With the recent critical success of American Hustle and with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger joining forces for a new HBO pilot set in 1970s New York, the decade of Disco seems to be an increasingly popular setting in film recently. Platform Online takes a look back at the decade to highlight some old classics and shine a spotlight on some hidden gems.
10. Still Life (1974, Sohrab Shahid Saless)
Not one to watch on a first date, that’s for sure, Still Life is a slow, minimalist and low budget Iranian film following the slow, minimalist life of Mohamad Sardari. He has worked diligently at a railway crossing station for thirty years, lowering and raising the crossing guard as trains from the outside world pass by. The crossing acts as Mohamad’s only link to the rest of the world – he spends the rest of his time at home with his wife doing, well, not a whole lot of anything.
Still Life works as a subtle, powerful study of the disposability of an individual in an industrial age who has known nothing but his job and who simply does not know what to do when it is taken away from him. It stabs you in the heart with its bleak honesty.
Favourite Bit: The crushing ending: Mohamad, just before leaving his home for good, stops to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror for the first time in the film. His life has passed by and Mohamad has grown very old indeed.
Did You Know? This currently has no DVD release of any kind.
09. The Chess Players (1977, Satyajit Ray)
‘Yes, I’m not a poetry man. Many soldiers are. But I’m curious to know what it sounds like. I rather like the sound of Hindustani.’
Satyajit Ray’s delightful political satire on the obliviousness of the ruling class sees two rich, Indian noblemen (Mir and Mirza) while away their spare time by playing chess; ignoring their wives and the historic changes happening to their country. The latter is played out in a chess game of sorts between General Outram (Richard Attenborough) and Wazed Ali Shah, ruler of one of the last independent kingdoms in India.
Ray consummately balances the humour of one situation with the nation-changing gravity of the other. One of the master’s more underrated films.
Favourite Bit: Mirza seeks some husband-and-wife time in between one of his games.
Did You Know? A talented graphic artist, Ray designed numerous book jackets and magazine covers. He also designed two typefaces.
08. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
‘That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”
Woody Allen’s take on relationships still feels fresh even now. Whether or not you’d tolerate him in real life, Alvy Singer – played by Woody Allen playing himself – is one of the genre’s most watchable characters. Allen worked best when he had a muse like Keaton (sorry, Miss Johansson) and Annie Hall is a tapestry of funny standalone scenes and interesting experimental flourishes, but with just the right amount of cynicism to stop it ever becoming saccharine.
Favourite Bit: Alvy Singer and Annie Hall’s final goodbye – Allen’s wonderful summation of relationships, all shot from inside a distant coffee shop. Or the short cameo from a relatively fresh-faced Christopher Walken.
Did You Know? In the scene where Alvy and Annie are at their psychiatrists, what appears to be a split screen scene is not and it was actually shot simultaneously on one set with an adjoining wall.
07. The Devils (1971, Ken Russell)
‘Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.’
The Devils is a thoroughly disgusting, dirty, claustrophobic tale of religious fanaticism and political corruption in which father Urbain Grandier, played by the electric Oliver Reed, must face the wrath of the church after he is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun, played by the even more electric Vanessa Redgrave.
You may not enjoy or even like The Devils, but it is impossible not to respect the sheer audacity of it all. How the film world could do with another Ken Russell.
Favourite Bit: Grandier’s trial is farce and horror in equal measure.
Did You Know? The role of Sister Jeanne was originally offered to Glenda Jackson, who turned it down because she was tired of playing sexually neurotic leads in Ken Russell movies.
06. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones)
‘What…is your favourite colour?’
If you love this film as much as me, you’ve read that quote and have already played the rest of the scene out in your head. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of those enduring classics of the comedy genre that I have seen so often that at times it fails to make me laugh out loud anymore, yet is no less funny than when I first saw it. It is at once puerile and childish, but devilishly clever and sharp. One to watch when life seems to be getting too serious and complicated.
Favourite Bit: Sir Lancelot storms a castle to save a ‘princess’.
Did You Know? The famous depiction of galloping horses by using coconut shells came about from the purely practical reason that the production simply couldn’t afford real horses.
05. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.’
The obligatory entry for a masterpiece so evidently brilliant it almost feels enough to just state the title and move on. While gangster films like Goodfellas, good as they are, depreciate with repeated viewings, The Godfather has endured because it isn’t just about bad guys taking piano wire to each other’s throats. It is a family soap opera about loyalty, capitalism and the American Dream. The Godfather is so influential it even adds credence to the idea of films informing reality; real life mafias have actually picked up habits coined in the film, it can be hard to tell who did what first. The ‘70s is considered by many as a golden age in Hollywood. It’s hard to look past The Godfather as the greatest thing to come out of the system in that time.
Favourite Bit: The making of Michael in his killing of Sollozo and Captain McCluskey.
