"Very '70s in the '90s"
The age of embarrassment boogies back
by Marshall Fine
Gannett News Service
The feathered flip of a shag hairstyle.
The artificial sheen of a polyester ensemble.
The repetitive insistence of a disco beat.
The '70s revival, already in full swing, officially has made it into the
mainstream by rearing its helmet-haired head in Hollywood.
Everywhere else, the '70s revival -- and nostalgia for all things disco,
punk and in-between -- has been raging for several years. Now Hollywood has
finally caught up with the crest of the wave.
The evidence lies in the recent release of such films as Boogie Nights
(about the porno industry in the late '70s), The Ice Storm (wife-swapping
and Watergate) and, earlier this year, Donnie Brasco (Mafia chic).
This year also saw the rerelease of two epochal Hollywood films from the
1970s: The Godfather and Star Wars. Still to come: Jackie Brown, a Quentin
Tarantino revision of an Elmore Leonard novel, starring '70s blaxploitation
icon Pam Grier.
Can Fonzi - The Movie be far behind?
"Hollywood studios are the last people to know about these things," says Jim
Cullen, a Bronxville, N.T., resident who lectures on popular culture at
Harvard University. "I was teaching about the '70s in 1990."
Adds Michael Musto, nightlife columnist for the Village Voice, "The '70s
revival has been going on in clubs nonstop for the last 10 years."
The music and fashions of the '70s already are everywhere. Built-up soles
that recall platform shoes can be seen in shoestore windows. Bell-bottoms
are ringing back in -- and fashion shows fairly scream with other echoes of
'70s style. The famed Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress is sold out.
Meanwhile, Bart Simpson has strutted through Springfield to the strains of
"Staying Alive." Groundskeepers at Yankee Stadium sweep the infield and
dance to the Village People's "YMCA."
Other music of the era shows up as the theme songs of numerous commercials:
from Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" (advertiser Burger King) to "Fire" by
the Ohio Players (in Intel ads). Even those unhunky strippers in The Full
Monty are disrobing to the strains of Donna Summer's "Hot Love."
"And grunge," Cullen notes, "was the first compelling evidence of the punk
revival. The first place you see these things is in popular music."
Yes, Hollywood spoofed the '70s with The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel.
But the recent films are the first to examine the culture of the period and
its implications about life today.
"You could say that just about every year in the 1970s was a transitional
year," says James Schamus, producer and screenwriter of The Ice Storm, set
in 1973. "But 1973 was particularly so -- it was all just flux. It was not
"The one word that captured the essence of the period for us was
embarrassment. Not just the hair and the clothes and the interior design --
it was more profound than that. And it's not shame. It had to do with
authority and unveiling and nakedness. Embarrassment is a little more
The sexual revolution of the '70s looks pretty distant -- and, to some,
Utopian, in the age of AIDS. But, to filmmaker Ang Lee, the changing
politics of sex and behavior reflected something larger about the way
Americans dealt with the new-found freedoms of the period.
"It was the 'me' generation," he says. "People wondered, 'How do I squeeze
all of life's juice?' The social atmosphere was liberating -- and yet there
was a certain clumsiness. You see how uncomfortable people are with that
lack of limits. Something doesn't quite work."
The opposite of embarrassment formed the root of ideas behind Boogie Nights,
says Paul Thomas Anderson, the 27-year-old who wrote and directed the film.
"What some people were trying to do with porno was to mesh morality with
freedom," says Anderson, who was 7 in 1977, the year his film's story
begins. "The arguments for porno were harder to stand on because it was all
such crap artistically. But then, there's a much bigger political scale to
it now than where we were in the '70s. We're supposedly smarter now."
Part of the '70s, of course, was nostalgia for the '50s, with films such as
American Graffiti, and its TV offshoot, Happy Days. The difference between
nostalgia then and now? What came between: the 1960s.
"There is this chasm that separates the '50s and the '70s that doesn't
separate the '70s and the '90s," Cullen says. "Part of the fascination in
the '70s with the '50s was this lost world: of Sha Na Na and Grease and
HAPPY DAYS. And that was because you had the 1960s in between. But, when
you watch the '70s of The Ice Storm today, it's not a lost world -- you're
looking at our world."
What's so special about that two-decade gap that seems to automatically
yield nostalgia for what happened 20 years earlier?
"That seems to be the amount of time that has to elapse before you
appreciate what was good about an era," Musto says. "In the '70s, everything
was hedonist and wild -- and people were nostalgic for Leave It To Beaver.
Now we want to look back on a wilder time. Still, people tend to sugarcoat
things in their minds. The '50s revival didn't celebrate McCarthyism or the
hidden dysfunction of a lot of families."
Cullen points out that nostalgia for the 1920s created a revival in the
1950s -- and, during the 1920s, people celebrated life in the 1890s.
"Each decade has its own contours," he says. "In the '60s, for example,
there was little nostalgia for anything, because the thinking was predicated
on rejecting the past all together."
Why is Hollywood always the last to jump on the bandwagon? No one in
Hollywood wants to risk being wrong about what trends the public wants to
tap into. Making movies costs a lot of money and mistakes are expensive. By
the time they get a movie into production and into theaters, three years can
elapse, enough time for a cutting-edge trend to become an accepted part of
That also means it will be a while before we see Hollywood movies that
celebrate nostalgia for the 1980s. Even as we race toward the millennium,
the revival of the Reagan era already is underway.
"The '80s revival has already started in clubs," Musto says. "The trends in
the clubs are five years ahead of everything else. Clubs are playing '80s'
new wave: Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and all those cartoony rock stars from
that period. But it will take Hollywood another decade to find out."
- Gannett News Service, 11/19/97.
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