I’ve always felt that with documentaries, it’s difficult to chronicle the subject matter in a coherent fashion. Most documentaries that I’ve seen have agendas that are driven by the “documentarian” sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. “A Decade Under the Influence” is as coherent as it can be considering the subject matter. Director Ted Demme (Jonathan Demme’s nephew) explores the films and filmmakers of the 1970’s. It’s refreshing that there aren’t any off camera questions thrown out at the interviews, although there are certain parts where the interviewer and cameramen off camera at what the interviewees have to say. There is a great moment when William Friedkin talks about the first studio poster that was shown to him for “The Exorcist”, and how it was a white poster with a small girl’s hand holding a bloody crucifix, and the tag line was “For God sake help her!”, and Friedkin goes on to say how appalled he was at the imagery and the use of the word “God” on the poster, saying you can’t use God to market your film, and how it looked like a poster for a “shitty B-movie”. Another great moment is when Peter Bogdanovich talks about how he was struggling on how he was going to shoot “The Last Picture Show” and how he and the production team were considering painting the town gray. It wasn’t until Orson Welles told him, “Of course you’ll make it in black and white!” This film is filled with great moments like that.
At the time of the late 1960’s the Hollywood studio system was in disarray and essentially collapsing. Money wasn’t being made like it used to, and the films were out of touch with the radical changes in American society. The generational gape rufused to accept the American archetypes like John Wayne and Rock Hudson. The civil rights movement, Vietnam, Woodstock, and the assassination of our leaders all formed this explosive impregnation of the film industry. The artists that are interviewed were the groundbreaking men and women who pioneered the greatest era in film. Some of the interviewees are: Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Pam Grier, Peter Bogdanovich, Roy Scheider, Francis Ford Coppola, Bruce Dern, Julie Christie, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Paul Schader, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Dennis Hopper, and Roger Corman. The only people I believe the documentary is missing are Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson.
The best part about the film is that there aren’t any film historians, or third parties. All the people interviewed were the ones who garnished firsthand experience during this era. It’s so thrilling to hear how Dennis Hopper was giving a limited budget and a camera to go to Mardi Gras and shoot film there before the producers gave him and Fonda the green light for “Easy Rider”. Hopper talks about how he told his friends not shoot anything without his direction, and how every time he had his back turned they were shooting whatever they wanted. Hopper got so fed up, he took the camera and the film, and what was left of the money back to the producers and told them he was sorry, he didn’t know what he was thinking – there’s no way he could direct a movie. The producers were so impressed with the footage, and with Hopper going on irate tangents about how he wanted a “green light” and not a “yellow light” and screaming about the placement of chairs, that they knew he would be a great director. If it wasn’t for “Easy Rider” making hundreds of dollars on the pennies it cost to make, there wouldn’t have been such a loud and thunderous bang of GREAT films.
Most of these actors and filmmakers were all “Corman trained”, referring of course to Roger Corman. They were filmmaker who knew how to make films, and make them cheaply – that is exactly what the studios were looking for. All these young filmmakers felt that Hollywood was so out of touch with America, how the films lacked realism. These young filmmakers turned to foreign filmmakers like Goddard, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman. What they saw in those films were real. They saw real life though the language and cultural barriers of the films by those filmmakers. Those are the films and filmmakers that inspired them to make their films, make their films about society – essentially make films about whatever they wanted. They took cinema back – briefly.
There is one person who is noticeably missing from the documentary and that is Steven Spielberg. When people like Dennis Hopper and John Cassavettes were running wild making ultra personal films that resonated with their generation all the while making bucket loads of money in ticket sales, Spielberg came along and made “Jaws”, a film that appealed to the masses, and essentially crippled this movement in film and brought the studio system back into play.
The documentary isn’t just entertaining and interesting, it’s an enigma wrapped up in a riddle. It goes from Bruce Dern stroking his ego about his role in “Coming Home” and saying, “I am the fucking movie! They (Jane Fonda and Jon Voight) are just the backdrop, the love story”. Then Demme cuts to Jon Voight talking about Hal Ashby (the films director), and what a wonderful man he was – and Voight beings to become sentimental and cry. It’s so refreshing to hear the artist themselves talk about these films, and how much they meant to them as an artist, and how valuable they were to society. It’s great to hear Scorsese talk about “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” or Roy Scheider talking about how when he saw “The French Connection” in theaters, the audience was mainly all black, and applauded at Gene Hackman’s line, “You dumb ginny, don’t you know never to trust a nigger.” Scheider goes on the explain that: “They knew whitey was thinking that, and finally somebody made a movie where whitey actually says it!” What truly makes this a great, great documentary is that all the people interviewed are gushing with passion about what a remarkable era this was, not only in film, but in America.