The mid-1960s change in films
June 29, 2005 6:43 AM   Subscribe

What caused the sudden paradigm shift in Hollywood films in the late 1960s?

Films up until the early-1960s were generally black & white flicks populated by smokers wearing suits & ties, with lush orchestra accompaniment and a firm emplacement in the studio. Suddenly there were films like The Graduate with a very modern feel, popular music, and many shots on location. By the 1970s the "modern" look was firmly entrenched.

I'm not film expert and can't put my finger on what it is I'm seeing that swept in the modern look, and that's why I ask you. Was this just simply a reflection of sudden changes in our society? Was it a change in the artistic possibilities with the introduction of color? Or did a lot of the "old fogeys" writing & directing films retire? I could almost swear that the writing style at movie studios turned a full 180 during the 1965 to 1969 period.

Also has anyone written any academic papers about these changes? Does the change have a moniker? And was the change all that profound, or do 1970s films seem just as alien to you by today's standards?
posted by rolypolyman to Media & Arts (19 answers total)
The decline of the studio system, rise of TV and the broader acceptance of the "counterculture" all contributed. I'd suggest reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. It was pretty much written to answer your question.
posted by jrossi4r at 6:59 AM on June 29, 2005

This is a massive topic that a friend of mine wrote a dissertation about (in part). I can email you a 400-page PDF about it, if you want. (Seriously.) And the Biskind book indeed addresses this subject.
jrossi4r is correct, and I would add the influence of European "art cinema" as a major, major reason for the changes you perceive.

You should check out this book and this book for further explanation.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:08 AM on June 29, 2005

There is also a documentary that plays endlessly on Trio based on the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls book. It has the same title. If you have Trio, you can usually catch it on friday or saturday nights I think. Check their website. The documentary is excellent because they have interviews with EVERYBODY.
posted by spicynuts at 7:24 AM on June 29, 2005

I'd also, with a completely non-academic basis, throw in color as a big reason. Color didn't become the norm for film until the mid-60's (I think), but it gave directors a whole new palette (literally) to work with.
posted by mkultra at 7:28 AM on June 29, 2005

French New Wave cinema was an important influence on directors. I haven't seen a lot of New Wave stuff, but what I have seen looks much more modern than other stuff from the 50s and early 60s. New Wave directors pioneered the use of handheld cameras and the jump cut, which really changed the look of movies.
posted by teg at 7:30 AM on June 29, 2005

Dr. Wu -- I'll take you up on that PDF... I have updated my profile page to add the address. Thanks!
posted by rolypolyman at 8:17 AM on June 29, 2005

I don't exactly know. I'm no film scholar either, but I do love movies. I haven't watched many pre-70s American films for exactly the reasons you describe. It's like watching a horrible play, complete with bad sets, moony musical-ish optimism, and overacting with phrasing like, "Why Jim! I never thought you, of all people, could do such a thing!"

I finally forced myself to watch Rebel Without a Cause. I kept avoiding it because the idolization of James Dean and his ubiquitous presence on cheesy memorabilia completely turned me off. But I was pleasantly surprised. While the movie itself isn't all that great, I found Dean to be a really good actor. For me, he totally defied that 50s-60s glossy Hollywood thing. (I believe he studied drama at UCLA.) So perhaps the turn had something to do with him and others of his ilk who were disillusioned with their parents and their politics and decided to write/produce/act in a more "real" and "modern" way.
posted by crapulent at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2005

Dr. Wu, I wouldn't mind that PDF either, if its ok to ask?
posted by nile_red at 8:23 AM on June 29, 2005

mkultra, I must respectfully disagree. Color has been available for Hollywood filmmakers since the late 1890s (hand-coloring, tinting, toning). Technicolor was invented in the 1930s (I have a friend's PDF dissertation on that, too!) and so was nothing new by the 1960s. If anything, there was a trend toward desaturation of color by the 1960s, and certainly, heaven knows, in the 1970s.

crapulent, you are speaking, more or less, of Method Acting, which did indeed have a major impact on American film from the 1950s on (still a major force today). James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and, my favorite, Karl Malden were actors whose "realistic" style dug deep roots and flowered in the 1960s and '70s. The director Elia Kazan is also very important in this regard.

roloypolyman and nile_red: it's a 17MB file, so maybe I was a little hasty in saying I'd email it. (I should probably also get his permission, though I'm sure he wouldn't mind.) How about: send me an email and remind me that you'd like me to send this to you, and I'll get back to you pronto, I promise.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:33 AM on June 29, 2005

Two major reasons, in addition to the ones already mentioned:

--The continuing development of faster film and lighter cameras allowed more location shoots, which of course had a direct effect on the look and feel of films. (As teg suggests, the New Wave couldn't have happened without the handheld camera.) Location shooting also had the indirect effect of allowing directors to be more independent of the studios, since they were quite literally out of sight of the studio bosses.

