Film: We Love the '70s

Fall films recall New Hollywood but they're no substitute

Oct 1, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Val Kilmer plays porn star John Holmes in Wonderland, based on a 1981quadruple murder in Los Angeles.

As the title of the hit VH-1 show proclaims, we do love the '70s. Just enough time has elapsed for us to look past the questionable fashions and other punch lines of the time and see what the disco decade contributed to today's pop culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the slate of fall movies scheduled this season. There are '70s remakes, films set in the '70s and films obviously influenced by the'70s. Anyone suffering from a case of bell-bottom blues need only buy a movie ticket for a fast and easy cure.

Freaky Friday, a rehash of the 1976 film starring a precocious Jodie Foster, has established itself as the first post-Finding Nemo family hit this year. In fact, Freaky Friday is still going strong at the box office, although that's due more to its spunky casting of Jamie Lee Curtis (queen of the 1978 screamer Halloween) and teen actress Lindsay Lohan than its ties to the original Disney film.

S.W.A.T. has proved reasonably successful, earning more than $100 million in its first month out following a late-summer release. The film is a distant cousin to the '70s television show of the same name. Basically, director Clark Johnson only took the show's name and basic premise.

Looking more like a true-to-its-roots remake is Texas Chainsaw Massacre, due Oct. 17. If the trailer is any indication, it looks like director Marcus Nispel stayed faithful to the 1974 horror classic. At the time of the original's release, no one had seen anything quite like the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. How will a generation accustomed to Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the Jeepers Creepers monster react to him now?

Wonderland, touted as the return of actor Val Kilmer, uses an actual event, a murder set in the sex, drugs and Rock & Roll scene of Los Angeles, as its source material. Kilmer, he of the much-ballyhooed big ego, plays porn star John Holmes, who claimed a big other thing. After spending most of the '70s as the king of adult entertainment, Holmes hit bottom and was implicated in a bloody quadruple murder on Wonderland Avenue in 1981. Wonderland, by director James Cox, offers its own dramatic theory about the murders and the people behind them.

Other films are "influenced" by the '70s; made by a generation of young filmmakers who flaunt their love of '70s cinema on their polyester sleeves.

Cabin Fever director Eli Roth pays homage to '70s drive-in culture, including infamous films like The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left, with his bloody haunting about a flesh-eating virus that overtakes a group of randy co-ed campers.

The one filmmaker who continues to mine '70s cinema for inspiration is Quentin Tarantino and his fourth film, Kill Bill: Volume One, is the most eagerly awaited picture this fall.

Tarantino's crime stories Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, exposed a world of gritty violence, as seen in Taxi Driver, and inhabited by a cast of flawed but human criminals, like in Dog Day Afternoon and the Godfather films. Tarantino's last feature, Jackie Brown, was a love letter to '70s blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and The Mack. From the opening moments of the Kill Bill trailer to Tarantino's casting of David Carradine (Caine from TV's Kung Fu) and Sonny Chiba (the Street Fighter series), his newest film drips with references to '70s martial arts films.

A 2003 film that stirs memories of the '70s is no substitute for the real thing, says Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a celebrated inside look at '70s Hollywood — and the forthcoming Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Films.

In a recent interview, Biskind contends the style of '70s filmmaking may surface in 21st-century independent films but don't expect to see anything close from Hollywood studios. They're far too concerned with opening weekend receipts.

"The '70s style was down and dirty," Biskind says. "You see some of that in today's indies, but the stakes are too high in Hollywood for that to permeate mainstream movies."

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind writes that the '70s signified a revolution in the way people made movies and the way people experienced them. The movement, dubbed by pundits as the "New Hollywood," was led by maverick directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, who explored their own styles with unprecedented freedom. Biskind concludes that it was "the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work."

Today Biskind says that, while the people in Hollywood might have renewed their love for the watershed decade, Hollywood the industry has not. He calls "indies" like P.T. Anderson (Magnolia), David Russell (Three Kings) and Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) heirs to the values of the New Hollywood movement without relying on their style or subject matter. Sadly, labeling any film today as '70s-like is tantamount to an insult.

"Saying a film is like a '70s film is a putdown, meaning they're slow," he says. "The truth is they're really terrific." ©