crook from U.S. Presidency. At 4pm it is the nuclear thriller The China Syndrome. While it is an acknowledged classic and as suspenseful as hell, I rarely meet anyone under 35 who has seen the film. Released just twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, you might give The China Syndrome‘s blockbuster success credit for slowing the industry’s dastardly progress in the 1980s.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Network from 1976 closes the day with a 7pm screening, a monument of American cinema and one of those rare films in which all the elements come together magically. Anchorman Howard Beale loses faith in front of his TV audience and says that he will commit suicide on the air in one week. The fourth-place network sees a ground-breaking hit and keeps Beale on-screen as his mental breakdown (or is it a new clarity?) deepens and deepens. William Holden plays the network’s news head, teachnig my teenage self a lot about middle-aged ennui, Faye Dunaway taught me about the new female business woman and Chayefsky’s blackest of perspectives gave me a defense against the darkness that is high school.

I loved these films when I was a teen because they were packed with movie stars and they were unapologetically smart and idealistic. But will teens eschew their super heroes and vampires to show up this Saturday or will it just be nostalgic adults revisiting the past? I’m not sure, but I’m rooting for the kids.
70’s CINEMA FEST FOR TEENS Saturday June 2nd at The Princeton Public Library 65 Witherspoon St., Princeton