Recently, Cinecultist conducted a brief IMversation with film historian and blogger, Ron Hogan to discuss his new book about '70s cinema, The Stewardess Is Flying The Plane! Quite the compendium of themes, stills and production details from that much lauded decade of American moviemaking, Hogan's book is a great resource for people with both a passing interest and a deep love for the era. Here we discuss the joys of movie research, Karen Black and why film blogging won't be overtaking tradition film criticism. Not yet, anyway.
cc: Maybe we should start with what led you to want to write a book like this, particularly about the '70s. Hasn’t American cinema of the '70s got enough mystique as it is?
rh: Well, it has mystique, but very few people have actually done anything to explore that mystique. And when they do, they usually tackle a very small portion of the movie scene, whether it's Peter Biskind's treatment of a handful of "maverick" directors or recent documentaries that focus strictly on blaxplotiation or indie film. I really wanted to write about the WHOLE spectrum of what was going on in Hollywood during that decade--not just what the people who were setting the new pace were doing, but what the people who were following in their wake did.
cc: That's a pretty ambitious undertaking to start out with. Did you ever feel daunted by the scope of your project?
rh: Not really, but that might have something to do with the fact that my editor and I came up with the book's outline and most of the movie list with the help of a steady supply of vodka martinis. It's amazing how big a project you're willing to take on when you feel no pain! And then, after that, well, the research phase basically entailed watching a ton of movies. Which I'd probably do anyway, given my druthers, so if I can get somebody to PAY me to do it, I'm all set!
cc: But you must of done quite a bit of reading as well, since you seem so well versed in the history of the era, as well as the individuals films and their productions. Are their any particular other historians of the era that you found helpful or inspiring? Or frustrating?
rh: Oh, sure, there was definitely a lot of reading, and listening to the commentary tracks on DVDs. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but David Frum's How We Got Hereis a pretty good start on the subject of the 1970s as the fulfillment of the '60s revolution.
cc: Is there a movie that you rediscovered while doing this project that you'd forgotten about but really think holds up? Also, maybe a movie that you think is completely over rated as a '70s classic?
rh: That second question's a lot easier: I don't get Last Tango In Paris, although I'm willing to concede that may simply be a matter of what was shocking for the early '70s being fairly conventional by today's standards. Another, more blatant example is Don’t Look Now, which I consider to be a perfect example of why art-film directors shouldn't do drive-in movies. But for the first question... I'm not so sure that there were movies that I rediscovered, but there were plenty of films that I discovered for the first time. Like Space Is The Place, an absolutely mind blowing film starring jazz musician Sun Ra.
cc: I have to say I find Last Tango over rated as well. Butter in a sex scene? Is this supposed to be hot?
What about '70s stars, I was struck by seeing so many familiar faces only younger in the pictures from your book...A least favorite? Anyone you think really hasn't aged well or fulfilled the promise of their early work?
rh: Well, I wouldn't presume to pick anybody who screwed up their career, but there are SOME actors who for whatever reasons weren't able to follow through on the promise of their '70s career: my cover girl, Karen Black, being a prime example. In her case, that might just be the result of Hollywood's fetishization of young women. And there should be more Jim Kelly action films than there are, dammit. Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way, Enter The Dragon...there was more to be done there, I'm sure of it. (Oh, I know he DID more, but I find his drop-off in the early '80s totally uncalled for. There's no reason he shouldn't have had the kind of longevity Chuck Norris has had.)
cc: My familiarity with your writing before seeing the book was obviously from Beatrice.com, which is about the literary scene, but I know you call yourself a film historian. How did you get into that niche and do you find it at all hard to reconcile your interest in books with movies?
rh: My original academic training was in film studies, and I have a master's. I got into the book world--well, I've always been a reader, but I specifically got involved with the book scene when I went to work in a bookstore after grad school. That and freelance writing went hand in hand, eventually I became a book review editor for Amazon, and certainly Beatrice has always been a good outlet for me to write about books and writers... But I don't see anything to reconcile, really. I like books, I like movies, and I've spent enough time delving into each field to (hopefully) be able to sound off on them and appear to know what I'm talking about. I could do it with comic books, too. But I know my limitations!
cc: I guess for me, sometimes I find my English major background exponentially geeking out my Film Studies stuff -- getting into issues of adaptation and literary theory and then you start throwing around the Bakhtin and it all goes pear shaped. But seriously, I think lots of people are surprised when someone has strong interests in more than one area and can carry on complex discussions in them all. So I guess good for you, you smartie pants.
rh: *blush* Oh, thanks -- and as it happens, this book is miles apart from the sort of stuff I was writing in film school, which was all about biopics as a manifestation of cultural canon formation... *grin*
cc: And as for the ultimate geek activity: Any thoughts on the influence of blogging on film criticism? Is every film blogger trying to be the next Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott? Or Peter Bogdanovich even?
rh: Hmmm. I'm sure some of them are--we used to joke about that in grad school, actually, about how hard it would be if we seriously thought about trying to get film critic gigs, because those really do seem like positions that most critics leave only when they're taken out on a stretcher... I don't know that I see anybody trying to be a historian in the Bogdanovich mold, necessarily, but it wouldn't surprise me if a couple bloggers have David Thomson or Greil Marcus as role models. As for the influence of blogs on criticism... I don't know what it's like in the film crit world, but my experience writing about literary criticism is that the mainstream critics do know about the more prominent blogs, and some of them do seriously consider what we say. More, though, seem to think that it's cute that the kids are acting like grownups.
cc: I'm not sure if I have anything else. I think the book looks great. It's the kind of thing you should have open while adding to your Netflix queue just to spice up the average DVD watching experience. Throw in a few copies of Airport or Harold and Maude or The Brood (because I love David Cronenberg) into the mix of all those Arrested Development dvds.
rh: Absolutely! I would love it if people keep cracking this book open in their living rooms, trying to figure out what they haven't seen in thirty years -- or EVER, if they're our age -- and should add to their queues. I think that's a sign that a film book has really done its job... when it makes you want to see the films it talks about.
cc: Me too. More eclectic movie watching the better.Posted by karen at December 7, 2005 9:01 AM