The Last Great American Picture Show

Thomas Elsaesser [with A. Horwath and N. King] (eds).,  The Last Great American Picture Show (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004) 391 pp, ill.

book coverThe Last Great American Picture Show brings together essays by scholars and writers who chart the changing evaluations of the American cinema of the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the decade of the lost generation, but now more and more recognized as the first New Hollywood, without which the cinema of Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino could not have come into existence.

Identified with directors such as Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and James Toback, American cinema of the 1970s is long overdue for this re-evaluation. Many of the films have not only come back from oblivion, as the benchmark for new directorial talents. They have also become cult films in the video shops and the classics of film courses all over the world.


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The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, M.A.S.H., Harold and Maude--these are only a few of the iconic films made in the United States during the 1970s. Originally considered a "lost generation," the 1970s are increasingly recognized as a crucial turning point in American filmmaking, and many films from the era have resurfaced from oblivion to become a reference for new directorial talents. The Last Great American Picture Show explores this pivotal era in American film history with a collection of essays by scholars and writers that firmly situates the decade as the time of the emergence of "New Hollywood." Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashy, Robert Altman, and James Tobac: these legendary directors developed innovative techniques, gritty aesthetics, and a modern sensibility in American film. Here, contributors compellingly argue that the cinema of today's major directors--Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis--could not have come into existence without the groundbreaking works produced by the directors of the 1970s. A wholly engaging and long-overdue investigation of this important era in American film, The Last Great American Picture Show reveals how the films of the 1970s transformed the American social consciousness and influenced filmmaking worldwide.

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I’ll tell you one thing. There’s nothing like building up an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of these Detroit machines. That’ll give you a set of emotions that’ll stay with you. Know what I mean? Those satisfactions are permanent.

– G.T.O. (Warren Oates), Two Lane Blacktop


Along with its implied allegorical interpretation – that is, a hint of anti-establishment, anti-corporate bricolage practice – the above citation of a line of dialogue from Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) is inspired by the attention in this book to those films which, we realise in reading, had an enormous impact on that unique period of “New Hollywood” in the late 1960s and 1970s, yet do not remain a significant presence in the canon of American cinema, as perpetuated by both film studies as well as video retailers and television reruns.

Films like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), or Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Francis Coppola have been written about extensively, and are written about again here. But in addition we have discussions of films and filmmakers rarely present in other studies of New Hollywood. For example: an exciting ride through the career of Monte Hellman steered by Kent Jones, Bérénice Reynaud on Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Adrian Martin on James Toback’s Fingers (1978), and Horwath on Lion’s Love (Agnes Varda, 1969), Cisko Pike (Bill Norton, 1972) and Tracks (Henry Jaglom, 1976) among others. Certain actors are emphasised like Karen Black, Warren Oates, or Jack Nicholson (including his work in story development). Jonathan Rosenbaum notes the gaps remaining in scholarly attention to a number of experimental filmmakers, also recalling the early shorts of Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, and John Milius, while Richard T. Jameson revisits the generational overlaps between filmmakers of classical and New Hollywood. And although many studies note the cross-fertilisation between Hollywood and B-movies or exploitation films, the chapters by Maitland McDonagh and Horwath provide sustained history and analysis of Roger Corman’s role in the history of “New Hollywood”. One of the great achievements of the book then is to open up the period and reveal there is not only much more academic research to be done, but many more films to watch (again or for the first time).

It is appropriate, then, that the book originated in publications prepared for retrospective programs at the Vienna International Film Festival. Many of the essays are from the mid-1990s (some recently updated) except for the reprint of Elsaesser’s essay, “The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s”, originally published in 1976 in monogram, the film magazine named after the American B-movie studio referred to by Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless (1960). This article, outlining the tendency of New Hollywood cinema to replace the classical Hollywood narrative, structured by a resolution of a goal, with a journey destined for failure, is interesting to reread in light of another excellent recent book, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, which shares four contributors with The Last GAPS (for an amusing play on this anagram, see Drelhi Rohlnik’s chapter) (1). In Movie Mutations, the contributors describe their shared interest in the physicality of the cinema, of a mise-en-scène and pacing constructed with the gesture. Before Deleuze introduced the concept of a “cinema of the body” in his second volume on the cinema (a text which, in his introduction, Elsaesser mentions as coincidental and contiguous with his observations) this article polemically detected such a shift for American cinema and American film criticism, where “the momentum of the action gives way to the moment of gesture and the body” (p. 292).

