Friday, March 22, 2013

The Period Piece Period


These days they're all but absent, aside from the work of auteurs who can do whatever they want, like Tarantino, PT Anderson, HBO, and Spielberg, but 40 years ago there was an abundance of movies set 40 years before that, in the days of prohibition, swing, racism, and cigarette holders.

Why? What was the appeal?

Was it because all that old art deco furniture--none of it disposable pre-fab stuff like we have today-- was still up in props, and the costumes merely mothballed in a still-undead studio system?  It perhaps says more about memory and the human need to evolve (in clothing and car design if not social progress) to look back to those wild carefree days. It's more than nostalgia in the 70s for the 30s, the way the 90s has it for the 70s; it's like a haunted decade ransacking its grandmothers' attic to find its voice before its censorious 50s mom got home.


Confession - I've never been a fan of period pieces - something about the use of old clothes I find depressing. I have a weird sense of 'virtual smell' with movies, and in period pieces, I get a sorrowful whiff of thrift store mustiness, and I feel trace resentment  because nothing vintage ever fits me and lord I have tried and the trying has left me feeling locked out of history. Also, it's an excuse for a lot of actors to get lazy, to rely on schtick, on Vaudeville patter that was corny even then. And I hate those ragtime-era plaids, those ornate feathered hairdos.

But the 70s' infatuation with the post-WWI, pre-WWII modern era, likely borne from the successes of BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE STING, an economic recession, and the popularity of cocaine and Vaudeville recycling variety TV shows, is a big exception to my overall period malaise. Why? Maybe because the 70s were the first overly permissive 'anything goes' decade since the Depression, since the crash and production code. Americans were much more liberated when I was as a kid than we are now. There are only so many cigarettes I can smoke in my own apartment before I feel the weight of the world crush me with its the heft of its snooty nanny-state rejection.

If you want proof of how great the 70s were, just realize that the 70s are still in fashion in Europe and South America. Since they never went 80s they didn't have to go all grunge in the 90s to try and forget them. In fact, in NYC there was a bit of a jazz age revival in the loungecore scene in the late 90s, which I was a part of with my gnatty tux jacket and feather boa and fearful darting eyes. Holla if you went to Lansky's or Windows on the World, Fancy and Moby on the turntables, before swing dancers and sneak attacks killed it like the goddamn 40s were happening all over again.

The 1970s were uniquely liberated thanks to drugs, wife-swapping, est, and a post-hippie middle class. As a kid therein I became a bit enamored with the older period depicted in the popular films I was never allowed to see. I couldn't even stay up to the end of most movies we saw on evening TV as a family as they ended at 11 and my bedtime was 10. It left me scarred and angry but also created a sense that films were mystical things --I often dreamed endings far wilder than any real life film could provide. Meanwhile I regularly marveled at the newspaper ads and TV commercials for movies that were coming through town. So I was very aware of certain styles and some I did not care for, like those damn flapper hats that hid all the hair worse than a nun (even as a kid I loved beautiful hair).

The Fortune
The disco look of glam was a direct relative of the art deco era, the speakeasies with their segregated floorshows, whiskey pints wrapped in cloth napkins and delivered under the finding a perfect collary to the selling and doing of lines of coke along the disco club tables, as dancers paused for quick snorts in the laps of guys in leisure suits, their sweat electric, their skin shiny with reptilian slimes of desire, cologne and dance floor sex oozing from inside their unporous open-chested polyester shirts. Doing a period film was the perfect excuse to conjure the class divides of the Depression, the tuxedos and glamorous gowns Hollywood dress designers still knew how to make, and maybe even had made back in the day, and maybe still had in storage deep in the wardrobes of Paramount.

But there's a deeper flow than mere fashion, the 30s/70s times, a 40 year gap, so in the 1930s they loved films set in the 1890s, ala the gay 90s, wherein the folks was gay, and not in a Depression. But hindsight makes the strait-jacket of production codes sweet by comparison.







A spate of period piece gangster films came out in the late 60s-early 70s and while BONNIE AND CLYDE might be thought of as the most influential, several of Roger Corman's gangster films predate it, such as his ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE which came out the year before, in 1967. Either way, a flood of Corman product followed, too vast to list all of here, as well as major label contributions like DILLINGER.



The Great Depression became a chance for heroism and stickin' it to the man. There were true stories not just of mobsters but of legendary hobos, tortured artists, social activists, writer, and mountebanks. McCarthyism was gone and we could examine the interest in communism in the 30s as being understandable. After all, in the Depression it seemed clear capitalism couldn't pull itself out of its own hole. And it couldn't. Imagine if the tea party were around back then, stopping all FDR's plans for the New Deal because of its resemblance to socialism and big government! We'd be a third world country by now!







In the interest of keeping it fresh, there was also going farther back, to the turn of the century and the era of Ragtime. When the film RAGTIME came out there was a lot of hooplah not least for Jimmy Cagney's return to acting (he plays a racist fire chief). A biopic of Scott Joplin predates it, as do other films set in this era. Coppola also visits the era for sections of GODFATHER 2, but he avoided the mistake of those awful checkered suits.




By the 1980s, with the inability of XANADU to recreate a yen for 40s swing, and the inability of 1941, UNDER THE RAINBOW, AT LONG LAST LOVE, NEW YORK NEW YORK or HEAVEN'S GATE to turn a profit, period pieces were out.



