1970s Filmmaking Left a Rebellious Legacy. A UMD Class Explains How.
By Liam Farrell
“Bonnie and Clyde” photo by PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo; “Killer of Sheep” photo by Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo; “Saturday Night Fever” photo by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo; “Klute” photo by Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo; “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” photo by TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
From high-waisted jeans to fears of inflation and challenges to democracy, the legacy of the 1970s has come back around 50 years later. And from the past’s long gas lines and Watergate scandal to the present’s COVID-19 supply shortages and Capitol riot, Saverio Giovacchini, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, sees an opportunity today for students to look how history is rhyming.
In his class this semester, “The Baddest Decade: The 1970s in American Film and American History,” Giovacchini delves into that decade’s landmark films to explore how an era’s anxieties get filtered through its culture, particularly as the old guard of Hollywood’s studio system temporarily lost its grip to more rebellious auteurs.
“You had crazy stuff coming out,” he says. “The 1970s was the cinema of students.”
Here are five classic films Giovacchini suggests for your own “bad” movie night, including one perfect for Halloween.
“Bonnie and Clyde”
Although released in 1967, this film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presaged what was to come, with not only its violence and overt sexual themes but also its use of antiheroes. The film’s aura of disillusionment, Giovacchini said, as well as protagonists who are ultimately unsuccessful, rang true on college campuses suffused with radical politics and nonconformity.
“They are basically outliers,” he says. “(And) our country is not as a sure thing as we thought it was.”
“Killer of Sheep”
Giovacchini uses this 1978 movie to explore the “L.A. Rebellion,” a movement of young Black filmmakers who “wanted to talk about the Black working class and their everyday life.” This film from director and writer Charles Burnett is set in the Watts section of Los Angeles and follows a slaughterhouse worker. The so-called “Blaxploitation” movies such as 1971’s “Shaft” and 1972’s “Superfly” also explored Black life, but in a more extravagant and exaggerated way.
“Saturday Night Fever”
Not everything was gloomy in the 1970s, and the John Travolta vehicle “Saturday Night Fever”—as well as its classic Bee Gees soundtrack—put the spotlight on the cultural importance of disco. “Social hierarchies were overturned” in those clubs, Giovacchini said, particularly in giving a stage for the burgeoning gay rights movement.
Jane Fonda is at the center of this 1971 thriller as a model and call girl drawn into the investigation of a missing businessman. The claustrophobic filmmaking spoke to the decade’s paranoia over surveillance and foreshadowed scandals over government spying.
“It’s a woman trying to regain freedom from being watched,” Giovacchini says. “It’s all about privacy.”
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
Horror movies often hide allegories in their blood and gore, and the 1974 debut of Leatherface and his cannibal family was a way to draw on the conflict between blue-collar workers in declining industries (in this case, a shuttered slaughterhouse) and college students seemingly destined for white-collar prosperity.
“This movie is an interesting connection between the economic disarray that we were experiencing as a nation and the sort of increasing suspicion and division within American society,” Giovacchini said. “A bunch of people who used to work in a factory are hating these college kids who on their way to a life that for them is no longer viable.”
Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.
Faculty, staff and students receive the daily Maryland Today enewsletter. To be added to the subscription list, sign up here:Subscribe