Anxiety and disillusionment were American cinema's Santa Claus at the end of the 1960s. The dream was over. Nixon was in the White House, heading for a second term. And the Vietnam War was going to drag on for a while. The collective societal migraine afflicted Hollywood, as well, distracting the studios long enough for them to sign off on all manner of anti-heroic, dyspeptic, neurotic, bummed-out, and fed-up films. This flourish of iconoclasm even had budding studio hacks making like Godard, and minted nervous Jewish guys like George Segal, Elliott Gould, Charles Grodin, and Dustin Hoffman as a new brand of leading man.
"Uneasy Riders," the Museum of the Moving Image's 21-film salute to the Nixon era, is a zesty survey that includes some obvious choices — Monte Hellman's 1971 existential road movie, "Two-Lane Blacktop," opens the series Saturday — and some pop hits still fondly recalled from the days when "multiplex" meant two screens. Who could pass up 1973's "The Last Detail" or 1972's "The Heartbreak Kid"? Or a chance to watch as a wimpy Mr. Hoffman goes ballistic, under Sam Peckinpah's direction, in the trigger-happy "Straw Dogs" (1971), an outburst of rage that could serve any convenient Vietnam allusion, or merely race the pulse as an exercise in kill-or-be-killed masculinity.
More surprisingly, the lineup includes gems such as "Loving," Irvin Kershner's brilliant 1970 portrait of a suburban marriage headed for the rocks. The director's career was headed elsewhere, as well: toward the very kind of mega-budget spectacles (one sequel each to James Bond, "Star Wars," and "Robo-Cop") that marked the end of Hollywood's flirtation with the edge.
In "Loving, "Mr. Segal stars as a talented but underappreciated illustrator whose soul is seized by havoc. He's trying to snag a bluechip account to keep life on the upward swing in suburbia. There, the requisite wife (Eva Marie Saint, in her best screen performance, playing realistically in her mid-40s without a trace of vanity) and two kids compete for his attention, which is occupied by a younger girlfriend who is too happy to dump him. Cinematographer Gordon Willis brought an acutely observant vérité-style camera to capture the chaos, which tends to involve Mr. Segal's tortured artist winding himself up to alcoholic meltdowns that are both hilarious and tragic.
What nails the viewer is the candor of the dialogue and the sly touches in casting (a who's who of marvelous character actors and odd footnotes, such as future studio chief Sherry Lansing as an intoxicated bimbo). The film manages to be at once satirical and compassionate, never more so than in the long closing set-to, a masterfully choreographed house party that steadily sets in motion the absurdist spectacle of Mr. Segal with his pants down on closedcircuit video, presaging Paris Hilton's hotel handycam antics by a good 35 years.
On the flip side, the influence of the French New Wave and the loosening of the moral slipknot on adult content in mainstream Hollywood is no guarantee of a masterpiece. A rare screening of Jerry Schatzberg's "Puzzle of a Downfall Child" (1970) suggests these social and artistic developments could as easily inspire annoyance. Mr. Schatzberg, who later made such period standards as "Scarecrow" and "The Panic in Needle Park," was the fashion photographer responsible for shooting the cover of Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde." The title could as easily serve "Downfall," which considers the troubled life of a high-strung model (Faye Dunaway) as she reflects after a mental breakdown.
The diaristic story is fragmented by the flashbacks that were then a signature of directors such as Nicolas Roeg, though they never really transcend gimmick. Much of the narrative floats around the model's narcissism and nymphomania, explicated through a performance by Ms. Dunaway that is so airily contrived it all feels like a parody — which, perversely, recommends "Downfall" as a camp exercise. It's an easy bet the film was a source for John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Yet, for sheer contrast, it also makes a perfect Sunday doublebill with "Wanda," also released in 1970. It's Barbara Loden's brutally real 16 mm portrait of a woman who casts herself to the breeze, as it were, and wanders into trouble.
Ms. Loden, who was married to Elia Kazan and died in 1980 at 48, wrote and starred as a runaway wife-urchin from coal mining country whose only rationale for her actions is: "I'm just no good." Passive forays into low-rent whoring, petty thieving, and a botched kidnapping prove that, at the very least, Wanda isn't a liar.
Neither was Ms. Loden, who produced a classic piece of Americana, an Appalachian ode to the grift, and a startling one-woman show that anticipates the incidental minimalism of "Stranger Than Paradise" while embracing the rarely seen perspective of redneck feminist noir. Like the best movies in "Uneasy Riders," it's a singular piece of work that was also a sign of the times.
Through September 2 (35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, 718-784-0077).