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What New Hollywood Can Teach New Media

If the history of American cinema were trapped in a burning building, we’d definitely want to save New Hollywood first. No other generation of films has told such daring, powerful stories that spoke directly to the audiences of the time while remaining timeless classics.

Photo: Mary Ellen Mark

The "American" New Wave

The films of the so-called American New Wave are still as fresh, provocative and beloved as ever. You see, the late 1960’s through 1980 was an era when young directors, writers, actors and producers took chances, because everything that had been done before stopped working. The result was arguably the greatest time for artists, actors and storytellers in American cinema – and the filmmakers were bold enough to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Similar to this New Hollywood era, we’re currently living in a time of incredible social and technological change. This has led to the birth of a new media — you know, the new media we consume and create every day on our phones, tablets and old-fashioned-but-now-extremely-high-quality-yet-affordable video cameras. So if you think today’s Hollywood is getting kind of old and stale again, this begs the question: shouldn’t new media be the new “New Hollywood?”

What led to New Hollywood?

The Hay's Code ... A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures

Let’s look at what led to New Hollywood in the first place. By the late 1960’s, Old Hollywood faced low box office attendance and greater competition from TV. This paved the way for directors and actors willing to take risks with producers and financiers willing to back them. Lighter cameras and equipment also meant productions weren’t trapped on studio sound stages. Most important of all? The ratings system replaced the outdated production code of straight-up censorship, which had given strict guidelines on how films could portray subjects like sexuality, violence and crime (among others). So while you couldn’t necessarily get away with murder on-screen…well, scratch that, because morally ambiguous anti-heroes like Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle actually could now get away with murder.

Hey, this sounds like the French New Wave...

Of course, New Hollywood wasn’t as much a film movement as it was a great time period in American cinema. Although New Hollywood was certainly inspired by the French New Wave, there were no theories, philosophies or doctrines that drove the filmmakers. The American New Wave didn’t have the Cahiers du Cinema, but they did have critics like Pauline Kael who championed the artistry of American directors – and these directors, in turn, certainly viewed themselves as auteurs, visionary filmmakers with a personal style who believed that movies mattered. And on the plus side, not being a singular movement allowed for off-shoots like Blaxploitation and Underground Cinema, which gave voices to African-American directors like Gordon Parks and openly gay directors like John Waters.

"I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him."

– Pauline Kael

Sex, Drugs and Violence

But in that case, should we think of New Hollywood as a bunch of lucky film school grads in an R-rated candy store of sex, drugs and violence? Not exactly. Remember, New Hollywood was a period of great change in the film industry, and also in American society. This drove the filmmakers to tell stories that helped define the times. The sex in movies like “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy or “Coming Home” reflected the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and the messy reality of relationships and alternative lifestyles. When films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Super-Fly” or “Pink Flamingos” depicted drug use, it’s because real people were using drugs. The violence in films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Wild Bunch” or “Taxi Driver” offered a reflection of the Vietnam War, social unrest in the wake of turbulent protests and terrorism associated with radical politics. Even a so-called kid’s movie like “The Black Stallion” still dealt with adult themes like death and loss.

Way to go, New Hollywood

So what the f*%k happened since then?

You’ve probably noticed that movies aren’t telling many bold, visionary stories these days. But that’s not because there’s simply less talent in 2016 than there was in 1976. In fact, the number of artistic voices has only increased, growing more and more diverse. A lot of the more daring storytellers have turned to television, where places like HBO, AMC and Netflix offer an alternative to the censorship and formulaic narratives of the networks. But even television isn’t fully immune to the culture of reboots, comic books and franchises that dominate the film industry.

"I wish something on TV would trouble me. Then maybe I would watch it."

– John Waters

Where does that leave us?

Okay, so despite some similarities with New Hollywood, new media still has a long way to go. Some might argue that web audiences only want vlogger personalities, stupid pranks and cats. Of course, this doesn’t exactly explain why these same limited attention span viewers are binge-watching shows like “Transparent” and “House of Cards.” Think about it: YouTube’s only about ten years old, and its core viewers have been tweens and teens. This audience is getting older and needs more adult-oriented material. If you were a 12-year old watching viral videos in 2009, you’re now old enough to vote, serve in the armed forces, and drink beer in Canada. There are virtually no content restrictions online, but maybe the new obstacle is that we’ve taken for granted the idea that you can’t tell certain types of stories for the web.

Major changes aren’t just happening online, but on the streets. There’s war, civil rights protests and sexual revolutions happening all around us. And these all have an effect, whether we engage with or choose to ignore them. The Vietnam War had the draft lottery, which meant New Hollywood filmmakers kind of had to think about the consequences. Social media today has kept us connected to a lot of the ugly, disturbing and controversial realities of our time. But while we can expect YouTube videos centered around a trending meme or shiny new app, there hasn’t been as much new media content to reflect these other issues. Maybe social media’s ability to respond immediately and loudly has replaced the desire to tell stories that reflect what’s going on out there. But then again, maybe we just haven’t tried hard enough.

Photo: Jonathan Bachman

Movies couldn’t explicitly depict sex, drugs and violence until New Hollywood did. Television was all laugh tracks and procedurals until it wasn’t. And new media can take us beyond #racism and “LOL TRUMP AMIRIGHT” into a more complex portrayal of issues that need to be addressed. The most common criticism of every younger generation ever is that the kids are lazy and not truly involved. Today, there’s even a term that’s used specifically to target online and internet culture: slacktivism. New Hollywood proved that wasn’t true about the 60’s radicals and college kids. Why can’t YouTube do the same for millennials?

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