New Hollywood Vs Mutant Cinema: The Flipside Of US Cinema, 1960s–80s

Joe Banks talks to the authors of a critical reappraisal of American filmmaking in the late twentieth century

Scottdoesntknow, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as the critical battlefield of music fandom is littered with the still twitching corpses of ‘classic albums you must hear before you die’, so too is cinema afflicted with the same tendency towards compiling ‘greatest films of all time’ lists. Of course, it’s only natural to want to call out brilliant movies and flag them for future generations – the big problem is when this leads to an oppressive orthodoxy, where not only are the same films continually lauded, but the way in which they’re interpreted also becomes set in stone.

A case in point is how American cinema from the late 60s into the 80s has become lionised as the zenith of western filmmaking, with the ‘New Hollywood’ wave of directors – Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, etc. – responsible for both Oscar magnets, such as The Godfather, American Graffiti and Taxi Driver, and blockbuster event movies, such as Jaws and Star Wars.

But as new book We Are The Mutants – The Battle For Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon argues, the dominance of this narrative tends to overshadow the importance of a rich seam of often independent films coming out of America at the same time, many of which have just as much – if not more – to say about the psychic mood of the US during this tumultuous period of its history.

We Are The Mutants is the work of Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso and Richard McKenna, the guys behind the online magazine of the same name which sifts through the cultural and pop ephemera of the Cold War era. It’s a series of smart essays that pairs films together – often contrasting studio hits with cult obscurities – and teases out unexpected resonances and thematic connections between them.

For example, it looks at why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is actually about the decline of traditional industry in America; why The Exorcist was a backlash against the Women’s Lib movement; and why sci-fi hippie homily Silent Running exposes the solipsism at the heart of the US counterculture. It also highlights an eclectic mix of fascinating but under-sung films, including John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park and Saul Bass’s Phase IV.

But most importantly, We Are The Mutants is simply a great collection of clever, opinionated and non-canonical writing about lots of cool movies – and there can never be enough of that.

I rounded up the Mutants and asked them some questions…

What made you want to write this book?

Kelly Roberts: I think the stuff we’ve written on the We Are the Mutants site over the last five or six years developed into something like a ‘unified theory’ of the time period we’re most interested in, the late 60s through the late 80s. We were constantly riffing on each other, quoting each other, and at times shamelessly stealing from each other. A book seemed like the natural next step.

Richard McKenna: As well as the opportunity for more shameless stealing, it was also a good pretext for watching loads of bad films as ‘research’.

Michael Grasso: And some pretty good films, for whatever that’s worth! I’m sort of obsessed with politics and pop culture in the ‘long 70s’. The social and political possibilities and foreclosed futures that multiplied over those dozen-or-so years are reflected in culture both high and low, but I think we all agree that these alternate histories emerge most vividly in the films in and about America from that period.

Where does the title of your book (and site) come from and what’s its relevance?

KR: It comes from a line of graffiti seen at Berkeley in the early 70s: “The bomb has already dropped, and we are the mutants.” The bomb is the atomic bomb, of course, and the era we’re writing about was an age of atomic anxiety. Well into the 80s, Americans (myself included) were terrified that the Russians were going to nuke us into oblivion. I just love the idea that the real ‘bomb’ wasn’t a physical thing, but the mental and moral violence created by explosive events – the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Manson murders, the Kent State murders – which we were irrevocably changed (or mutated) by. We survived, but we weren’t the same. What we try to do in the book is tell the story of this transformation through a diverse selection of films that were made and released as this change was happening.

In the book’s preface, you say “movies are how Americans choose to see the world”. Can you expand on this statement?

KR: I know plenty of Americans who aren’t really into books or music. But I don’t know one who doesn’t like movies and doesn’t like to talk about movies. We’re obsessed with images and spectacle. The Boomers may have been the first ‘film generation’, but we’re all film generations, really. I skipped school to wait in line for the first showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future. These films were events. And audiences now will still line up for Avatar: The Way of Water and the newest MCU entry. Hollywood is about money and will always be about money, but at the same time movies are uniquely our culture and language, good and bad.

Do genre movies have more to tell us about what’s really happening in the world compared to films which are self-consciously ‘socially aware’?

RM: I think a lack of self-conscious awareness, or even of interest, sometimes lets the aspirations and fears simmering beneath the surface of the zeitgeist seep through in ways they wouldn’t in non-genre movies. With genre movies, you get an interesting thermometer of this kind of cultural background static.

MG: This is when critics and scholars were starting to talk about the ‘death of the author’, but these films can’t help but reflect what was happening politically and socially. I wonder if post-war America was only able to think about politics through genre media during this period of profound consumerism and conformity (all of those 50s b-movies about atomic mutant monsters, for example). I would give Rod Serling a lot of credit for trying to sneak left-leaning social realist theatre, disguised as sci-fi, into the living rooms of atomic age America with The Twilight Zone. But the retreat into genre (and nostalgia) rendered some young filmmakers unable to grapple with actual politics through the art they created.

