When I think of the blockbusters of the 1970s, I think of Spielberg gems like JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977); Freidkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973); and Lucas’s STAR WARS (1977) masterpiece.
According to Mark Cousins, narrator and filmmaker of THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011), these innovative films were the candy that lured American audiences back into the country’s movie theaters, these new things being built that were called “multiplexes.”
These Hollywood blockbusters were innovative, to be sure, because of new technology like Dolby sound and enhanced deep space perspective. But there was something more in these movies, a focus on universal emotions, showcasing REALLY BIG, inspired moments that relied on the ever-present “awe and revelation scene,” where the audience doesn’t see what the actor sees. Picture CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, with Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, staring, dumfounded, while we wait in expectation to see what they’re seeing, spellbound ourselves, mouths open, on the edge of our seats.
And while American audiences were wowed by their newest contemporary directors, the Asian mainstream cinema was also being kickstarted (pun intended) by the Shaw Brothers Studios (Hong Kong’s sprawling film center) and Bruce Lee movies. From Lee’s physicality, the martial arts genre grew, inspiring more cinematic innovation, with the super fast cut and slow motion “spinning” effects that enthrall and mesmerize and later show up in films like THE MATRIX (1999).
The Bollywood film industry also became a force in this era, building the biggest moviemaking empire in the world, churning out 433 movies in one year, for example, and in the present day releasing more than 1,000 per year, double that of a typical production year in Hollywood.
Since almost everyone in the world has seen them, you may want to add two world cinema blockbusters from the ’70s on your must-watch list: THE MESSAGE: THE STORY OF ISLAM (1976), directed by Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn, which Cousins says has probably been “seen by more people than any other,” and SHOLAY (1975) by director Ramesh Sippy, considered “one of the most influential films of the time.” It played in one cinema alone for 7 years!
As the 1970s retreated and the ’80s emerged, film took a new turn, where the focus of moviemaking was on politics, leveraging film as a protest mechanism heard ’round the world. Cousins cites a long list of influential titles from the “fight the power” era: THE HORSE THIEF (1988) from China, which led the rebirth of that country’s film industry; REPETANCE (1984) by Tengiz Abuladze; COME AND SEE (1985), pegged by Cousins as the “greatest war film ever made”; Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1988), which changed death penalty law in Poland; and award-winning MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985), which Cousins calls “a kick in the balls to right-wing England.”
Cousins defines these ’80s protest films as cinema that “speaks truth to power,” and as this influence grew around the world, America’s up-and-coming directors like David Lynch, Spike Lee, John Sayles, and David Croenenberg took note.
These heady days of filmmaking of the ’80s made way for stretching the boundaries of world cinema even further as the 1990s arrive. Stay tuned….
THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011) is a 15-part, 15-hour documentary exploring the convergence of technology, business, intelligence, and vision that has created the remarkable and powerful art of cinema. Music Box Films is distributing this new documentary, and Chicago’s Music Box Theater has just completed a multi-week screening of this ambitious effort. The DVD has been released. You will want to add it to your collection.