Quentin Tarantino took a deep dive into 1970 during a masterclass at the Lumière Festival here in Lyon this evening. The filmmaker said he’s been researching for four years that particular year and how it marked a turning point for American and international cinema. What he’s going to do with the research for now remains unclear. “Am I going to write a book? Maybe. Is it going to be a six-part podcast? Maybe. A feature documentary? Maybe. I’m figuring it out,” he said, calling it a “work in progress” before taking the packed house through what he’s discovered so far. Lyon is the first place he’s publicly testing that out, he said.
Tarantino was greeted with a standing ovation by about 2000 people at the Auditorium of Lyon tonight as he mounted the stage. He was joined by Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux who also runs this event where Tarantino was memorably and emotionally honored in 2013.
Now in its eighth edition, this is a festival close to Tarantino’s heart. It’s largely a retrospective with hundreds of restored films, thematic strands and uncovered gems. This year, the filmmaker has curated a group of 14 films from 1970 which he’s been presenting throughout the week. They range from Arthur Hiller’s Love Story to Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage; Claude Chabrol’s The Butcher; Billy Wilder’s The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes; Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces; Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said; Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls; and Robert Altman’s MASH.
The latter film was being screened following the masterclass during which Tarantino admitted to not having had a great relationship with the late Altman. “He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him,” but Tarantino loves the film. When MASH won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, Tarantino said it was the first and only time the festival officially recognized that it divided the jury — “a good portion” wanted Stuart Hagmann’s romantic drama The Strawberry Statement to win. Frémaux remarked that was the only time that’s happened in Cannes because the rules have been changed so that such an acknowledgement won’t be made public again.
Tarantino was also not a fan of the multi-Emmy-winning TV series based on MASH which for a time dwarfed the movie. But he was heartened to say, “I do believe the film is coming back and taking its place as the true MASH.”
This was a film, he said, that Fox “wasn’t paying any attention to” in 1970 which was also the year of Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton. “They had two bigger fish to fry, then out comes MASH. Even though it takes place in Korea, it was the first movie to truly deal with the dilemma of Vietnam. But it was also a service comedy like no other. It’s awash in blood and deals with the meat grinder aspect of war. The characters only choice of dealing with the dehumanization that war is to have a stoned mentality and get drunk. The movie could not have been made any year but that year.”
Asked why he has chosen to focus on 1970, Tarantino cited the 2009 book by Mark Harris, Pictures Of A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood. The book chronicles the “real emergence of the New Hollywood,” Tarantino explained, and noted that “By the end of 1967, new Hollywood had won, only they didn’t know it yet. And Old Hollywood was over by 67 even though they didn’t know it yet.” He called Pictures Of A Revolution “the best cinema book written this decade.”
By 1970, Tarantino said, “New Hollywood was the Hollywood and anything that even smacked of Old Hollywood was dead on arrival.” The filmmaker said he became interested in when the revolution was won and, “not coincidentally, I was alive in 1970 and very conscious at 7 years old when my parents were taking me to all types of movies.” Now researching that year, he said, “the more I started going to the library and looking up newspaper articles of what it was like, I realized New Hollywood had won the revolution but whether it would survive wasn’t clear. Cinema had changed so drastically that Hollywood had alienated the family audience.”
And, although they were big fans, “the hippie audience wasn’t really moviegoers. Society demanded (the Hollywood new wave) but that doesn’t mean that they supported it as a business model and it made me realize that New Hollywood cinema from 1970-76 at the very least was actually more fragile than I thought it was. That experiment could have died in 1970.” He cited films like those that he’s showing here along with Carnal Knowledge, The Godfather, The Exorcist and Chinatown. But if MASH or Five Easy Pieces hadn’t worked in 1970, “It’s doubtful there would have been a Godfather or an Exorcist.”
But, he hasn’t set out to make a Top 10 list. “Oddly enough, it was the films on the lower end of the Top 30 or 40, which, while they weren’t as good, in a weird way were more interesting to me… I’m always going to come at it from a critical or cinephile perspective but I wanted to put that in the minor and make it more as a historian or a sociologist.”
As part of his research, Tarantino says he’s been watching prints, DVDs, old videos and cable as well as reading reviews from the day. “That’s how I found the think pieces of the time. ‘What’s wrong with movies?’ ‘Movies have become scary,’ ‘Can Hollywood survive’.” It was a time “like a werewolf where the skeleton changes in An American Werewolf In London,” he said to laughter.
Patterns have emerged during the research. “There were a lot of promises made of possibilities of a new cinema. It was almost like, could Hollywood handle this kind of freedom? Could the public handle it? The freedom seemed limitless. Directors could adapt any book, could shoot anything. There were no restrictions and that was maybe untenable.”
“If you ask me, the promise was fulfilled,” he continued. But there were casualties. That included the possibility that a new “genuine black cinema” would emerge. He cited Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (written by Bill Gunn), along with Ossie Davis’ directorial debut Cotton Comes To Harlem and Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man. He also pointed to films such as Paul Bogart’s Halls Of Anger and Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! which were making an impact.
But “Blaxploitation” ended up taking the place of this promise, said Tarantino. Despite being a fan of that genre, he said, “Now I see Blaxploitation did derail a real rising voice.”
Same goes for erotic cinema. “There was the promise that eroticism in cinema would be taken out of the raincoat crowd and would achieve mainstream success and play in nice theaters, particularly for couples. We had some wonderful artists at that time like Russ Meyer and Ken Russell. That worked for a little while but ultimately a lot of them went back to porno and sexploitation.”
Some of Tarantino’s other touchstones from 1970, he said, include Leonard Horn’s The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart starring Don Johnson; James Bridge’s The Baby Maker with Barbara Hershey; Herbert Ross’ The Owl And The Pussycat with Barbra Streisand and George Segal; and Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?
“I remember the experience of being in the movie theater vividly with the more adult movies. I remember the audience reaction. There was naughty blue humor that pushed the boundaries of the time and some of that was going over my head at seven, but I remember the hearing the audiences laugh. They weren’t used to the jokes being this dirty. These were contraband giggles they were having.”
Rather than focus only on Hollywood cinema, Tarantino has expanded the horizon to include international filmmaking from the period. He noted that the era brought Enzo Barboni’s They Call Me Trinity with Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. That film, he said, changed the spaghetti Western by turning on the laughs. “The comic quality of the movie then affects all other spaghetti westerns after that.” Also in Italy, Dario Argento created the giallo genre of bloody murder mysteries.
In Asian cinema Yu Wang’s Hong Kong action drama The Chinese Boxer “was the first official film that we now think of as a Kung-Fu movie.” In Japan, Baby Cart At The River Styx by Kenji Misumi was “one of the great action movies of all time… Never had an action film been that awash in blood and filmed so beautifully and amazing. The blood in that movie is just a thing of beauty.”
As he wrapped up, Tarantino told the Lyon audience. “If the subject intrigues you and makes you do a dive like I have, I think you find a lot of films that are interesting. Don’t get too hung up in classification of good and bad, because truly interesting is where it’s at… The idea is to go into these films and take it where they’re going and where the directors are taking you.”