Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid. The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison. Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it. As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things. The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.
I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s. Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.
This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period. The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking. Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action. Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic. There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period. Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story. The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.
I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out. However, this isn’t a review. I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it. Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.
I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods. Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered. The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made. Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium. Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again. Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:
Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do? Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed? Probably not. The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great. “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola. “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.” Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.
The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces. However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films. Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces. The Godfather is a perfect example. It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him. However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.
I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this. But I think these things are interesting to think about. Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us? Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be. Why is this? Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist? Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?
P.S. I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood. (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.) If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.