Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind's chronicle of 1970s Hollywood Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains a classic. It tells the story of the "movie brats" and their failed attempt to take over Hollywood. Few details are spared in an assortment of raw portraits of all the major players including Coppola, De Palma, Friedkin, Scorsese and many others.

Biskind paints a colorful picture of the era.  By the mid 60s, studios were still making big budget musicals with zero appeal to anyone under thirty.  The release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 marked a shift in the zeitgeist.  Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the film glamorized the Great Depression outlaws and made law enforcement officials the villains. Old guard critics voiced outrage at the film's violence. But young people identified with the anti-establishment message as well as the gritty realism.

Two years later Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider romanticized the 60s counterculture. The narrative of two hippies on a motorcycle odyssey across America accompanied by a rock and roll soundtrack took the anti-establishment message even further.  Hopper himself personified the era's contradictions: a fierce creative energy combined with a dangerous and sometimes drug fueled grandiosity, a grandiosity unique to the time period.  Here's a quote from Hopper shortly after Easy Rider:

I want to make movies about us.  We're a new kind of human being.  In a spiritual way, we may be the most creative generation in the last ten centuries.  We want to make little, personal, honest movies . . . The studio is a thing of the past (75).

Even more than Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola actually tried to destroy the studio system. In the late 1960s, Coppola created Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, as an alternative to the Hollywood system, a place for experimental filmmakers to work (including his protege George Lucas).  Meanwhile, he kept a foot in the studio system as a screenwriter and occasional director.  In 1971, Paramount offered him the chance to adapt Mario Puzo's crime novel The Godfather.  And the rest is history. When The Godfather Part II earned him the Oscar, Coppola pursued his dream project, Apocalypse Now.

He spent three years making the film.  Shot on location in the Philippines, the production went way over budget with all sorts of behind the scenes conflict (as captured in the documentary Heart of Darkness). Biskind describes Coppola's descent into megalomania. One day during post-production he locked his editors in a screening room and pontificated for hours about his plans to revolutionize cinema.  Apocalypse Now left Coppola in deep debt and he spent the next decade as a director for hire, at one point he told a friend, "What are you worried about? I owe 50 million dollars!!"

Meanwhile George Lucas changed the film industry in 1977 with Star Wars.  Known for making experimental films at UCLA, Lucas won accolades for his innovative use of sound and editing. When his first feature THX-1138 flopped with audiences he followed it up with the nostalgic and popular American Graffiti. Then he wrote a space opera based on Flash Gordon serials. Quiet and introverted, Lucas barely survived the hectic shoot in London and the lengthy post-production process.  Against all odds, Star Wars broke box office records and became a cultural phenomenon.  Ever since then, studios threw their money at special effect extravaganzas.

Biskind saves most of his vitriol for Steven Spielberg, who's portrayed as a geeky opportunist interested in making money with special effects driven movies.  In the 1980s, Spielberg built an empire in Hollywood while his old buddies from the 70s languished in the new blockbuster driven system.    

Here I don't agree at all, in time Spielberg has proven himself a great director with a number of historically relevant including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.  Any fan of Spielberg will recognize special effects only work well with a strong character driven story, Jaws being an example.

As the 80s beckoned, excess and hubris brought down the new Hollywood.  Of course many other factors go into this, namely, another shift in the zeitgeist with the election of Ronald Reagan.  Audience tastes changed as well.  Movies were marketed for the mall going suburban masses.

The end finally came when Michael Cimino's historical epic Heaven's Gate nearly bankrupted United Artists.  From then on, directors lost their freedom and Hollywood, according to Biskind, reverted back to making crowd pleasing, but irrelevant junk.

Unfortunately, women are for the most part left out of the narrative, revealing deeply ingrained sexism of the time.  Few know Lucas's first wife Marcia edited many of the iconic films of the 70s such as Taxi Driver and Carrie, and that she literally saved Star Wars from being an incoherent mess.  After they divorced in 1983 no one hired her.  As a result, she's been mostly erased from the history.

Easy Rider, Raging Bulls never gets boring.  Although Biskind makes some dubious conclusions and indulges in mean spirited gossip, it will get you thinking about where movies have been and where they are going.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt's wistful new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, revisits his days as a young comedian.  During the mid 90s, Oswalt emerged as a comedic voice on the L.A. scene. He also developed an obsession with watching movies. Oswalt splits the difference between how movies influenced and stifled his creativity, while also providing some insight into the 90s alternative comedy scene. Silver Screen Fiend wistfully recalls the wonder of experiencing great films and the challenge of finding one's own voice.

Oswalt confesses he always dreamed of being a film director so he set out to watch as many films as possible, sometimes going 3-4 nights a week, while holding down a day job at Mad TV.  At the legendary New Beverly theater in Los Angeles Oswalt viewed a Billy Wilder double feature, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and never looked back. Thus began four years of obsessive film going.

As his obsession grew he alienated friends, lost his job, and let his health suffer. Through it all he continued working as a stand up and gained some acting roles.  After four years of compulsive film going, Oswalt gained an insight:

Movies, to [a] majority of the planet, are an enhancement of life. The way a glass of wine enhances a dinner.  I'm the other way around.  I'm the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I'm about to drink.

Another important moment arrived when, after four years of attending the New Beverly, Oswalt decided to start writing his own screenplays.  After watching the premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Oswalt recalled spending hours with his friends discussing how much they hated what Lucas had done to Star Wars, after which he gained another epiphany: 

I [failed]  to see that the four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting [Lucas's] work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.

A useful insight for any critic: write your own stuff instead of tearing other's work apart. Since then Oswalt's career has taken off with a recurring role in The King of Queens and dramatic acting roles in Big Fan and Young Adult.

Oswalt shares many hilarious anecdotes about the comedy scene in the 90s.  A group of comeptitive comedians trying to distant themselves from mainstream comedy. Many notable comics make cameo appearances including Louis CK, Marc Maron, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bob Odenkirk.

Although we are still waiting for Patton to make his Citizen Kane, reading the book will make you want to seek out the great films and revisit the ones you love.

Oswalt, Patton.  Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. New York: Scribner, 2015.  222 Pages

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Farewell Mr. Spock

Last week I was saddened to hear about the passing of Leonard Nimoy.  It's hard to imagine modern Science Fiction without him.  As Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Nimoy created one of the most memorable characters in television history. While William Shatner as Captain Kirk played the more traditional hero, Spock offered a different type of heroism: one based on using logic and reason to resolve conflict.

Star Trek aired on NBC from 1966-69 and Nimoy went on to revisit the role in seven feature films.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrificed himself to save the USS Enterprise.  Of course, he returned in subsequent films, proving a great fictional character never really dies.

Nimoy also directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  In the The Voyage Home, the crew traveled back in time to the 1980s, where Spock is perplexed by all the profanity he hears in the 20th century - and hilarity ensues.  Spock always got the best laughs.

Although Nimoy never quite shook off the "Spock" persona, he appeared in many other roles on film and television.  He wrote two autobiographies, I am not Spock and I am Spock, both about his life in and out of Star Trek. From 1976-82, Nimoy hosted the cult TV series, In Search Of, a documentary dedicated to investigating all sorts of mysteries.  

Nimoy delivered a memorable performance in Phillip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As a devious self-help guru who proselytized a bland "I'm ok, you're ok" type message, Nimoy created a memorable villain.

Few actors have left such a distinct mark on the cultural memory.  He will be greatly missed. Live long and prosper.