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.

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