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  • Rough Cut Staff

A Year in Cinema: Film Festivals of 1971

1971 is a tougher year to evaluate from the perspective of festivals – but maybe that’s part of the point. A few select festivals held strong importance in the culture, but overall the festival landscape remained a fringe part of the American film year narrative.

For example: of every movie that received a nomination for Best Picture, Director, Acting, or Screenplay, only a single one came from a movie that played at a 1971 film festival – Margaret Leighton’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Go-Between. Two films played at 1972 festivals after their wide release: A Clockwork Orange at Venice and The Hospital at Berlin (winning the jury prize). And two more international films played at 1970 festivals but didn’t qualify for the Oscars until the following year, due to a delayed release: Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion at Cannes (winning second place there and Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, while also getting nominated for Screenplay) and The Conformist at Berlin (also receiving a Screenplay nod).

Despite the quiet influence of festivals on the year in film of 1971, we can nonetheless see the varied approaches that each fest took – at a time of great change in American cinema, some international festivals looked to the future, while others lived in the past.


As implied above, the categories don’t really serve us anymore.

Warner Bros.

Sundance and SXSW didn’t exist in 1971 (Sundance was 7 years away), so the Berlin Film Festival took on grand importance on the global film stage. Except...the festival wasn’t yet held in February, but in June, a month after the Cannes film festival. Nonetheless, we’ll talk about Berlin in this category.

The festival didn’t spend all that much time surveying the American film landscape or accepting American films – in fact, it still doesn’t devote as much of its lineup to those movies as some of its international peers.

In 1976, the Berlin festival is noteworthy for its decision to feature late-career films from former masters, rather than lean into the rise of a new generation. The festival saw Death in Venice, one of Luchino Visconti’s final films – certainly the best of his late-career efforts. On the flip-side, it also featured one of the worst late-career entries from Ingmar Bergman, The Touch. Coming just before Scenes from a Marriage and Cries and Whispers, The Touch is an empty, Americanized (produced by ABC Pictures!) take on Bergman’s staple fascinations – religion, fidelity, domestic dissolution – starring Elliot Gould. One of Berlin's strongest films was one of the final from Italian master Vittorio De Sica, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which won top prize at the festival, and would follow that up over a year later with an Oscar win for Best Foreign Film. Finishing off its capstone quartet was Four Nights of a Dreamer, one of the latter films in Robert Bresson’s filmography.

Even when it did feature an American director, Berlin looked toward the past with Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and the Children. Perhaps its only effort at identifying young talent came with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity – one of the prolific German master’s earliest films.

Despite this retrospective approach from Berlin, Europe was filled with a youthful energy elsewhere. Just a month earlier, another festival highlighted the exciting emerging generation of filmmakers.


Unlike Berlin, the Cannes Film Festival had a reputation for discovery and a history of being on the forefront of cinema. Just over a decade earlier, the festival hosted the debut of French New Wave critic-turned-director François Truffaut, The 400 Blows, awarding it Best Director just one year after the festival had purposefully excluded Truffaut as a critic because of his famously aggressive, inflammatory reviews. In hosting one of the first true successes of the Nouvelle Vague, Cannes would establish itself as the festival home for the movement in the decade to come, in part because of their keen eye and willingness to drop a grudge.

20th Century Fox

And so with a few exceptions – Visconti’s Death in Venice being one of them – Cannes served as counter-programming to Berlin during the summer of ’71. Most notoriously, the festival featured Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said, nestled at the independent production company BBS, one of the central corporate figures of the rise of the New Hollywood. Cannes included another directorial debut, Johnny Got His Gun, this one from the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who despite having been begrudgingly allowed to return to Hollywood, nonetheless struggled to find funding and distribution for his film. Though neither film was completely successful – and certainly didn’t presage fruitful directorial careers – these programming choices indicate a level of risk from the festival.

And for each that failed, at least two succeeded. Jerry Schatzberg’s second film, The Panic in Needle Park, competed for the Palme d’Or, and starred a then little-known actor: Al Pacino. A year later he would play Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Another directorial debut in competition (boy, they took a lot of risks on new directors!) was Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout. Roeg, one year off from co-directing the successful Performance, shot his own film. Again, Cannes featured a young, rising star just a few years off from New Hollywood greatness – Roeg’s Don’t Look Now came two years later, while The Man Who Fell to Earth came in 1976. And last but not least in competition was Taking Off, the first American film from Czech-American director Miloš Forman, who would make the globally renowned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just four years later.

Moving out of competition, the festival’s attempts to tap into the zeitgeist of a new American film movement become even more palpable. The Director’s Fortnight section featured Apotheosis from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a 17-minute piece of alienating slow cinema. It played Wanda, Barbara Loden’s seminal independent film from the year prior, and THX 1138, George Lucas’s debut that had hit theaters just a few months before the French festival. Cannes even added Loving Memory in its Critics’ Week section, a 52-minute black and white film credited to Anthony Scott – known as Tony by the time he’d make his true feature debut 12 years later. And moving out of America, let’s not forget the inclusion of Werner Herzog’s documentary Fata Morgana, playing just one year before the release of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

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Odds and Ends

But wait – you skipped the Fall festival season! That’s because in 1971, there simply wasn’t much of one. Telluride wouldn’t start playing movies until 1974, and Toronto wouldn’t begin until 1976. And the most fruitful decade in American cinema corresponded with the least influential decade in the Venice Film Festival’s history – throughout the 70s the festival even made itself “non-competitive.” And at this point, there was no huge benefit of saving your film for the Labor Day Weekend festival extravaganza because Oscar season didn’t have the same rhythm as it does today.

Venice did play a few interesting movies – The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper’s troubled follow-up to Easy Rider. And The Devils, the heretical film from Ken Russell that had been released a month and a half earlier to a great deal of controversy. But overall, the Fall held little additions or surprises to the developing narrative of the year in cinema.


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