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'Jaws' and 'Nashville' opened 35 years ago

June 1975 marked a dividing point in the history of American movies. The fearless imagination epitomized by Francis Coppola's "The Godfather Part II," which landed all the big Oscars in April, was about to give way to the more commercial and escapist imagination epitomized by the works of Coppola's protege, George Lucas, and Lucas' pal, Steven Spielberg. In June 1975, each camp -- the master gamblers of filmmaking and the canny prodigies -- delivered a benchmark masterpiece: Robert Altman's "Nashville" (on June 11) and Spielberg's "Jaws" (on June 20).

They both emerged from a period when risk-taking was an essential part of the business and seat-of-the-pants improvisation gave movies their kick and vitality. Spielberg transformed Peter Benchley's best-seller from a brutally efficient page-turner into a primal scream of a suspense film and a rollicking yarn. "Jaws" is entertaining not merely because of Spielberg's almost prehensile touch with suspense, but also because of the games Spielberg plays with expectations on a crowded beach, and the comic hay he makes from the contrasts of his three heroes -- the manly shark-fighter (Robert Shaw), the young, countercultural scientist (Richard Dreyfuss), and the solid husband, father and police chief (Roy Scheider, above). Of course, the ideal demon for a director whose forte is movement is the great white shark: huge, speedy and agile, its forays unpredictable and its viciousness unmatched. Spielberg builds its presence second by second, so that the first full-sized sighting elicits shrieks from his audience that don't seem to end until "The End."

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"Nashville," of course, was a more ambitious kettle of fish. The country music capital in the '70s, a boomtown as eclectic as Hollywood in the '30s, had metaphoric implications that went beyond anything Altman did before or since. His film records not only Nashville's high noon, but also the malaise of post-Vietnam and Watergate America. Altman treads a curlicue path with his cast of thousands. See this movie -- and do see it, now! -- and Altman's instinct for finding whatever is fresh in his material and whatever is inspired in his collaborators will put to rest any lingering notion you may have that he was condescending to his characters or their milieu or their music. Songs like "It Don't Worry Me" capture the mood not just of Nashville, but of America -- and songs like "I'm Easy" exude an easy sensual pull that seduce urban and country audiences alike. It's an infinitely fascinating movie.

1975 was also the year when Stanley Kubrick made "Barry Lyndon," the movie that definitively divided the director's fans into two factions: those who favored his films from "The Killing" to "Dr. Strangelove," and those who thought that his increasingly labyrinthine pictures from "Barry Lyndon" to "Eyes Wide Shut" were supreme expressions of his artistry. I'm in the first camp, yet I've come to see that his later pictures are truly moviemaker's movies. Other directors are in awe of his audacity over cracking dilemmas at once as picayune and profound as his successful attempt to light 18th century scenes with candles.

Will we ever see the likes of Altman and Kubrick again? As great as Spielberg can be, did he ever top "Jaws" for visceral excitement? When was the last time two great movies of this scale opened in the same ten-day period -- during summer?

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