Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind's history of the New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is notorious for its repleteness with unflattering details about what one might think of as the "principal characters" in the drama he presents of the time. He has Dennis Hopper more egomaniacal and violent than the villains he would later play (and yes, weapons are involved); Paul Schrader (despite being an exceptionally unlikely protagonist for a Balzacian drama) trying to sleep his way to a directing job with astonishing lack of subtlety; the sex life of Steven Spielberg and Amy Irving as a tissue of neurosis and manipulation and betrayal (which I'm sure made many of those who think Steven Spielberg's uneasy with sex in his movies say "I knew it!").

All of this has naturally got the book a lot of readers, but also seen it attacked ferociously. (Spielberg's biographer Joseph McBride, whose book presents a very different of the Spielberg-Irving marriage, was not flattering in his review of the work for the New York Times.)

Personally I don't care enough about all this stuff to spend one second trying to figure out who really said what, or slept with whom. But even as one who ordinarily finds this sort of thing distasteful, I do have to say that the book cannot be dismissed as the sleazy tell-all so many make it out to be. Whatever the accuracy of the narrative (and Biskind fully owns to the fact that many of the principals deny what others have said of them), it is all thoroughly part of the story. Biskind goes into, for example, Peter Bogdanovich's involvement with Cybill Shepherd as he does because that affair had its significance for his career as he analyzes it--the split from a wife who had been a collaborator damaging his output, his decision to build around her films for which she was unsuited (like Daisy Miller) no trivial factor in the decline of his career after Paper Moon.

However, Biskind's narrative approach may also have its limits. All of this is woven into a story here, a myth, a tragedy--the Myth and Tragedy of the New Hollywood, where for a brief but wonderful moment the artists had the power, and gave us a burst of creativity such as Hollywood has not seen since. But alas, nemesis clobbered hubris (to borrow Brian Aldiss' phrase). Much as the cliche would have it, it is a tale of people of talent ruined by success and the temptations that it brought--callow youths getting "too much, too soon," the nerdy and repressed kids and poor kids who didn't get invited to their party having the biggest party of all time and going nuts, the Artists getting the creative freedom to go nuts and doing that. The sheer nuttiness or toxicity of the counterculture, the '70s, the Hollywood scene, and all three together, or just the destructive effects of drugs and sex generally.

Certainly those inclined to buy into this sort of thing can find plenty of substantiation for their views in the specific incidents Biskind relates--in egomaniacal artists making enemies and alienating people, like Hopper's or William Friedkin's over-the-top personal rudeness to industry veterans and executives; in projects pursued because of a personal whim, like Friedkin's Sorcerer, and not always an artistic whim, like Bogdanovich's would-be Cybill Shepherd vehicles; of artistic arrogance that led to a chaotic production process, like Martin Scorsese's cavalier attitude toward scripting and editing during his cocaine-fueled making of New York, New York, or the notoriously out-of-control production of Francis Ford Coppola's far more ambitious Apocalypse Now.

However, as is usually the case when large events are forced into narratives of which the Conventional Wisdom so heartily approves as these, the explanations not only miss the forest for the trees, but are as sanctimonious as they are simplistic. (Recently watching Sidney Lumet's Network, for example, it struck me that for all the media about media since, nothing made in a very long time--probably not since that time--has had anything close to that movie's intelligence and teeth. Far from forging ahead, we have slid backward.) But the myth of the New Hollywood seems to me just that, a myth (even if some believed it at the time, among them a young George Lucas who echoed Marx in declaring after Easy Rider became a hit that "the workers have the means of production").

The artists were never so powerful as is so commonly believed. Rather what happened was that with the breakdown of the old censorship (goodbye Hayes' Code) and a measure of uncertainty among the Suits about just what would sell (per capita ticket sales plummeted from thirty a year to just four a year in the two decades surrounding the proliferation of television), they had a greater measure of freedom than before. Not a free hand to create by any means, but just enough discretion that, if they fought tooth and nail for their visions, they could get somewhere, especially if they were prepared to gamble their careers on those visions, with the winnings from successful gambles letting them raise the stakes the next time around . . .

