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Hollywood independents

18.01.2011

Another 1970s filmmaker of note in America was John Carpenter, whose career began with the science fiction movie Dark Star (1974), which he began making as a student with virtually no budget at all. He then moved on to the police action drama Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), one of the finest films of his career. As a disciple of Howard Hawks, Carpenter knew how to build an action sequence with judicious cross-cutting and detailed character development, and Precinct 13’s plot of a group of desperate people fighting for their lives in an abandoned, barricaded police station has clear links to such Hawks classics as Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966). Carpenter also edited the film himself under the pseudonym John T. Chance, the character played by John Wayne in Rio Bravo. Made for $100,000 on a decidedly short schedule, Precinct 13 made a major impression on festival audiences worldwide.


Carpenter followed with Halloween (1978), perhaps the first classic slasher film in a soon-to-be crowded subgenre. The movie cost roughly $325,000 and eventually brought in an astounding $50 million, leading to a long string of sequels by other directors, and allowing Carpenter, for the moment, to pursue whatever project he pleased. He directed a television movie, Elvis, in 1979, then the ghost story The Fog (1980) and the futuristic science fiction action film Escape from New York (1981). But the film that most dramatically shaped Carpenter’s later career was The Thing (1982), a big-budget science fiction film that was a direct remake of the Hawks/Nyby 1951 original. Amped up with Rob Bottin’s spectacular special makeup effects, which were mostly done on the floor during shooting rather than added in post-production, The Thing tells the same story as the original picture: a group of scientists and researchers trapped in Antarctica’s endless winter are forcefully roused from their enforced hibernation when a large, unfriendly alien from another world crash-lands in their camp and starts killing them off one by one. To make matters worse, the Thing has the ability John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) revitalized the American horror film and led to a wave of to change into an exact duplicate of any living organism,  sequels.


Carpenter’s version of The Thing is an epic exercise in fatalism; by the film’s end, all the protagonists are dead except for group leader MacReady (Kurt Russell) and perpetual malcontent Childs (Keith David). One of them, it is strongly suggested, may be the Thing in human disguise, but it doesn’t matter; MacReady, determined not to let the Thing get out of the camp and invade civilization, has torched the entire research station. With no power or heat, MacReady and Childs are last seen freezing to death while drinking a bottle of scotch, and the ending is left unresolved. The Thing came out within weeks of Spielberg’s E.T. in June 1982 and audiences decisively rejected it, much to Carpenter’s chagrin—the film was a major commercial failure. Carpenter’s career never really recovered, although he continued to make films such as Starman (1984), Prince of Darkness (1987), Village of the Damned (1995, a remake of Wolf Rilla’s 1960 original), and Ghosts of Mars (2001).


Robert Altman emerged as the preeminent social satirist of the period with the corrosive military satire M*A*S*H (1970), which became a long running television series, and Brewster McCloud (1970), a bizarre fantasy about a young boy who lives in the Houston Astrodome and dreams of being able to fly. Altman’s subsequent films, such as the revisionist western McCabe Mrs. Miller (1971), the updated Philip Marlowe thriller The Long Goodbye (1973), and the “buddy” film California Split (1974), marked him as one of the most inventive and original directors of the era. With Nashville (1975), a sprawling essay on the country music industry, Altman moved into his signature late style, creating a multilayered narrative with numerous characters that is nothing so much as a tapestry of human experience. He also accelerated his longstanding use of overlapping dialogue (as practiced by Hawks in His Girl Friday and Welles in Citizen Kane) to create a dense, complicated sound track in which several conversations occur at the same time. Altman has used this strategy in such subsequent films as The Player (1992), one of the best movies ever made about contemporary Hollywood politics, Short Cuts (1993), Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter, 1994), Gosford Park (2001), and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), released only months before his death.


Woody Allen began his remarkably prolific career as a filmmaker, after a long stint as a stand-up comedian and writer, with the clever satire What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), a spoof of Clive Donner’s sex comedy What’s New, Pussycat? made in 1965, for which Allen wrote the script. In What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Allen took an existing Japanese secret agent film and redubbed it into a wild parody, as the characters search for the perfect recipe for an egg salad sandwich. The film was a surprise hit and allowed Allen to make his first real film, the comedy bank-robbery caper Take the Money and Run (1969). This was followed by the comedy of revolutionary South American politics, Bananas (1971) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972).


 In all these films, Allen functioned not only as director and writer (and often producer), but also the star, handcrafting vehicles that showcased his peculiar talents as a hapless everyman, perpetually clumsy, unlucky in love, and ceaselessly complaining.


Allen’s work deepened considerably with the romantic comedy/drama Annie Hall (1977) and then took a detour into serious drama with Interiors (1978), a psychological character study deeply influenced by Allen’s respect for Ingmar Bergman, who remains Allen’s favorite director. Manhattan (1979) was Allen’s most commercially and critically acclaimed film, a bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of New York City, while Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982, an homage to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night [Sommarnattens leende, 1955]), and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Allen’s romantic comedy Manhattan (1979), one of the director’s most successful works.


Since then, Allen has racked up a truly stunning array of credits, including a tale of murder and morality, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), the 1930s period piece Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the sex comedy Mighty Aphrodite (1995), the acidic Deconstructing Harry (1997, another Bergman homage, this time to Wild Strawberries [Smultronstället, 1957]), and the jazz-themed comedy Sweet and Lowdown (1999), with a brilliant performance by Sean Penn as an arrogant, heartless jazz guitarist who shows up for gigs late, drunk, or not at all, and whose favorite pastime is shooting rats at the city dump. Allen went through a difficult personal period in the early 1990s, and at the turn of the century it seemed that such films as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and Hollywood Ending (2002) were playing to diminishing returns, both artistically and commercially. But Allen confounded his critics by moving to London to make the sharply observed Match Point (2005), which gave him some of his best notices in years and rejuvenated his career; he followed with the equally adroit Scoop in 2006.


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