Most studies of the New Hollywood, including this one, include some consideration of social upheavals of the time in America – in the belief that this cinema demands an ideological reading, and that a volatile political culture of the time was integral to its emergence. I think one can take Elsaesser’s observation on the breakdown of the dual narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema that has been outlined most effectively by David Bordwell – the complementary resolutions of a romantic plot and a mission plot – and parallel it with the relationship between the personal (romantic) and the political (mission), where instead of one resolving the other, these two narrative strands are doomed to collide with violent repercussions (2). So as the New Hollywood gave birth to a mainstream form of “personal” filmmaking, the cinema of the 1970s reflects the collapsing border between public and private space, as well as the radical left’s concerns over the appropriate of alternative spheres of cultural production by the popular culture industry. No longer can Humphrey Bogart tell Lauren Bacall, like in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), “we’ll take up the subject of you and me after [the case is solved]”. Instead, the detective’s romance fails at the same moment his investigation does, like in Chinatown. The personal is the political, or, as Charlie (Harvey Keitel) screams in Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), just before his business and his love life collide into a street lamppost, “nothing’s personal”.

It is in this context then that “film culture” expands beyond just the movie theatre. Rosenbaum’s chapter, for example, surveys film journals and magazines of the 1960s and places emphasis on the exhibition space (of the avant-garde), while the cinephiliac discourse in this book follows a kind of realism that invokes the American landscape. As Elsaesser describes in his introductory chapter, in the New Hollywood cinema:

A whole new America came into view – one came across rural backwaters, motels, rust-belt towns and Bible-belt communities, out-of-season resorts and other places of Americana, whose desolation or poignancy had rarely been conveyed with such visual poetry, enriched by oddball characters, a love of landscape and a delicacy of mood and sensibility, even in scenes of violence or torpor (p. 38).

The critics herein share that sensibility, though with little overzealous nostalgia. Contingent in approaching this work is something like a geographical dialectic of the New Hollywood, produced in the antimonies of Los Angeles and New York, and Hollywood and Europe (where Europe usually means Paris). Thus the cross-fertilisation of mainstream and alternative modes of production involves the contributions of New York experimental film culture and European cinephilia. The Last Great American Picture Show also describes a Los Angeles filmmaking culture of low-budget or avant-garde production, complementing the image of a non-specific place produced in a Hollywood dream factory.

The book doesn’t get bogged down in historiographic debates, as many studies of this period are required to do, while one does get the sense that New Hollywood provides the yardstick for judging the aesthetics of subsequent American filmmaking. This line of dialogue from Two Lane Blacktop then – “those satisfactions are permanent” – leads me to wonder how it compares with another line of dialogue that has been subjected to heavy allegorical readings: from Easy Rider, Captain America’s “we blew it.” Despite this pathos of failure, what remains for these critics in The Last Great American Picture Show are lucid memories of a vibrant film culture. Yet of course, in this line from Two Lane Blacktop, GTO has coopted the story and sentiment of his younger competitors for another one of his tall tales told throughout the film. I still like the story though. – Charles Leary, Senses of Cinema, 33 (October 2004)


(1) Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (eds), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, BFI, London, 2003.

(2) David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1985


The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2004.


Mittellos in Hollywood


Der Theorie-Hauptfilm fiel aus, nett geplaudert wurde trotzdem. Am Mittwoch diskutierten die Filmwissenschaftler Thomas Elsaesser, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith und Peter Krämer über die Filme der New-Hollywood-Retrospektive


Wenn es nach dem bekannten Filmwissenschaftler David Bordwell ginge, könnten wir uns die diesjährige Retrospektive getrost in die Haare schmieren. Vergiss New Hollywood! Bordwell, der auch hierzulande gern und oft zu Vorträgen geladen wird, ist der prominenteste Vertreter jener Haltung, das ganze Gerede von New Hollywood, vom Aufbruch im US-Kino zwischen 1967 und 1976, sei eigentlich nur eine Fehlinterpretation des Old Hollywood. Von wegen Revolution. Nix da mit der Garde junger Regisseure, die das europäische Kunstkino erstmals in die US-Studios verpflanzt hätten. Hat sich was mit neuer Filmsprache, dem "Pathos des Scheiterns" oder dem Einfluss von Vietnam. Tatsächlich sei all das schon im Kern des Hollywoodsystems angelegt und irgendwie schon mal da gewesen.

