The late 1960s was a time of radical change in the world of film. The Hollywood studio system was in decline, while the European art film movement created a new aesthetic standard for filmmaking. This industry transformation, encouraged by the success of a few experimental Hollywood films at the end of the decade, led to the filmmaking renaissance of the 1970s. The monolithic Hollywood studios began to lose their power during the 1960s. Millions of dollars were spent on extravagant blockbusters such as Cleopatra, but with diminishing returns at the box office. At the same time, the traditional, wholesome values represented and reinforced by Hollywood movies were increasingly rejected by the new generation of film audiences, and the studios were unsure what to do.
While the studios were failing to produce work that engaged and attracted audiences, European filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini were creating an alternative cinema that challenged the very art form itself. Young audiences embraced these new movies. Sydney Pollack recalls that “every major college campus, and the area around, on Friday nights was full of kids going to foreign films”. These movies experimented with new ways of telling stories, breaking Hollywood traditions in both form and content. The foreign art films of 1960s offered many differing and even conflicting approaches to filmmaking, but all had one thing in common: each was clearly the product of a single, focused director working behind the camera and bore the signature of its author or auteur. Unlike establishment Hollywood, where films were made with an almost assembly line quality, these auteur films were personal works of art, and an emerging generation of American directors took note. These new American auteurs of the 1970s idolized figures such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Fassbinder, and Ingmar Bergman, whose influence is readily apparent in the best of American 1970s films.
However, it was not only the artistic advances that led to the auteur phenomenon in America. Proponents of this movement drew upon the political instability of America in the late 1960s and early 1970s as subject matter for their work – without this approach, the new directors would not have been able to achieve the socially relevant focus that distinguished their movies from establishment Hollywood cinema earlier in the 1960s (and subsequently in the 1980s). The civil rights and feminist movements in America during the 1960s worked to change the contemporary social hierarchies, while the events surrounding Vietnam and Watergate led to a general distrust of the government. A great deal of social advancement and positive change was taking place, but at the same time America was still a corrupt capitalist society. This remained a period of a great disillusionment in America, a time when opinions about President Nixon truly fractured America, and out of this upheaval came the subject matter of our new cinema.
The best films of the 1970s cannot be fully understood without understanding that they are products of their context more so than other periods. These are films with a stronger connection to the heightened anxieties reflected in American socio-political life. Therefore, investigating the civic body is key to understanding these remarkable films. Coppola, Friedkin, Bogdonovich, Scorsese, and Altman are but a few of the great filmmakers from this period. Others such as Hal Ashby, Terrance Mallick, Alan J. Pakula and Woody Allen acknowledged the same filmmaking influences and dealt with the same contemporary issues, successfully but from within the Hollywood system. However, two of these filmmakers–George Lucas and Steven Spielberg– produced films that were more mainstream in the later half of the decade, which effectively ended the filmmaking renaissance of the 1970s.
There have always been and always will be auteurs in American film, if one considers the Hitchcocks and the Paul Thomas Andersons, but never in such abundance as there were in the 1970s. America was in the midst of a great deal of political and social change which provided directors with compelling, pertinent subject matter to which they could apply their personal aesthetic and these new techniques. This combination of individual gifts with historic events and influences led to the auteur movement. The period represented a filmmaking renaissance in America, one that will be studied and appreciated by future generations, but most likely never equaled.