--In the US, the weakening and ultimate abolishment of the Production Code, which had specifically forbidden explicit treatment of sex and violence. Compare a movie like From Here To Eternity, made when the Code was in full effect, to a film like The Graduate (made when the code was weakening)--and then compare them both to Midnight Cowboy, made after the code had been replaced with the modern rating system. You'll see big leaps forward in how explicit filmmakers could be in addressing sexuality. You'll notice similar shifts in the treatment of violence if you compare the violence in From Here To Eternety with a code-challenging film like Bonnie and Clyde, and then with a post-code film like The Wild Bunch.
posted by yankeefog at 8:36 AM on June 29, 2005

Dr. Wu- yes, clearly, color was around for a while, but didn't it become the "default" only in the 60's?
posted by mkultra at 8:42 AM on June 29, 2005

mkultra: Somewhere, I think I can find a year-by-year list of the percentage of Hollywood films made in B&W and in color, but it's gonna take me a while to dig it up. Anyone else have this handy? The figures are definitely out there.
As far as color becoming the default, it's a good question. My gut feeling is that it actually became the default (in the sense of more films being made in color) by the early 1950s, at the latest: the threat of television, in all its black-and-white non-glory, gave impetus to the studios to commit more fully to color. There were other factors, but TV is the one that got studio chiefs in a frenzy.

To add to yankeefog's reply, the Production Code was moribund by the early 1960s and officially dead by about 1967, so that's definitely a factor here, too.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:02 AM on June 29, 2005

I would second Teg's answer: the big shift was almost certainly due to the influence of the French New Wave directors, who admired naturalistic dialog as well as darker & more open-ended plots taken from the noir tradition. Directors like Scorsese were directly influenced by these films (like Clément's Plein Soleil, which I think was reissued with Scorsese added as an executive producer), which pretty much led to the big American auteur films of the late 60s through the 70s.
posted by bcwinters at 9:51 AM on June 29, 2005

The documentary is excellent because they have interviews with EVERYBODY.

Not so.

Director Kenneth Bowser:

"I went to all of the main people from the book. One example is Robert Altman who had been in another film I had made [Frank Capra's American Dream]. I approached him, we chatted for a while and I told him I was going to do a film on the 60’s and 70’s filmmakers. Then I asked if he would be interviewed. He said, sure no problem. Then I told him that it’s based on the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and there was silence next he said “That scumbag. Fuck him. I’m not going to do anything that’s going to make him another dime.” He then went off on a very angry rant. He was upset that anyone wanted to make the film.

"A friend of mine is in constant contact with Francis Coppola by email. I was sitting there when she emailed him to ask if he wanted to be interviewed. He wrote back “Absolutely not!” William Friedkin just wouldn’t talk to us at all."
posted by dobbs at 10:14 AM on June 29, 2005

Dr. Wu, I also would like that PDF
posted by cyphill at 10:24 AM on June 29, 2005

Hmmm...when I think about the influence of the switch to color, I tend to think more of movies like The Red Shoes (1948) or Imitation of Life (1959). Raging Bull was, after all, in b&w.
posted by jrossi4r at 10:50 AM on June 29, 2005

The Decade under the influence documentary covers this pretty well, too, IMO.
posted by drobot at 12:23 PM on June 29, 2005

Dr. Wu, could you post it somewhere and let us download it?
posted by pracowity at 12:33 PM on June 29, 2005

I'd want to add another major factor: changes in the cinema audience. With the take-off of domestic TV ownership in the 1950s the over-30s increasingly choose to stay home to watch the (free-to-view, after all) box. This lead to two major strategies by the Hollywood majors (1) doing what TV couldn't in order to lure the oldsters back off their couches - eg colour, widescreeen, epics etc plus the relaxation of the censorship rules or (2) aiming more and more films at the audience who were still turning up loyally at the cinemas - the young. Don't forget this was the babyboom too and so there's lots of them. In fact teen-pics were pioneered by the B-pic houses like AIP (Corman etc - I was a Teenage Werewolf etc). By the mid60s the majors had realised that they needed to reach this audience and brought in a new generation of directors...many of who were young themselves and who had mainly been to the new "film schools" wherein they had been subjected to the influence of the European Art Cinema, new wave etc. Accompanying them were new, younger actors, writers etc.
posted by peterbl at 1:02 PM on June 29, 2005

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