“All the films in this book share an air of disreputability.”
-Charles Taylor (from Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You)
I do not often look back to the ‘80’s with fondness; that decade was most unkind to me. But the few bright memories I do retain usually have to do with the movies, especially going to midnight showings of cheap, gritty exploitation or cheesy chop-socky flicks at the then decaying Rialto Theater on Park Avenue with my brother and cousins. It was there I first experienced The Road Warrior and Death Wish II and was introduced to a budding young action star named Jackie Chan in Snake Fist Fighter; the kind of scene that served to inspire auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Overlooked exploitation films and B-movies of the ‘70’s and their stars and directors are the subject of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70’s by Charles Taylor (no, not McGill’s Charles Taylor or the Liberian Charles Taylor, but a New York writer, critic, journalist and professor who does not have to good sense to alter his name, if not to avoid professional confusion then at least to get off the government “no-fly” list).
Taylor’s book is a series of essays championing 15 forgotten and underappreciated gems of 1970’s cinema; from the classic muscle-car movies to westerns (including Ulzana’a Raid, a picture I look back on fondly as one of the films we screened for Marc Gervais’ film class called “The Western: John Ford” at Concordia); from blaxploitation to thrillers, just about every genre prominent in the decade of bell-bottoms and platform shoes, regarded by many as the last great age of the Hollywood cinema before the blockbuster ruined what artistic integrity remained in Tinseltown, is represented.
Each chapter covers one or two films from a different filmmaker. The author tires to “make a case for” (p.165) their deserving of a second look, by both audiences and critics, and contains a mini-bio of the director as well as the cultural background of the time. And in that way Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You reminds me of the Roger Ebert’s series of books The Great Movies, where the late Chicago Sun-Times reviewer celebrated what made certain films the immortal classics they became, but with two glaring contrasts: Each piece in Taylor’s effort is much longer and more in-depth, and he has oceans more attitude. While Ebert played the positive, nice guy, Taylor is more like a cynical, smart-aleck Raymond Chandler character; not afraid to knock a few noses out-of-joint. Facts, wise-cracks, and pop culture references are fired with such rapidity that the reader best wear a bullet-proof vest while working their way through its pages.
My few and admittedly superficial complaints about Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You don’t have anything to do with Taylor’s writing style or skill, which are exceptional, but rather his facts and opinions. For example on page 131 he calls Roberts Blossom “the lovely Canadian actor” but in fact he was American (source: IMDb). Also he calls Brad Dourif “one of the finest American Character actors for four decades now” (page 159). Yes, when I saw him in Exorcist III I had to call the police and report him because he stole that movie, but really Dourif has played the same creepy guy over and over again, differentiated only by the make-up and hair. Finally Taylor calls The Empire Strikes Back the “only good Star Wars Movie.” I agree that Star Wars (inadvertently) ushered in a sad era in filmmaking and marketing that has been degenerating the industry to the point where it will soon kill the cinema as an art form, the prequels had a lot to be desired, to state it mildly, and Empire was the best of the series (so far), but it does not stand alone! (But I digress.) Of course that is just my humble opinion.
Overall Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70’s by Charles Taylor is well-composed and outstanding but of limited appeal to anyone not a devoted cinemaphile.