Some gambled big, and won big. Francis Ford Coppola had a triumph for the ages with the original The Godfather. However, almost from the very start those who gambled poorly paid the consequences, with Hopper ruining his career with The Last Movie (yeah, never heard of it either 'til I read this book), while even if the effects on their careers were less devastating, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman and William Friedkin all suffered for making costly movies that failed to go over well with audiences (New York, New York, Sorcerer), even if they went over well with critics (Nashville), while the gambles of Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, if since recognized as worthy efforts, are remembered as having ended an era (Apocalypse Now, and above all, Heaven's Gate).

Moreover, even that margin was accorded to only a relatively small part of Hollywood (alas, Biskind gives the impression that the handful of figures on which he focuses were the whole place), the rest still the Old Hollywood churning out the disaster movies and musicals and backlash culture crime movies and exploitation films, the Old Hollywood that even at Oscar time could walk away with the big prizes. (Let us not forget that in 1976, when the era was supposed to have still been flourishing, not Network or Bound for Glory or All the President's Men or Taxi Driver walked away with Best Picture, but Sylvester Stallone's old-fashionedly inspirational sports story Rocky.) It was also just a temporary matter, which would have come to an end much as it did, as ticket sales stabilized (we have never stopped going to the movies four times a year), in part because the studios, too, were innovating, if in ways film critics damn rather than admire.

The trinity of Barry Diller, Don Simpson, Michael Eisner ushered in the age of "high concept," blitzes of TV ads to pave the way for profitable wide releases and all, and Jaws, and Star Wars, pointed the way to the kind of product that could make the best use of such backing. This has, of course, led innumerable observers of the scene to excoriate Lucas and Spielberg (Biskind certainly does so, enough for this to warrant its own post, here), but had they not done it, someone else would have. After all, virtually every feature of the blockbuster, from the mechanics of the action movie to aggressive merchandising, had been perfected in the '60s by the Bond movies--and that it took Hollywood until the late '70s to really assimilate their precedent just shows it to have been a slow learner (while the artistes who damnned Star Wars had scarcely been less commercial, Friedkin making The French Connection and The Exorcist, and John Milius serving up throwbacks to '30s-era swashbucklers like The Wind and the Lion, while the Salkind brothers backed the colossal Superman: The Motion Picture).1 All as the counterculture that doubtless made the New Hollywood a more interesting and daring place proved a very fickle thing, no match for the global turn to the Right that, amid so much else, turned the hippies into yuppies lamely insisting that "they're still cool" . . .

Still, if Biskind's subscription to the myth makes the book less illuminating than it might be, to his credit the book is so rich with information and commentary (others' as well as his own) that one gets a still fuller view of the scene than the narrative thread alone might be expected to provide, while even the illusions described here are of interest. Reading what young filmmakers in that period thought about the potentials of portable lightweight cameras for letting aspiring filmmakers "shoot their movies in the street," and still more, the colossal but in the end spectacularly pointless investments that Coppola and Lucas made in building a counter-Hollywood up in the San Francisco Bay area (American Zoetrope, Skywalker Ranch), is an antidote to the eternal hype that some new wonder is about to bring on the millennium by liberating the Artists from the Suits for good and all. Biskind, certainly, applied a good many of the lessons to his analysis of later times, most of all when he recognized that for all the hopes put in it, the indie filmmakers were in no position to live up to the example or standard of their predecessors, least of all in their capacity for looking at the world critically. The result is, for all its flaws, a book that seems to me indispensable for anyone interested in American cinema in this crucial period.

1. As usual, the Bond films' role doesn't get a mention in this book. Which is why I covered it not just in my writing on that film series, but my study of Star Wars, Star Wars in Context.

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