Zum Glück aber spielt der omnipräsente Bordwell diesmal keine Rolle. Als akademische Mehrzweck­waffe konnte für die Diskussionen zur Retrospektive der nicht minder prominente Filmwissenschaftler Thomas Elsaesser gewonnen werden, der wie ein Gegenpol zu Bordwell etliches zum New Hollywood entwickelt hat. Am Mittwoch betrat Elsaesser zum zweiten Mal binnen weniger Tage ein Podium zum Thema - diesmal um sich, moderiert von Johann N. Schmidt, mit seinen Kollegen Geoffrey Nowell-Smith und Peter Krämer über die Entwicklung "von New Hollywood zum postklassischen Kino" zu unterhalten.

Nun sind Podiumsdiskussionen immer eine luftige Angelegenheit; und wenn der Titel eine Reise "von … zu …" verspricht, darf man sich auf freies Assoziieren gefasst machen. So kam es dann auch. Zwischen "von" und "zu" suchte sich jeder seine Vorlieben heraus, die in kleinen Vorträgen stets eine Art Trailer zu jenem Theorie-Hauptfilm abgaben, der hier aus Zeitgründen nicht gezeigt werden konnte.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith machte nicht nur den Anfang, sondern legte in einer zurückgelehnten "no sweat"-Haltung auch das Klima der Veranstaltung fest. Locker, eher plaudernd als um harte Definitionen ringend, ging es ihm um die derzeit galoppierende Auflösung des Begriffs "national" in Sachen Filmkultur und -industrie. Gerade als sich zu klären begann, wie er "die Wirklichkeit des postnationalen, globalisierten Films des frühen 21. Jahrhunderts" versteht, war auch schon Schluss, und Peter Krämer ging nahtlos über ins Jahr 1948. Damals waren die großen Hollywoodstudios mit dem "Paramount-Urteil" zum Verkauf ihrer Kinos und zu einer Neugliederung ihrer Unternehmen gezwungen worden - der Anfang vom Ende des Studiosystems.

Von hier aus beschrieb Krämer die Krise Hollywoods, die in den Aufbruch des New Hollywood von "Bonnie and Clyde", "The Conversation" oder "Two-Lane Blacktop" mündete. Just dort angekommen, wurde der Staffelstab auch schon weitergereicht: Podiumsendspurt in Richtung des aktuellen, postklassischen Blockbuster-Kinos.

Mit der weitaus höchsten Thesendichte umriss Thomas Elsaesser kurz die Veränderungen des aktuellen Genrekinos, deutete unter anderem die derzeitige Fantasywelle als Selbstreflexion globalisierter Gesellschaften an und landete bei der "Modernisierung des Körpers" im neuen Hollywoodfilm. Das ging so schnell, dass die schönste These unterging: Wir, und damit meinte Elsaesser sich und seine Kollegen der Akademia, haben überhaupt keine Mittel, das aktuelle populäre Kino zu verstehen.

Spätestens hier hätte die Grundlagendiskussion beginnen können. Wie erschließen wir uns Filmgeschichte und -gegenwart und wie werden die Begriffe "New Hollywood" und "postklassisches Kino" eigentlich gegeneinander abgesetzt? Doch dem Abend war nicht recht nach Diskussion. Es blieb die Montage kurzer Einblicke - schnelle Schnitte zwischen verschiedenen Diskursfeldern, deren Zusammenhänge zuallererst von uns selbst geleistet werden müssen. Und in diesem Sinne war die Veranstaltung auf ihre Art selbst "postklassisch". Jan Distelmeier. taz Berlin lokal Nr. 7283 vom 13.2.2004, Seite 21, 131