Reliant as they were on call girls, cars, corpses, and Kris Kristofferson, the B-movies of the 1970s may not qualify as high art, according to cultural critic Charles Taylor, but at least they took American audiences seriously.
“For me, the staying power of these movies has to do with the way they stand in opposition to the current juvenile state of American movies,” Taylor writes in Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s. “The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of Star Wars has become total. Mainstream moviemaking now caters almost exclusively to the tastes of the adolescent male fan.”
Taylor, 55, is an acclaimed critic whose musings on movies, books, pop culture, and politics have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, the New Yorker, Newsday, the Nation, and Best Music Writing 2009, among many others. He’s a member of the National Society of Film Critics and has taught journalism and literature at the New School, the Columbia School of Journalism, and NYU.
“You don’t want to sound like a scold,” says Taylor, who Kirkus reached by phone in New York, “but [infantilization] is inevitable when mainstream movies are made for teenagers....The things that would have been big hits in the ‘70s,” he says of movies like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) or Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016), “are now niche movies. In terms of the studio system, they’re the equivalent of the little indie that comes out. It’s Hollywood’s way of saying—Hey, look! We still do serious movies.”
Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You makes a serious case for revisiting the second-run cinema of the 1970s—the last great era in American moviemaking, Taylor argues. It was a time when the influence of luminaries like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and John Ford trickled down to the gritty flicks showing in second-run movie houses: Westerns (Ulzana’s Raid), blaxploitation films (Coffy, Foxy Brown), drag race existentialism (Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop), meatpacking mobsters (Prime Cut). Good, bad, or ugly, these are humanistic films reflective of a heady time in American history when violence and sex were still personal (aka the Nixon years).
“What I did find in the movies I chose to write about here was the connection to the world, and to real-life emotions—not to mention the craft—that today’s blockbusters and remakes and churned-out franchises work so hard to avoid,” Taylor writes. “The best genre movies, no matter how rooted in the conventions of Westerns, detective stories, adventure stories, or noir, have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility.”
In a starred review, Kirkus calls Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, “an illuminating collection of film criticism that is like a critical history of rock as exemplified by garage bands and one-hit wonders.”
Taylor honors the responsibility of a critic to evoke the films of which he speaks without necessitating their viewing. However, should readers choose to peruse the oeuvre of Pam Grier—or Sam Peckinpah’s unsung masterpiece, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—he encourages them, as viewers, to embrace the illuminative all-American contradictions therein.
“Even as grim as some of these [subjects] are, there’s beauty and grace in movies that acknowledge some of the thornier truths about your country,” he says.
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.