It’s amazing how things change over time. I used to hate olives on my pizza, now I think they’re pretty dope. Same thing with pickles on a burger. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I used to think that everything about the 70s was a big joke. The bell bottom pants, the big collars, disco music and boring movies. Yep. I found the movies of that era to be uninspired, bland, and boring. Having grown up on a steady diet of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull and Blade Runner, stories about people in their natural surroundings dealing with personal issues were just, y’know, kinda boring. The visuals were uninspiring to me, I needed bombast. I was born in the era of the blockbuster and grew up on fantasy. There was no room - or particular need - for reality.
Gif by ghostofcheney.
It’s only until much later when I actually started making movies and studying them for my work that I began to realize that the 70s, in my opinion, was the most productive decade of American art in this country’s young history. Coming off the Vietnam War, racial tensions and a crippling US economy, artists in the 70s used art in its proper function, to serve as a mirror to the human condition, and the condition of humanity at that time was pretty bleak. Artists turned their brushes, guitars and cameras towards themselves, asking the question of where we are going individually and as a part of a greater family of man.
There are always exceptions, and these films, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood exemplify classic American filmmaking that has evolved from the fundamentals laid down in the 70s. They are personal films about people, their place in the world and their meaning relative to each other.
Perhaps no filmmaker, for me, embodies this more than John Huston, whose career spanned almost five decades, but who for me reached his peak with Fat City, which he made in 1972. I know that had I seen Fat City fifteen years ago I’d dislike it immensely, as I’d be waiting for something over-the-top to happen, some cataclysmic event that will change the course of history.
None of that happens in Fat City, which is the story of Billy Tully, a down-on-his-luck amateur boxer trying to eke out a life in an economically ravaged small city. Based on the eponymous novel by Leon Gardner, the film lacks any kind of spit-polish or grandeur that we see in today’s American filmmaking. Fat City meanders, it’s threadbare in its script and plot, and it contains no coincidences or accidents. It’s inhabitants are not supermodels and poster boys, in fact there is an elegant grotesqueness to their beaten and weathered bodies. Tully, played with equal fire and restraint by a brilliant Stacy Keach (who I am only recently discovering to be one of the truly great acting talents of all-time), has scars and bruises, his hair a hot mess, and yet there is a rugged charm about him, a man with some principles who has hit rock bottom and is trying to claw his way out to a decent life.
Huston crafts the film with remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots (lit by the immortal Conrad Hall in a wash of diffusion and a palette of ochres, turquoise and coral) and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines. It’s a contradiction, but a beautiful one at that, and it lends itself to a very lean and efficient style of filmmaking, one that is, at its core, the very essence of classic American cinema. If we look at the works of Huston, Cassavettes, Coppola and even turning back the clock to the works of Keaton, Chaplin, Mann, Hawkes and Ford, we see this pattern of lean filmmaking - limited shots, meticulously composed, and allowing for exploration through performance. What results is a very muscular style of film, powerful and deceptively elegant, much like an American muscle car.
This is important to acknowledge in moving forward as filmmakers. As we fully begin to embrace digital cinema, our coverage has increased astronomically. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to emerge from their shoots with 35-40 hours of footage, which is both a blessing and a damnation. With so much coverage, what we’re seeing now is more and more films being made in the edit, where performance is crafted by the knife. The downside to this is an unfocused film, filled with thousands of cuts that perforate its foundation like swiss cheese. Today’s American cinema feels more like a salad than a side of beef, and any kind of muscularity is being provided by an overbearing Hans Zimmer score and CGI explosions. It’s all resolutely fake, and that cannot be sustained.
What we can learn from Huston and the films of the 70s is to go back to composition as place for actors to work within. Even an extravagant film like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is spare in its shots - they are allowed to unfold and establish their might, and even with the alien beauty of the jungle, this is still the story of men and their duties to one another. The film is as strong as an I-beam as a result. A fair amount of credit goes to editor Walter Murch, who took the nightmare of hundreds of hours of footage and maintained the lean ethic.
The goal here is to not convey what type of movies to make, that’s nobody’s purview but your own. What is to be impressed upon however is a thoughtfulness in craft, of maintaining simplicity of conveyance and not overburdening our films with unnecessary chaff. This doesn’t mean to omit details - a look at the films of the 70s reveals an immense attention to detail, but it is all done within a restrained number of shots. We cannot establish cinematic power without allowing the time for it to be established.
The best metaphor I can think of for this is a rocket. To lift itself out of orbit - an act of immense power and muscle - there must be a large, focused and maintained blast of rocket fuel. If a rocket were to pulse its blast in small thrusts, it’s expending the same (if not more) amount of energy, but it will lack the power to take off. Think of your edits and compositions in the same way. Allow power and emotion to develop in composed frames, develop your performances in longer takes, and edit your coverage in the leanest way possible. Allow your actors to breathe, to explore, to feel within a meaningful and thoughtfully designed space.
At the end of Fat City, Huston does something quite remarkable. Tully, at the bottom of his barrel and in the haze of alcohol, gazes about a cafe and sees some men talking in the corner. We don’t know what they’re talking about, and they have nothing to do with Tully. But he fixates on them, and there’s a brief freeze frame on Tully’s face. It’s a resoundingly surreal moment, a shock in a film filled with such gritty realism, akin to Truffaut’s freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows. This is Huston using the power of cinema to undermine all that he has laid down before in one simple move, and it’s a calculated deconstruction. The mighty, muscular film for the past 100 minutes crumbles in a few seconds of a freeze frame, a mirror of the journey of his protagonist. It’s a beautiful moment, akin to when men of iron show vulnerability, and it is calculated and highly risky. I love this kind of filmmaking, which shows no fear and absolute trust in the audience. It’s an irony that Fat City was a studio film (Columbia Pictures) that would never be made by a studio today. My how times have changed, but the silver lining is that with today’s technology, a film like Fat City can be made with little complication as an ultra low-budget independent film. It has to be planned, thoughtful and efficient, and films like it will thrive because they speak to us on a myriad different levels.
I wring my hands at this latest discovery in my journey as a filmmaker, and am ready to reevaluate my plans for The One Trick Rip-Off, to view it through this prism. It will be difficult going back and retooling what I’ve already established, but if it means my growth as an artist and greater benefit to my art, then it is work worth doing and suffering for. Nobody said this was easy.