Flavorwire Interview: Charles Taylor on the “Shadow Cinema” of the ’70s, and How ‘Star Wars’ Ruined Everything

"We have to stop thinking that experiencing art - and I'll use the word - is going to school."

I guess I should begin with the disclosure, which is that Charles Taylor was one of my professors at NYU, and I’ve since been lucky enough to consider him my friend, and you may take that as license to disregard my contention that his new book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s is one of the finest volumes of film criticism out there. But trust me, it is, and if he went and wrote a bad book, I just wouldn’t tell you about it.

The primary draw here is the writing itself, which Taylor has honed and perfected in a decades-long career that’s spanned the pages of The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, among others; his essays are vast, penetrating examinations of the worlds on screen and the real world that beget them, delicately situating films within their historical context while still alive to the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures of the moment.

But what makes Opening Wednesday particularly important is his sense of curation. Over the past two decades, since the publication of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, no era in Hollywood history has been as lionized as the “New Hollywood” of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it’s hard to imagine any new light could be shed upon it. Yet Taylor does just that, by looking past the established classics of the era, towards the smaller, funkier movies that were taking just as many risks, and often for less reward. I consider myself fairly well-versed in the era, but of the 15 films he spotlights in this volume, I’d only seen four; some, I hadn’t even heard of. And with each passing chapter, I learned of a new movie I wanted to rush out and track down; luckily for me, nine of them are screening this weekend at New York’s Quad Cinema, with introductions and post-film talks by Taylor, and UCLA will follow suit with a ten-film series in August.

I sat down to talk with Taylor about the book – as well as the state of modern film criticism, and of modern film.

Flavorwire: So let’s start with the obvious question: the subtitle of the book is “The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s.” I hadn’t heard this expression before. Is it one of your creation? And for the casual moviegoer, what does it mean?

Charles Taylor: Yeah, it’s something I came up with, and all I mean by it is that there are, with good reason, movies in our head that we go to when we think of the ’70s. That’s the big movies, whatever you thought of them: the Godfather films, Jaws, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon. These are the movies that you think of when you think of that era, because it was such a great era. At the same time, there were these movies that were… present, some of them did very well, some of them didn’t do so well, but they were they were movies that were there, but didn’t get the same attention at that time. I don’t think that was a matter of critical stupidity or anything like that — it was a matter, as I say in the book, of there being so much out there that by comparison to the really famous stuff, this stuff looked ordinary, or it seemed ordinary, it seemed like less of a big deal.

And now, when mainstream movie-going is almost entirely adolescent, these things seem to me like a big deal, and they seem adult in a way that our mainstream movies aren’t anymore.

And aside from the broadly shared elements, how did you select this particular group of films as the ones you wanted to examine with this depth?

Well, I wanted a little element of disreputability to them. You know, not all of these opened in the way of the title, and I suppose there’s one in there that you would you call an art film, Two-Lane Blacktop. But y’know, Two-Lane Blacktop is an art film about drag racers, with two rock stars in the lead. So what I wanted was something that in some way had an air of disreputability to it. I mean, even Citizens Band, which is the gentlest movie in the book, I remember seeing the trailer for that and it was sold as something like a sex comedy. Y’know, “Here’s what people can do with this new thing.”

Do you see a way in which adult, somewhat disreputable films like these can ever find a place again in the mainstream movie-making landscape, or was that just too much of that moment? Are we too far gone into, as you put it, this “adolescent” thing?

I think we’re gone into this adolescent thing. I mean, maybe there are things being made that are direct-to-video that I don’t know, that I don’t see. And I talk at the end of the book about how occasionally something comes along like In Time, or Dark Skies, which is a really unsettling movie. And I don’t think there’s any larger social meaning to this picture, but like if you’re talking about what’s come along in the last year or so something similar? The Shallows, the Blake Lively movie, which is a really good B-movie, just a really good piece of craft.

Otherwise, I see some things that are trying to be grungy, like Free Fire, but I can’t look at Free Fire and feel like there’s anything of the moment in it. I saw Wonder Woman yesterday and I thought, y’know, this is a movie of clunky good intentions. And I thought, yeah, it’s better, of course it’s better than [other comic book films], but an hour later I forgot I’d been to the movies. I just think, well, if this is the best we can do, then I dunno, I don’t have a lot of faith in mainstream movie making.

