The Watcher - Golden oldies

Decade delights, Chicago disappoints

A certain monolithic film studio (which I won't name) boasts on its website its leadership in the new "Golden Age" for Hollywood.

The claim comes off as odd, and outlandish, because no such new Golden Age seems apparent. Sure, Hollywood's rediscovered the allure of glitzy old-school musicals (like Chicago and Moulin Rouge) but in terms of sheer groundbreaking cinema, these are not the new halcyon days.

A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary from the Independent Film Channel, dissects the era that might be called Hollywood's last true Golden Age, the turbulent 1970s. Filmmakers Ted Demme and Richard Lagravenese offer a solemn, almost always glowing but nonetheless fascinating look at how various forces from the late '60s (the fall of the studio system, the influence of European filmmakers) led to a blossoming of the moviemaking craft in the early '70s.

Interviews with a stellar assortment of directors and actors follow, including Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, Ellen Burstyn and Sissy Spacek. But Pam Grier sums up the documentary's central thesis best: "The '70s were the first time we could celebrate the freedoms won from the '50s and '60s in our art."

Audiences that once craved lavishly artificial films, such as the dud Hello, Dolly! that opens Decade, developed a taste for more reality, movies that reflected changing social mores and the zeitgeist of uncertainty. Easy Rider, of course, gets credited as the paradigm shifter and the first major screen presence of the new youth movement, but the documentary also riffs on movies like Midnight Cowboy, Harold and Maude and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Suddenly Hollywood became enamored with the margin dwellers — from mental patients (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) to disaffected teens (The Last Picture Show).

The fad for realism eventually passed, and Decade ends on a somewhat bitter note. One critic observes how the "bread and circuses" approach of films like Star Wars and Jaws led to the rise of the blockbuster, and laments that the art of storytelling ultimately suffered.

Though Decade had a limited theatrical release last spring, the version IFC is showing this week includes an hour-and-a-half of "new" footage.

A Decade Under the Influence airs in three parts on IFC. 8 p.m. Aug. 20-23.

I'll admit after sitting through the three-hour Decade Under the Influence, I felt guilty for falling so completely for __Chicago. The year's best-picture winner, just released on DVD, harkens back to Hollywood's first Golden Age, an era of pure visual appeal and absolute escapism.

Which is fine if it works, and Chicago certainly does. Renee Zellweger, who always annoyed the pants off me before this movie, shines as the film's anti-heroine, a vicious little Material Girl who runs laps around essentially all her co-stars. Poor Richard Gere must've required hourly shots of Viagra and Vivarin just to keep up.

Sadly the new Chicago DVD comes with surprisingly few extras. Yes there's the deleted musical number "Class," but one look at this dreary duet with Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones and it's clear why it didn't make the film's final cut. There's also a droll little behind-the-scenes special and commentary from director Rob Marshall. Yet the DVD leaves us wanting more, like the Latifah-Zeta-Jones duet "I Move On" from their Academy Awards performance or commentaries from the stars themselves.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.__