We examine plenty of notable exceptions to this rule, from Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park to Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA. But ultimately, Hollywood chews up overt politics and spits it back out as palatable, harmless ‘rebellion’. Star Wars went from a story about plucky rebels taking on an evil technocratic empire – with Lucas clearly making a Vietnam parallel – to a lucrative movie franchise ‘patriotic’ enough for Ronald Reagan to name his boondoggle laser weapons system after a few years later.

KR: Genre filmmakers back then didn’t have the time or money to get precious about tracking shots and the meaning of life, but those disadvantages often made their work more spontaneous and honest and visceral – consciously or not. That doesn’t apply to a lot of genre films today, many of which are incredibly indulgent and self-important. I’m looking at you, ‘elevated horror’.

Is the New Hollywood narrative overstated in terms of its importance to American cinema?

KR: The standard New Hollywood narrative – that a handful of visionary outlaws took over Hollywood and gave us the last and best ‘golden age’ of American film – is a myth. First, there were hundreds of filmmakers who contributed to the overall shift in mood and technique between the late 60s and the early 80s. We don’t tend to think of, say, John Carpenter and George A. Romero as part of this movement, but they’re just as influential as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, if not more so. Second, the only reason films like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy got made is because there was an audience that paid to see them. When the audience shifted in the post-Star Wars Reagan years, New Hollywood withered away. Third, there are plenty of terrible New Hollywood films, and plenty of brilliant films made during the 80s (and beyond).

MG: Hollywood has gone through cyclical periods of radical change, economically and structurally, for as long as there’s been a Hollywood. It’s part of the American tradition of ‘creative destruction’. You really can’t overstate the influence of the French New Wave and post-war Japanese cinema on the young, aspiring American film buffs who became directors in the late 60s. But the conventional wisdom (thanks to the emerging film critic industry!) ended up canonising many of those directors instead of recognizing that they were destined to become the ‘new boss’ all along. Sure, William Friedkin made the abstruse and artsy Sorcerer, but he also made the gross-out thrill ride and box office smash The Exorcist. If anything, this was the genius of those ‘easy riders and raging bulls’: synthesizing the disparate pulls of commerce and art.

Mike, your take on The Exorcist doesn’t focus on the usual blasphemy/satanic panic angle, but on the misogyny at the heart of the film…

MG: In the book, I paired The Exorcist with another 1973 exploitation flick called Manson. Both films reflect male anxieties about the post-60s collapse of the patriarchal nuclear family. When we spend time with young Regan MacNeil and her mother Chris in the first third of The Exorcist, they’re happy, content, and privileged as a mother-daughter dyad. But Friedkin and William Peter Blatty telegraph how ‘wrong’ this ‘broken’ home is. Regan’s anger, blasphemy, and possession begin bubbling up immediately after Regan’s absent and estranged father can’t be reached for a birthday call. She goes from wanting her actual Daddy to allowing the profane and violent demon Pazuzu into her body. And then in Manson, ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Nancy Pitman profess that the American family is a corrupt institution while the narrator smugly notes that “the girls worked slavishly for [Manson] doing the same menial chores they hated at home.” Both films, made by men, express that same fear of and disgust for women who have escaped the strictures of the ‘traditional’ American family.

Kelly, your comparison between Harlan County, USA and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as films about class struggle and industrial decline is fascinating…

KR: Thank you! I’m definitely not the first person to write about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as an allegory about the violence of capitalism, but I think putting it next to Harlan County, USA, a brilliant documentary about a coal strike and the actual violence of capitalism, makes for a pretty powerful statement. Both films were made during the 1973 energy crisis and both films are about energy: how we get it and waste it, and who we sacrifice to keep it flowing.

The youngsters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are hippie types, and they’re pitted against the cannibalistic Sawyer family, former slaughterhouse workers degraded and replaced by more ‘efficient’ modern technology. In Harlan County, USA, directed by then 27-year-old Barbara Kopple, it’s the coal miners who are degraded and dehumanised, forced to live in abysmal conditions and squeezed by the Company. Tobe Hooper’s horror landmark has the savage proletariat rise up and literally butcher and eat the entitled bourgeoisie – which is what the counterculture was, after all. In Kentucky’s Harlan County, just as a violent uprising seems imminent, the miners choose solidarity, family, and a new union contract. In both films, it’s this generational struggle that endlessly repeats.

Richard, why do you dislike Poltergeist so much? I thought it was a classic 80s frightener…

RM: So did I! I’d been looking forward to watching it for the first time in decades, but almost as soon as it started, this irritation began building up inside me – it felt like going to some chain restaurant where harried, underpaid staff come at you with the trite, scripted bullshit they’re obliged to repeat. The whole thing, all the bullishness and ostentatious ‘quality’, the sensation of being herded through an experience – it felt like the embodiment of things I’d (wrongly) presumed Poltergeist implicitly stood against. It just felt deeply conformist, which is doubly annoying given the gifts of the people who made it. I write about Silent Running in the book too, and though there’s plenty that irks me about that film as an adult, I think I now know what is actually worth loving about it. With Poltergeist, I just felt as if I’d been conned and patronised, and my piece in the book is an attempt to understand why.

We Are The Mutants – The Battle For Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon is published by Repeater Books. We Are The Mutants can be found at

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