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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Recalling that very oddball cinematic year, 1971

Screen Grabs: Recalling that very oddball cinematic year, 1971

What's in theaters—then and now. Plus" 'I Carry You With Me,' 'Scenes from an Empty Church,' more

The 4th of July was also on a Sunday 50 years ago, and Hollywood greeted the holiday weekend with two big family films, enduring favorite Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and entirely-forgotten Disney comedy The Million Dollar Duck. But other new arrivals suggested Hollywood’s confusion over just what audiences wanted at a point when strict old censorship rules had only recently collapsed (the G-to-X MPAA ratings system was just a couple years old), and the major studios were in a panic. Was Easy Rider the new model for commercial success? Or Airport? Hewing to something like the conservative latter model were a flop combat movie, Murphy’s War, and tea-cosy horror What’s the Matter With Helen?, a last gasp of the “scary old broads” trend that had commenced with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Other new movies demonstrated the somewhat befuddling diversity of popular releases at the time, including obscure early anti-Vietnam War drama My Old Man’s Place, the groundbreaking British bisexual-triangle romance Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Nicolas Roeg’s dreamlike Australian adventure Walkabout. Two more were films not expected to do particularly well, but which gradually became huge successes: Carnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffers’ then-shockingly “frank” look at (mostly bad) sex before the Sexual Revolution, and Gordon Parks’ action film Shaft, which started the “Blaxploitation” vogue in earnest. Though arguably that fairly shortlived if still-influential commercial trend began a few months earlier with the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, which was far more overtly political and experimental than anything subsequently bracketed in that genre. 

Sweetback had been the #1 film in the nation for a couple weeks in May. Of the year’s ten highest-grossing releases, four (Fiddler on the Roof, Billy Jack, A Clockwork Orange, Carnal Knowledge) never made it to that slot, while another two (Dirty Harry, The Last Picture Show) didn’t get there until well into 1972. That’s because release patterns were so different back then: Movies usually opened in just a handful of theaters, then gradually expanded to different regions and smaller communities over many weeks to come. They never launched simultaneously on a bazillion screens like now, saturating the market, then quickly exhausting their potential. 

Instead, hits like Summer of ’42 or sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain might only hit numero uno after three or four months. For three weeks in the fall, the top US movie was 3-D sex comedy The Stewardesses, which had already been out for nearly a year. Other believe-it-or-not momentary box office champions half a century ago included Cassavetes’ Husbands and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and pet-rat youth horror flick Willard

But lest you think filmgoers were constantly just lapping up all this far-out “New Hollywood” stuff—can you imagine a movie as radically anti-Establishment as (the admittedly dumb) Billy Jack being made, let alone a smash, today?—be informed that the biggest film of 1971 was not just from 1970, but might as well have been from 1940. It was Love Story, that very wet romance with preppie Ryan O’Neal falling for “free spirit” Ali MacGraw, whose character died of cancer—though she couldn’t act to save her life, either. Critics held their noses, but this retro tearjerker was still sporadically rising to #1 seven months after its initial release, through mid-July. 

The extent to which viewers were resisting the industry’s edgier new offerings was underlined by likewise chart-topping success of two reissue double bills (Patton/MASH, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice/Cactus Flower), as well as solo re-releases for Lawrence of Arabia and Disney’s Pinocchio. It was only at year’s end that Hollywood seemed to be making the right moves again as far as a broad-based mass audiences were concerned, with back-to-back hits in the form of The French Connection and the new 007, Diamonds Are Forever. Then early in ’72 came The Godfather, which would make more money than any film before it, offering some new stability after possibly the art form’s commercially shakiest year.

Still, if it was largely hell for studio executives and theater owners, 1971 now looks like a fair candidate for the most interesting cinematic annum ever. Aside from the films already noted, there was Klute, The Hospital, Little Murders, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Woody Allen’s Bananas, Al Pacino’s screen debut in Panic in Needle Park, and what some call the best Canadian movie ever, Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine. (P.S. They’re right.) 

Add to that very incomplete roster major films from major (or soon-to-be-major) directors like Peter Watkins, Ken Russell, Peter Brook, Visconti, Jan Troell, Don Siegel, Joseph Losey, Polanski, Leone, Satyajit Ray, Ken Loach, Peckinpah, Fassbinder, Oshima, Fellini, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Herzog, Louis Malle, Alain Tanner, Tati, Truffaut, Makevejev and Blake Edwards. There were also debut features from Mike Hodges, Stephen Frears, Elaine May, Clint Eastwood, Henry Jaglom, both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as well as first English-language projects for Czech expats Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. 

With grindhouses and drive-ins still viable, great mainstream genre trash encompassed everything from The Abominable Dr. Phibes to The Big Doll House and Vampyros Lesbos. The realm of future cult favorites swelled with Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, Daughters of Darkness, Wake in Fright, Pink Narcissus, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different and Zappa’s 200 Motels

In late September, Dennis Hopper’s long-aborning The Last Movie was disastrously received, signaling for many the end of the blank-check-for-new-talent Hollywood vogue his own Easy Rider had kicked off two years prior. Yet like so many other accounting write-offs of 1971, it fascinates now as (among other things) the kind of artistic gamble that no major studio would ever, ever take now.