I mean, oddly enough, when Hollywood decides it wants to say, “Oh, we still do good things,” and the Oscars stuff comes along at the end of the year… there’ll be something in that. I mean I would rather — you have an extremely conventional movie like Hidden Figures, and yet it feels good! And it’s fun to watch and it’s about something and you watch it and you feel like, “Okay, that was worth my time.”

When we start talking about the “adolescent thing,” and where film has landed now, it traces back to Star Wars, which you mention a couple of times in the book. You don’t feel the way we are told we’re supposed to feel about Star Wars now, and I’m curious, because I think it’s an important and often unvoiced opinion. Could go a little deeper into why Star Wars is the root of all evil?

(Sighs heavily.) You have… it was a complete reversal of what was going on in that decade. Which was, you had these directors who had grown up with these movies, and they want to take what they love about those movies and they want to put something in them that’s new, and tragic, that’s without the compromises Hollywood directors in the Golden Age had to make, and in most cases these directors are fueled by… I don’t want to say like all these movies are covert protests against Vietnam, but they’re fueled by an idea of what’s going on. By a sense of American life. I mean, I would even make the argument that Jaws is kind of a post-Vietnam movie in a way. I won’t go into that, but I’d make the argument that there’s something there.

And then along comes this guy who doesn’t want to do anything but copy old movies, just reproduce old clichés. And he does it, and he’s very successful at it, and all of the sudden, studios — which are starting to be taken over by MBAs — [think], “This works, so let’s try it again.” Then three years later, you have Reagan. And what Reagan wants to do is to take not the clichés of movies, but the clichés of American life that we’d gotten rid of, and he wants to make those over again. So all of the sudden, this business force and this social force meet.

Now, the one Star Wars exception I will make is The Empire Strikes Back — but it was directed by Irvin Kershner, who had worked in this era and who made something like a sci-fi noir with The Empire Strikes Back, with lust and loss, and the feeling of darkness when when it’s revealed that Vader is Luke’s father, there’s a real feeling of shock and darkness in that. And that’s real, and that movie has never diminished for me.

So this is this is the problem — and there are movies I love that would never have been made if Star Wars hadn’t been made. But I don’t feel when saw E.T., or when I saw Close Encounters, or when I saw the Richard Lester Superman II or even Superman I, as mucked up as it is, I didn’t feel watching those movies that I was seeing some sort of retreat into adolescent ignorance. There’s real emotion in those, and there’s charm and there’s invention, and I’ll take that forward as far as the first two Tim Burton Batman movies. I don’t think they have to bow to anything, in terms of, you don’t feel like you’re putting your brain in your in your pocket to go see those.

So that’s my answer to Star Wars. And at the same time, there are people younger than me, like you, for whom that movie is an inextricable part of their imagination. And I’m not saying this to be noble or anything, but that was who I thought of when Carrie Fisher died. I mean, obviously I thought of her, but I thought, “This generation just took a hit. Part of their imagination just died, someone who is that important to them.”

So I don’t want to look down on what this was and is to people. But to me, it’s a reminder of what was lost.

Well, that’s a very reasonable, thoughtful, and multi-layered response, and I’m sure its nuances will do very well on the Internet.

Yeah, I’m sure!

I wanna talk about one of my favorite lines in the book, which is this: “I have tried to avoid using the word ‘art’ about the movies in this book, not just because I didn’t want to inflate my claims for them, but because the word is used far too often to shut down discussion rather than to open it up.” It hit me, because I sometime use it in that sense – but I also feel, even all these years after “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” that film is still seen as a disposable medium, because it’s a popular one, and can thus be manipulated and treated as content and disregarded altogether. How do we find a place in the middle?

If it wasn’t movies, it would be something else. But we we have to stop thinking that experiencing art — and I’ll use the word — is going to school. Y’know, this idea that it has to be edifying, it has to be improving, it has to be good for you. I forget who said this, I just read a quote by a fairly prominent English literary figure, who said people who are assigned a book are never going to read it in the way that they do when they pick it up on their own. But there people who think that this is how we have to experience art, and if we can’t say, “This is art,” then it’s not worth our time.

