A pop art spirituality was in the air in that bygone time and the seventies dad was able to recognize his role as an authority figure, honor its importance, then step back and let people do whatever the hell they wanted. That’s the ideal dad, for to get too involved in their petty antics is to become a “pal” to your kids, not a dad, a “What are you doing now, Caitlin?” Richard Dreyfus instead of a “leave the kid alone, he’s workin’ on somethin'” Roy Schieder. A seventies dad puts it all in a proper framework: he will be an artist of children, will sanction their madness with a color stamp and protect them from mom’s brittle censorship, if any. But he can be so lenient because for him there is a line that none shall cross, and when you are in his thrall you fear to cross it, but all other lines – you can cross the hell out of them. This is also true of course of great film directors: Huston, Peckinpah, Hawks…
They are all gone, but at least we can turn to Paul Thomas Anderson now, in this moment of crisis, wherein a slew of “indie” movies I shall not name have been dumped onto the screeners, I mean screens, and are all merely compendiums of drab cliche. Indie, you know, like kooky? Why don’t we workshop it through Sundance and then get some market research on the kind of color schemes kids today think of as indie and cool, that’s the pal in action. The problem with the “pal” father is he kills it all with his inability to stay truly flexible. He makes the moment boring just by being in it. The great seventies dad stays in it by staying out of it.
BOOGIE NIGHTS’ director Paul Thomas Anderson is an original, alhough he clearly has favorite directors whom he emulates to some degree; but he doesn’t steal scenes from them, or reference them in some post-Tarantino haze of ill-informed cinematic trivialogue, nay. He gives us the thrill of finding your second family, your band, your peeps.
My memory of seeing the first half of BOOGIE NIGHTS at the Beekman in NYC on its first run, the camera following the girl at the party under the water, to the tune of “Spill the Wine, dig that girl” by Eric Burdon; that was a peak cinematic moment, a moment when you realize you have been seduced into the dream of the screen. In that sense, and in the sense of his love for his actors, how he crams as many of them in as he can and lets them do little bits of business and if the scene goes three hours it goes three hours, he’s going to let his actors stretch out in their characters like lounge chairs, in that sense he reminds me of Nicholas Ray.
When I think of Nicholas Ray I must of course put on my snobby airs and think of Cahiers du Cinema, the Fifties, the Nicholas Ray section, with Eric Rohmer singing his rapturous love for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Godard proclaiming Ray “is cinema.” Because there is that same feeling of passion and rapture for the filmmaking process. The actors in each case – REBEL and BOOGIE, are clearly feeling “safe” in their director’s hands. It’s as if the actor has been wasting away in a cramped cubicle of corporate oppression, where every scene they do is edited down to the vowels, and is suddenly lifted out by an angel and brought to Ray and Anderson’s sunny backyard party of creative freedom. Dirk Diggler’s soul takes wing in that magical hot tub scene, and so does mine… and so, one imagines did Wahlberg’s, for he is marvelously uninhibited. I’m thinking of Rohmer’s rapturous description of Dean’s performance as watching a mangled butterfly coming out of its beaten-down coccoon. Truffaut writes that if you don’t like Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray then you don’t like cinema, and I would hasten to add Paul Thomas Anderson to that list. He may err on the side of showing off, but the love is there, that same love that transcends sex, family and all signifiers.
Anderson may or may not have been too young to be a dad when making BOOGIE NIGHTS but Reynolds–with his mix of old man gravitas and TV actor hair gel–nails it so soundly he disappears into the role the way the seventies dad used to disappear from your basement seance (once he was sure you were pre-occupied and wouldn’t come up and see what he was actually doing). You reading this might be too young or ignorant to remember, but in the 1970s, Reynolds was known as “the Bandit.” See, back then we didn’t cotton to cable TV and whatnot, and cursing was edited out of all movies shown on TV, if there was any, which there hardly even was back then. So all of a sudden Reynolds with his moustache and Detroit-made automotive firepower is saying words like “shit” and “fuck” right there in the real live cinema in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and SEMI-TOUGH! People went nuts for that back then. I heard it all, up and down the elementary school yard, the grapevine abuzz with Reynolds-sanctioned explitives. Thing was, Reynolds made it pure; he christened the once reviled words and made them holy. Reynolds cursed and the curses turned to blessings.
Reynolds embodied this new freedom, the freedom to curse, to own a CB radio, to drive a convoy, to go streakin’ with your pet rock. It didn’t matter, because all this stuff was thought up by real people, doin’ it for themselves, it warn’t dumbed down by a faceless corporate groupthink session until was as flat as soda poured for dinner at lunchtime. It was close to the source, it had holy ghost power, it was allowed to go motorbiking for the weekend with no helmet and no curfew. The 1970s dad loved his house, his rec room, the wood panelling. He drank there, not at the bar, and all the friends came over, reeking of sweat, beer and golf course pollen. You could “feel the bass” in the voice of the seventies’ dad. Get him mad and he could have you cowering just by raising it, a giant low end fear effect of a voice. When you have a giant like that looking after you, as a man, you can relax. You don’t have to worry about protecting the cattle or the women or wearing a helmet or making sure everyone has a good time. The seventies dad has it covered. You can ease back and tap into the flow of dharma that’s all around.
Now fathers and fathers-to-be reading this, please take my words to heart and turn to the films of the 1970s for guidance, not the ones made today. Be unto your children as Jon Voight or Gene Hackman and not as Greg Kinnear or William H. Macy. Be a lion and our country will soon roar once again with goodness.
P.S. for another great foul-mouthed 70s patriarch, see Kim Morgan’s incisive look at Paul Newman in SLAPSHOT, over at her awesome Sunset Gun. For my lead-in and some praise for Walter Matthau, go here