What’s going on at the movies in 2021? Well, it’s almost entirely franchises, whether superheroic (Black Widow), video-gamelike (F9), horror (Purge, Quiet Place, Conjuring) or Disneyesque (Cruella, Peter Rabbit, Boss Baby). The only relatively wide release you might say is for grownups is Zola (which we previously reviewed here), and I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that that movie’s combined leading-character IQs might not break into the triple digits. 

Fortunately, you can make like it’s 1971 with a few more offbeat new arrivals available on the arthouse and streaming circuits:

I Carry You With Me 
A double prize-winner (it won both the NEXT and Audience Award categories) at Sundance eighteen months ago, this first narrative feature by documentarian Heidi Ewing has gotten more mixed signals from critics. A few have questioned why a white woman raised in midwestern suburbia is making a primarily Spanish-language film about undocumented gay male emigres from Mexico, accusing the results of being a heavy-handed cinematic equivalent of “virtue signaling.” Certainly there have been better, more organic-feeling movies about both gay love under duress and the dangerous uncertainties of illegal immigration to the U.S. from Latin America.

Nonetheless, this sometimes messily structured mix of nonfiction and dramatized elements has its strong points, particularly Juan Pablo Ramirez’s often beautiful location photography. Spanning over decades, it chronicles the life of Puebla-raised Ivan (Armando Espitia) as an insufficiently-straight-acting kid under the thumb of a homophobic father, through his meeting assistant professor Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) and falling in love. They want to build a life together, but Ivan also wants a career as a chef, figuring his only real chance of that is to “cross over” to the States. He makes it (albeit barely, with Michelle Rodriguez’s BFF Sandra ill-suited to the furtive trip’s exertions), but life in NYC is at first so dispiriting he despairs of Gerardo ever joining him. Then there’s the issue of Ivan’s left-behind son by a bitterly estranged ex-wife. Can they ever see each other again without someone getting deported?

I Carry You With Me moves back and forth in time somewhat confusingly, never quite finding a cohesive shape. It’s also problematic that these staged sequences are intercut with initially brief glimpses of the real-life protagonists whose story is adapted here. Of course they’re older than the actors playing their younger selves, but it’s disconcerting that there’s almost no resemblance physical or behavioral between the two pairs. (Nor do the actors have much chemistry together, though their enduring love is meant to be the thing that ultimately wins out over all adversity.)

Despite these and other flaws, eventually the ambitious mix of style and content does begin to gel—there’s an affirming lyrical sweep to the final sections that has real emotional pull, even if it too feels somewhat forced. The documentary features Ewing has been involved with (including Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka and Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You) felt more fully realized within their bounds. Still, as a narrative debut, Carry is impressive enough to make its overreaching less exasperating than a promising sign of directorial skill-building-in-progress. The film opens Fri/2 at the Embarcadero, then Fri/9 at Shattuck Cinemas and other theaters around the Greater Bay Area.

Scenes From An Empty Church
While I Carry You With Me’s release was delayed by COVID shutdowns, this latest from veteran NYC independent writer/director/sometime actor Onur Tukel was shot during the citywide quarantine that it’s also about. Their cathedral closed during the worst of last year’s Manhattan epidemic (which has claimed the life of their beloved older superior), two middle-aged priests aren’t sure how to cope. 

Normally gregarious, Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan) has turned sullen and hypochondriacal. Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan) is faring better, but worries how to serve the community they’re now cut off from. The door is first semi-forced open by his old friend Paul (Max Casella); then parishioners start being let in one at a time to pray and take confession. It’s not always clear who’s being helped more by this contact, the priests or their flock.

Tukel’s prior movies (probably the best-known being Catfight five years ago) were generally in the realm of snarky satire, with an ensemble-improv feel. His sensibility can be very hit-and-miss, but its unpredictability and the opportunities afforded interesting actors, usually makes his efforts quirkily enjoyable, if not memorable. Scenes shades towards seriocomedy, with earnest discussions about faith and theology that can be ponderous, but are also kinda sweet—this is like First Reformed minus the heavy angst, providing some wry spiritual balm for troubled times. The reliable Corrigan is fine as usual, and it’s good to see Ryan (a personal favorite since Henry Fool) in a rare leading screen role. While it’s not scheduled to play any local theaters yet, the film is available on digital and VOD platforms as of Fri/2.

Crimson Gold
A quarantine is nothing beside the travails suffered over the last two decades by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who’s as well known for the arrests and miscellaneous harassments he’s suffered for his work as he is for that frequently prize-winning work itself. Though officially banned from the government from making films at all in recent years, he’s defied that edict (and his house arrest) by issuing several illegally-shot features that were protests in themselves, starting with 2011’s This Is Not A Film.

His movies were already being banned from screening at home when this 2003 neorealist drama played Cannes and other festivals. A Tehran pizza deliverer (Hossein Emadeddin, a non-professional actor met working that job in real life) scoots around the city getting pushed around by police, or experiencing contempt from the higher classes he’ll always be excluded from. “Only the most dishonest really succeed” in this nation, one character cynically observes, and nothing here contradicts him. 

The film begins with a violent armed robbery, then rewinds to see how our protagonist was driven to such a desperate act. En route, we see how few indignities are spared him, as well as how extravagant the hidden lives of this society’s wealthiest are—their excesses alternately ignored and censured by authorities who can never be argued with, no matter how arbitrary their “justice.” Crimson Gold is currently playing virtual cinemas nationwide; go here for a list of available streaming venues. 

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