Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: American Hustle

Chris Palazzolo works an angle on  American Hustle, Directed by David O. Russell, 2013.


‘The Seventies’ is not the same thing as the 1970s. The 1970s is a decade in modern history when certain stuff happened. That stuff is the events (recorded and inferred) that historians assess and categorise, tracing developments from preceding decades and consequences in subsequent ones. These events perhaps can be telescopically reduced to a handful of big things; the end of the Vietnam War, the period of stagflation and oil shocks, the awakening of China, etc. In other words, what happened during that decade. ‘The Seventies’ on the other hand is a completely different sign. It is not a product of the decade of the 1970s but is in fact a product of culture industries from decades after the 1970s. For a long time ‘The Seventies’ was the sign of anti-fashion; the name given to a superseded style (flares, afros, prog rock) that fashionistas in the 1980s renounced. In the 90s, and particularly in the euphoria that immediately followed the opening of the Berlin Wall, the musical and fashion tropes of ‘The Seventies’ returned in the European House music scene. Now, in 2015, ‘The Seventies’ lives on in movies and music as an era of political corruption, hard drugs and sleaze, but also as a pre-AIDS idyll innocent of homicidal religious fanaticism and climate change.

This is ‘The Seventies’ of David O’Russell’s American Hustle. New York, ‘The Seventies,’ Christian Bale and Amy Adams play dodgy insurance brokers busted by a hot-shot FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. Bale and Adams are offered indemnity if they agree to help ‘sting’ corrupt politicians, in particular the popular mayor of New Jersey (Jeremy Renner) who is trying to redevelop the casino district of his municipality by using highly questionable Govt/Business Inc type deals. The plot of American Hustle, squarely in the tradition of the American Noir which can be traced back to The Maltese Falcon, means that everyone is working an angle, but all is revealed at the end.

What is most interesting here is the persistence of the tropes of ‘The Seventies.’ They are all here, in the mise-en-scene (the fashions, the furniture, the big cars), the sound (groovy hits; never the crappy forgotten songs that would’ve filled up the airwaves in the 1970s), and the dialogue (a kind of baroque overlapping New York rap peppered liberally with ‘fuck’). Stylistically the movie is a compendium of classic New York street movies from the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever, Mean Streets, The French Connection, as well as subsequent ‘Seventies’ recreations such as Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. But it contains little of the historical and moral dilemmas of those movies. What is foremost in this ‘Seventies’ is fun; this world is fun, even when the characters are most anxious and verbally ripping each other to shreds, even when they’re doing business with a ruthless gangster who would kill without compunction (Robert De Niro no less) it’s still just fun; fun because they dress like they’re going to a disco every night, fun because they can say ‘fuck’ all the time, fun because they only hustle Moral Majority businessmen and try-hard hipsters. If there is any weight in the film it belongs to the mayor (because this is where the filmmaker’s politics lies); a politician prepared to get down and dirty with shady syndicates in order to bring jobs and investment to his constituents.

‘The Seventies’ in American Hustle is the reassertion of the urban space as a site of adult fun. If ‘The Sixties’ (an equally artificial sign that bears only a contiguous relation to the decade of the 1960s) was an image conflicted with the countercultural schism between established urban norms and the hippie arcadian dream of the rural, ‘The Seventies’ returns us to the city, but expunged of the shackles of children and family life, and the conservative short-back-and-sides existence that follows from that. It’s as if the counter culture did a double shuffle, shrugging off the responsibilities of children and family in the hippie pilgrimage to the country, and then shrugging off the hippie utopianism by returning to the city to party.

 – Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

You can find out more about Teasing Threads here:  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/07/10/introducing-chris-palazzolos-teasing-threads-sundry-film-and-literary-criticism/

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