If anyone had any doubts about that, CITY HEAT in 1984 was the bomb icing on the cake. The cake itself was a huge loss of cash, time, and good will sunk into Coppola's THE COTTON CLUB.  The news covered the disastrous feud between producer Robert Evans and Coppola when the film went over budget and shooting was endlessly delayed and even half the people working on it were badmouthing it. But I think Evans was right. Coppola ended up with final cut and based on what Evans said about working with Coppola on the first GODFATHER film we can assume what he objected to was Coppola's insecurity-besmacked over-editing. The big crosscut killings in GODFATHER (between all the murder's and his nephew's christening) worked because there had been so much slow ominous build-up, i.e. Evans made Coppola lengthen the shots and slow parts down so the speedy parts would have contrast. Even by GODFATHER 2 it was getting cliche'd to have big violent scene crosscuts with a musical or ceremonial performance, and that's all COTTON is. So as far as we were concerned, that kind of thing was over - period.


Short List
ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE - 1967
BONNIE AND CLYDE - 1968
THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY? - 1969
HELLO, DOLLY - 1969
A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY - 1970
THE BOYFRIEND - 1971
 LADY SINGS THE BLUES - 1972
CABARET - 1972
GODFATHER - 1972
GREASER'S PALACE - 1972
THIEVES LIKE US - 1973
THE WAY WE WERE - 1973
THE STING - 1973
NEW YORK NEW YORK - 1973
PAPER MOON - 1973
OKLAHOMA CRUDE - 1973
 CHINATOWN - 1974
THE FRONT PAGE - 1974
GODFATHER PART II - 1974
THE GREAT GATSBY - 1974
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS - 1974
CAPONE - 1975
 DAY OF THE LOCUST - 1975
THE FORTUNE - 1975
LUCKY LADY - 1975
AT LONG LAST LOVE - 1975
HEARTS OF THE WEST - 1975
THE WILD PARTY - 1975
 THE RITZ - 1976
THE LAST TYCOON - 1976
BUGSY MALONE - 1976
HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK - 1976
WC FIELDS AND ME - 1976
LEADBELLY - 1976
BOUND FOR GLORY - 1976
SCOTT JOPLIN - 1977
JULIA - 1977
THE BETSY - 1978
DEATH ON THE NILE - 1978
1941 - 1979
AGATHA - 1979
LITTLE MISS MARKER - 1980
UNDER THE RAINBOW - 1981
POSTMAN RINGS TWICE - 1981
CANNERY ROW - 1981
REDS - 1981
MOMMY DEAREST - 1981
HAMMETT - 1982
VICTOR / VICTORIA - 1982
RAGTIME - 1982
EVIL UNDER THE SUN - 1982
FRANCES - 1982
UNDER THE VOLCANO - 1984
CITY HEAT -  1984 
COTTON  CLUB, THE - 1984

If I'm missing any, let me know... I deliberately left out war movies and westerns to not cloud the issue -but as long as there are tommy guns, fedoras, cigarette holders, lame dresses, forgotten men, flappers, and/or antique cars, it's here -- I think.

8 comments:

  1. You could add Swing Shift at the tail end unless you consider that a war film. Otherwise the most obvious omission at first glance is New York, New York. Good summary overall, and it reminds me of this recent blog piece that attempts to account for a modern preference for period pieces over authentic films from the periods portrayed.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Re NYNY: I was looking at the list when I wrote the comment but I see that you do have a poster for it here. Split decision, then.

    ReplyDelete
  3. thanks Samuel - I did almost forget it. Swing Shift would have to go the war movies, and I almost included them just so I could use the forgotten Harrison Ford STAR WARS-follow-up, HANOVER STREET (which we Star Wars fans all wanted to see, just for Ford and maybe some ariel combat, but it then it just vanished in a pouff of indifferent reviews

    ReplyDelete
  4. That hack Tarantino is an "auteur who can do whatever he wants"?!?!?

    Anyway, the original novel for "Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West is excellent. "Miss Lonely Hearts" is even better. Bleak.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I find these nostalgia cycles usually go like this: you have the decade itself, then the following decade in which it falls out of fashion and is relegated to the "dated" bin, then about 20 years down the line when it's dusted of as those who were young during it approach middle age, and then around 30-35 years the freshness wanes (as time starts to fuzz direct memory & is replaced by memories of memories instea). By 50 years the "period" is usually rather ossified and preserved in glass. This certainly seems true of the 60s (look at the cycle of 80s films which, while usually not actually set in the 60s, were obsessed with their legacy: Big Chill, Field of Dreams, Running on Empty, among others; thirtysomething & Wonder Years on TV, etc). But also other decades as well. By this clock we should be hitting the 90s-nostalgia phase soon (there were already some precedents in the previous decade, which was nonetheless more besotted by the 80s).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Joel and right you are, I've been feeling pangs of 90s nostalgia already, glamorizing the early half at least. And QT and PTA both turned out three hour films that if they weren't underwritten by billonaire heiress Megan Ellison! I wish she would underwrite me. She's also rolling with Harmony Korine and David Russell as per her twitter here

    the main difference now is periods cost a lot more to produce since you have to rent all this old junk and work harder to get rid of anachronisms. A rank newcomer isn't going to be able to get that kind of cash to fritter on antique cars and period researchers. Also, our pre-fab world ensures that 40 year old stuff isn't around to use the way it was in the 70s - grandmas' old dresser is still around, hand-made from real wood - her grandkids' have already been through a dozen pressed-sawdust versions. Etc.

    ReplyDelete
  7. And wait, what 'hack' Tarantino? Are you on crack? No one working today has such a great flair for slow burn to boiling dialogue or Leone-ish cobra stillness.

    ReplyDelete