The interconnectedness between New Hollywood cinema and the political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s is often taken for granted. However, the ongoing debates around emotions, affect and politics in a wide variety of disciplines offer an opportunity to revisit this relationship. I argue that the aesthetics of films from the late 1960s to the late 1970s were shaped by a new culture of emotions that circled around an ideal of expressivity, and themselves shaped the political imaginary of the period.
From the 1960s on, the cultural imperative to cultivate, understand and release one’s emotions instead of controlling them, most explicitly articulated by the counterculture and translated into new therapeutic techniques, transformed discourses around human subjectivity. Even highly ‘irrational’ behavior such as mental breakdowns could mark a subject as authentic and produce ‘truth effects’. This new expressive subjectivity and the bodily practices it produced were brought into cinematic form in films of the New Hollywood era, which, in presenting themselves as singular artistic visions, also employed a wide range of ‘irrational’ aesthetic strategies.
Expressivity, both as a subject ideal and an aesthetic mode, was an integral part of the cultural politics of cinema after the 1960s. An exploration of the emotional practices engendered by the politically polyvalent ideal of expressivity leads us beyond a reading of specific films as progressive or conservative and towards an ambiguous cultural terrain that was shared by ideologically diverse movements. The culture of the 1970s, a decade often identified as one of crisis and uncertainty, thus emerges as a highly prolific period that produced new dynamics between affect and politics.