In my late thirties, I developed an obsession with American cinema of the 1970s that surfaced yearly in the dead of winter. The obsession would start with me reading a scholarly book about seventies films. This would be followed by a manic updating of my Netflix queue and then marathon screenings. I would usually burn out by late March. I would move on to other interests. I would forget about seventies films. But the cycle would start again the next year. Always like clockwork, yet never planned.
The obsession began in the winter of 2006, when I bought The Films of the Seventies, an annotated filmography of every American, British, and Canadian movie that had come out between 1970 and 1979. I bought the book on a lark at a used bookstore in Winston Salem. I was living in North Carolina with a girlfriend, in a relationship that was still a year and a half away from its end but already on the decline. When I got the book home, I highlighted all of the films I had already seen: Jaws, Star Wars, Breaking Away, Alien, Grease—the stuff of childhood memories. Then I proceeded to watch classics that, embarrassingly, I hadn’t yet seen: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, All the President’s Men, The French Connection, Chinatown. At the time, I saw this as an exercise in self-education. I had recently finished a Ph.D. in American Studies, and I felt I needed to know about these films. The project preoccupied me for a few months, and then it ended. Or so I thought.
In February 2007, the obsession returned. I read, in quick succession, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (a book I had been assigned in grad school but never read) and Peter Lev’s American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions. The reading had nothing to do with my teaching or my academic research. I just found myself enthralled by these assessments of cinema and the 1970s. Biskind hooked me when he wrote, “this was a time when film culture permeated American life,” when film was “no less than a secular religion.” I was intrigued by his claim that “this was to be a directors’ decade if ever there was one.” Lev similarly captured my imagination when he noted that this was “the most exciting and most experimental period of the American feature film.” I made lists as I read, and I subsequently watched movies like Shampoo, Scarecrow, The Parallax View, The Conversation, Marathon Man, The Last Detail, and, fittingly enough, Obsession. This time, my fixation lasted into the spring. By the summer, I had moved to California to start a new job and my six-year relationship had ended. I was thirty-seven years old.
A year went by without a relapse. I was busy teaching at a new school and processing my failed romance. I spent February and March in a battle with a loud, temperamental neighbor. In search of a fresh start, I moved into a beachside apartment in April. I cultivated new friendships. There was no seventies that year for me.
In the winter of 2009, however, it started again. I devoured a collection of essays, American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. I made more lists. My viewing included Klute, Nashville, Night Moves, Joe, Phantom of the Paradise, Hardcore, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But that year, I had a revelation. I recognized a pattern not in the cycle of what I was doing, but in my experience of it: as it turned out, every time I revisited the ’70s, I liked reading about the films more than I liked watching them.
The books made the movies sound better than they were. The books put the films in a historical context, explicated their cultural themes, imbued them with political significance—Watergate and Vietnam, the working class, paranoia and conspiracy, generational strife. But the movies themselves? They were often plodding, incoherent, indulgent, dull. Not all of them. But many of them. The Last Detail bored me. Night Moves confused me. Phantom of the Paradise was whacky. Joe was improbable.
In retrospect, the books I had read warned me of this. Peter Lev, for example, states bluntly (albeit on the very last page of his book), “one should not overly romanticize the films of the 1970s. In a period of uncertainty and change, many mediocre films were made.” In his introduction to Themes and Variations, editor Lester Friedman counsels the reader to beware of “hyperbolic assessments” of the era, for they “belie the fact that terrible movies were made during the 1970s.” He writes this on page twenty-three, so I suppose I have no excuse there.
The same thing would happen each year. I regularly found myself waiting impatiently for a movie to end just so I could highlight the title in my filmography and be done with it. Or avoiding watching it altogether. My ex had noticed this tendency of mine when we still lived together in North Carolina. Some of the titles that arrived from Netflix would sit next to the television for weeks. She would threaten to mail them back the next time I was away from the house. “You don’t have to do this to yourself,” she said at one point, sending us both into a fit of laughter. And yet I did. I was stuck in a cycle of pleasure and tedium.
Then I turned forty in 2010 and it all stopped.
I have two related theories about my obsession with American cinema of the 1970s. The first is that the books I read provided a historical context for a time in my life when I was aware of very little beyond my own childhood. The books offered a portrait of a cultural milieu that was taking shape outside of my tiny world of family, play, and school. I could insert the memories and images I had of my own seventies childhood—a quite happy childhood—into a bigger picture of what was going on in America. This was an exercise in intellectual nostalgia, in historicizing my youth. That’s why I liked reading about the films more than watching them. The moving pictures I had in my head, of me then, were much better.
The second theory is that reading about the seventies provided an escape. In my late thirties I was going through major transitions: a stressful job search, the end of a serious relationship, a move to California. Rather than deal with the corrosion and change that defined my present, I retreated to a safer past. It wasn’t really about the seventies at all. Sometimes we sit through bad movies because we need to.
So was my obsession with seventies films about nostalgia or escape? I’m not sure they’re so different. I was certainly obsessed with both at a particular stage of my life. All I know is that when I finally let her go, when I turned forty and resolved to look forward more than I looked back, that decade also lost its purchase on me. It’s true that one should not overly romanticize American cinema of the 1970s. But it’s also true that one not overly romanticize the past. Those moving pictures may sound good in theory, but sitting through them can just be another way of making the present pass by.