Did You Know? Marlon Brando did not memorise a lot of his lines and read from cue cards during most of the film.
04. Drunken Master (1978, Woo-ping Yuen)
With a string of Hollywood movies alongside people such as Chris Tucker – this isn’t to take away from perfectly enjoyable romps such as Rush Hour – it can be easy to forget that Jackie Chan has been in some seriously excellent films. Drunken Master sees a young, impertinent Jackie Chan learn a bizarre style of martial art that revolves around drinking as much alcohol as possible in order to beat up a very bad man. It isn’t Dostoevsky, admittedly, but it is delivered with a sort of charm that has never really found its way into Jackie Chan’s Western work.
However, in martial arts films, as important as a story can be for context, you come and stay for the fights and in Drunken Master they are nothing short of astounding. Chan and co deliver sequences that put all the shaky cam nonsense of today to shame. It is breathtaking stuff.
Favourite Bit: Jackie’s less than conventional training with instructor Sam Seed.
Did You Know? Jackie Chan nearly lost an eye when Hwang Jig Lee kicked him in the head during the final fight scene.
03. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
‘You’re dumber than you think I think you are.’
In an ideal world, every budding screenwriter would be forced to sit down and watch Chinatown on loop for a week. Roman Polanski’s scintillating neo-noir, written from the pen of Robert Towne, lacks the tautness of its ‘40s/’50s brethren but is easily the equal to the genre’s biggest hitters, with a script so slick you could close your eyes and be in for a treat even before factoring in the gorgeous cinematography. It boasts a labyrinthine plot populated by subverted characters: Jack Nicholson’s smart alec PI Jake Gittes doesn’t really know all the answers, the ‘femme fatale’ is arguably the only selfless person in the movie, and the baddie is far darker than anyone was ready for. It also has lovely instances of low-fi detective work, such as Gittes determining when a car leaves somewhere by letting it run over his watch.
Oh, and forget One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining, Jack Nicholson never bettered this performance.
Favourite Bit: That painful last line.
Did You Know? The scene where Roman Polanski slits Jack Nicholson’s nose was extremely complex to film, and the two men involved got so tired of explaining how it was done (by using a specially-constructed knife with a short hinge that would be safe as long as it was handled VERY carefully) that they began to claim Nicholson’s nose was actually cut.
02. Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)
‘And I can’t wait to see this dream in which I’ll be a child again and feel happy again because everything will be still ahead, everything will be possible.’
Sometimes you watch a film that overwhelms you so much that it feels almost impossible to articulate why or how. Tarkovsky’s most challenging creation is perhaps the clearest example of this type of filmmaking. It is a film inspired by the life of Andrei Tarkovsky. The Russian presents us fragments of his life in a non-linear fashion along with film reels that reflect not only his deepest thoughts and feelings, but of Russian national identity as well. It is the movie equivalent of stream of consciousness writing.
Mirror is challenging. Tarkovsky asks an awful lot of the viewer. He breaks down time barriers and moves between scenes with seemingly no logical sequence; and the scenes that are there are of small, insignificant moments, using actors to play multiple roles without any signposting. It is essentially plotless, but Tarkovsky’s earnestness and skill stops the project from becoming self-indulgent or pretentious. It is a nightmare to try and ‘sell’ Mirror, a film that quite frankly defies description. It’s possibly the most beautiful film I have ever seen (not just visually, either), and despite not fully understanding everything in it, it is an experience that moves me deeply with every viewing.
Favourite Bit: A tracking sequence of a family’s shack set ablaze.
Did You Know? Tarkovsky was initially set on the title, A White, White Day before settling for Mirror, or Zerkalo as it is known in Russia.
01. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Victor Erice)
‘Why did he kill the girl, and why did they kill him after that?’
Victor Erice doesn’t tend to make a lot of films; in fact, his output makes Terrence Malick seem like some sort of prolific filmmaking juggernaut. But, when he does, he tends to knock it out of the park. His debut, Spirit of the Beehive (inspiration for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), is not only one of the crowning jewels of its decade, but one of world cinema’s most outstanding achievements. It is at once a very subtle (and brave) condemnation of Franco’s post-Civil War Spain, but at its surface it is a tale of children’s inevitable loss of innocence that transcends time, allowing one to identify bits of their own childhood experience regardless of its setting.
At the heart of this is Ana Torrent who I believe delivers the single finest child acting performance in history, playing a young girl exposed to Frankenstein – ergo death – for the first time. It would probably be at the number one spot if only for Torrent’s performance, but the sumptuous visuals and quiet, wistful tone give Spirit of the Beehive a remarkable, unequalled atmosphere.
Favourite Bit: Ana and Isabel practise shaving in the bathroom.
Did You Know? A fact that makes me feel guilty for the two working eyes I have: cinematographer Luis Cuadrado was going blind at the time this film was made.