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The 70s, American Style

January 23, 2009

Last Friday my friend Nicole Vandenberg asked for my favorite 70s films, and I told her that in my mind the 70s begin and end with Robert Altman, and with McCabe and Mrs Miller, Thieves Like Us, and A Wedding.

Altman is of course known for dialog, but wardrobe and styling in these movies is key. The first two are period dramas and the second is set toward the end of the 70s, so really how can the wardrobe not be key-even though it’s kitsch? Watching the above titles as ordered allows for a history lesson on the progression of lacey, high-neck collars, white Victorian cotton (and white Victorian-inspired cotton), menswear for women, morning suits, head coverings, and fur.

McCabe and Mrs Miller is set here, in the Pacific Northwest, at the turn of the century. Apparently, our PNW was even grayer and more cold and desperate a century ago; Warren Beatty spends the two hours of this story trudging around a frozen frontier town in animal pelts while the gorgeous Julie Christy runs a brothel—and battles an opium addiction—as a means of countering the rain and snow and boredom. Kinda makes the grunge years look tame. Beatty’s a bit of an oaf, but that only makes him appealing—adorable, really. Christy, on the other hand, wears the pants (okay, the bloomers) in their half-realized love affair, which only makes her more gorgeous. Unlike conversation-saturated films like Nashville, McCabe

is quiet and spare, with the awesome Leonard Cohen soundtrack making up most of the audio track. It’s best to watch this one in the winter, on the weekend, when you’re well prepared for a little bit of ennui.

Thieves Like Us stars the vaguely creepy Keith Carradine and Altman’s favorite freak (and mine), Shelly Duvall (pictured above with the director). Set in the depression, it’s something like the director’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde. Duvall’s character, Keechie, drinks copious amounts of bottled Coca-Cola and looks amazing in rag curls and men’s hats, even when her world is falling apart. It does feel a bit dangerous—if not insensitive—to romanticize Dust Bowel-era style, but, darnit, it’s so hard not to. As it turns out, Keechie’s look could have inspired Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 09 runways.

And then there’s A Wedding. It’s classic Altman—an ensemble cast (Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, even Lillian Gish), layers and layers of dialog, layers of plot, and an unexpected ending. It’s also really hilarious, not just because of the classic late-70s peach color palette of Muffin’s wedding.

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