But we have to be able to say, “There are things that we enjoy that are worthwhile, because pleasure is worthwhile, that we know you just don’t want described as ‘art’.”

And [those things] shouldn’t have to have that designation in order for you to not feel bad about feeling pleasure at them.

Exactly. You shouldn’t have to think, “Oh this is good for our daughters,” to be charmed by Gal Gadot. Y’know? She’s charming! My favorite thing about the movie was watching her and Chris Pine.

And sometimes these things are close, these things make you feel things, they make you have emotional responses, they do what we think of art as doing. One of the things I was worried about with this, and I still am worried about, is… I don’t know what the reaction is going to be when I get out there and start talking at screenings or start going to bookstores. But I really hope no one thinks I’m doing “So bad it’s good.” Or “guilty pleasure.”

Which is a meaningless phrase.

Right. I don’t know what the term is, but you have to be honest in every way about what you enjoy. You have to be honest about enjoying it, and you have to be honest about what it is. Just because I think Lucy is really a meditation on the awful perfectibility of God, doesn’t mean that I have to think of Drive Angry on the same level.

This is one of my other favorite lines: “But there’s something insulting and reductive about turning an artist’s output into a balance sheet of correct and incorrect attitudes. Most people harbor contradictory and not always attractive impulses, and we shouldn’t have to insist that artists tidy up theirs before we can appreciate or even examine their work.” Is too much of contemporary criticism wrapped up in that balance sheet – and how can young writers who want to create serious criticism like this, make in their way in a world where it seems that the balance-sheet pieces are the ones editors are buying and people are reading?

I don’t know. I think right now we’re dealing with a very foolish and conservative generation — a generation that thinks it’s woke and thinks it’s very lefty, and actually is very conservative. Because what they’re arguing for is control. They’re arguing for control of dissenting opinion, [and] they’re arguing that everything is a marker of social justice. “This is how you evaluate art: art is about social justice.”

I mean, I don’t know how many silly-ass young critics I read when Inherent Vice came out who were talking about the scene where Katherine Waterston prods [Joaquin Phoenix’s character] into punishing her. Which is what that character would do, how Joaquin Phoenix’s character would react, and a believable scenario about sexual guilt. And this became, “Well, this is saying women want to be abused, they want to be controlled…” It was something about an unattractive side of sex, an unattractive side of a sexual relationship, and [for the film] to put this on the screen became tantamount to approval.

I just don’t — I don’t know how you can fight it. I mean, you have to keep saying, “This is art, this is not social science.” We are not here to solve the problems of the world. And you know, also to say, I don’t know how well you going to do solving the problems of the world if you refuse to recognize how messy life can be.

You mention Greil Marcus in the acknowledgements as a friend and an influence. One of the things that is striking to me, about both of your writing, is that not only are you never just talking about the movie, you’re never just talking about movies. You’ve got a frame of reference that expands to music, to novels, to poetry, to art – and not even the most obvious examples of those forms. It can be very intimidating for a young (or just slightly younger, in my case) critic to read this and feel like, y’know, I despair over the films I haven’t seen yet, much less the all the other knowledge. How does a good critic manage to take all that stuff in?

You’re only supposed to be yourself, so you don’t measure yourself and beat yourself up. And the easiest answer to this is is really simple: read. I’m concerned about young film critics who seem to know nothing but movies. It’s like, I see less now! For a lot of reasons, I mean, I’m teaching and I’m writing, but, y’know sometimes it’s okay to say, “Eh, I just don’t want to see that.”

But read. And read for pleasure. It will lead you to things. And if you find a reference you don’t know, look it up! If you’re reading something, and a writer references another writer and you don’t know that writer, look it up! That doesn’t mean you have to go off and read all of that person’s works, but you can get a sense of what they were about. And maybe this is easier for me because when the critics I was reading when I was growing up had a shared frame of reference, so if somebody made a reference to The Velvet Underground, I could kind of get a sense of what they were about.

But if people are intimidated by what they don’t know, just don’t worry about it. Because you’re never going to know everything. Y’know? But you just know what you can.

“Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You” is out now in hardback, Kindle, and audiobook formats. The Quad Cinema’s “Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s” series begins tonight and runs all weekend.