Monday, November 26, 2012


This one's a good 15 years old and has been on my 70s-film-education reading list for some time. It's likely the most popular and perhaps well-regarded of all 1970s film histories as well, though let's be right up front about the fact that this is more a gossip book than a serious work of hardcore film criticism. Peter Biskind has (had?) been a longtime player at Premiere Magazine and must have spent a good chunk of the 1990s interviewing the surviving members of the American auteur pack and many of the writers, executives and wives who supported them. He certainly grabbed as much salacious content as must have been out there, as the book is full of drugs, sex, booze and megalomania. It's also a fairly well-done rise-and-fall story of "The New Hollywood", and in its way, it tells the story in a much more entertaining manner than a mountain's worth of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris essays ever could.

Biskind triggers the rise of the personal American cinema and the deification of the director with the machinations that brought both Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" and Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper/Terry Southern's "Easy Rider" to the screen. Both barely got made, and both were assumed to be trash cinema that would quickly vanish even by most of the people who worked on them. Biskind trains the early part of the book on the executives who arrived in Hollywood and, with some cunning and lies and much foresight, found ways to get unusual, European-style cinema made by the larger American studios. It's clear that Euro films were a revelation for many and had been since the early 1960s. The directors we now associate with the wonders of 1970s filmmaking – Scorcese, Friedkin, Altman, Cassavetes et al – were already well-schooled in their Italian, French, Swedish and Japanese predecessors, and had been marinating in their films in student film clubs and art houses for quite some time before the studio system allowed them to try their hand at their own versions.

The excitement with which audiences greeted the loosening of scripts and mores on film is captured very well here. The system had a hard time adjusting to the new director-led cinema, but the directors had strong allies in film critics like Kael, who wielded considerable power with her reviews in this time before the web, home video and cable TV. After "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie & Clyde" showed that real money could be made catering to the new film audience of twentysomethings weaned in the wild 1960s, the floodgates opened, and experimental, political, character-based and raw, emotional cinema could be made and funded.

Robert Altman could make a film that mocked the Vietnam war while the war was still being fought ("MASH") and reap both critical and audience acclaim, setting him up to make classics like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Nashville" and "3 Women". Martin Scorcese could ride the critical acclaim from "Mean Streets" to make dark and disturbing hits like "Taxi Driver" and later, "Raging Bull". Dennis Hopper, of all people (he's portrayed as an absolute psychotic moron), could get money to make his unwatchable "The Last Movie".

The book definitely has its share of dolts and dupes and deadbeats. Bert Schneider, a producer and studio champion of many important 70s works like "Five Easy Pieces", "Easy Rider" and "The Last Detail", was the ultimate Hollywood left-wing creep, shepherding Huey Newton around the world and cheating on his wife with anything that moved. Director Paul Schrader (directed "Blue Collar"; wrote "Taxi Driver") was a suicidal, schizophrenic drug machine. William Friedkin was a egomaniac bully and blowhard. Peter Bogdonovich gets raked over the coals by many for his massive ego and the personal lives he ruined, with loads of schadenfreude dished out once he bombed with films like "At Long Last Love". Francis Ford Coppola is a central character in the book, also coming off as a first-class jerk totally lacking in adult self-control. Robert Evans is made to be a idiotic boob of legendary proportions. I could go on. Biskind certainly did.

"EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS" skimps on portrayals of actors, training its eye on the directors and writers for the most part. Some of them – Robert Towne is a great example, who gets a ton of play in the book – are fascinating studies of 70s excess and sometimes harnessed, sometimes lost talent. The book has a hard time coherently and consistently extolling a what-did-it-all-mean theme. When it comes, it comes in fits and starts; there's a great passage in which George Lucas convincingly argues that films like his "Star Wars" made so much money and opportunity for the film industry that it paved the way for the 1990s boom in great American independent cinema. Then someone like Altman comes in and almost convincingly argues that everything died in 1979, and that film has been running on fumes since then.

Biskind had a really hard time ending the book, and for some reason chooses the depressing death of relatively minor (comparitively speaking) director Hal Ashby ("Shampoo", "Coming Home") as the end point for the narrative. I have no idea why. He had plenty of opportunities to crash the narrative on the slick rocks of the 1980s, widely acknowledged as the worst decade ever for good film, but misses the mark except for a few asides here and there. My other complaint is just how much energy he expends to details who was sleeping with whom and when. After about 100 pages it was clear that in Hollywood at this time, getting laid was about the easiest thing in the world, even for looks-challenged, nerdish directors and writers who were married to their longtime sweethearts. Once established, it just gets boring after that. The drug tales are pretty great, though. Robert Evans in particular was just a wreck, as readers/viewers of "The Kid Stays In The Picture" already know.

The book certainly re-nurtured in me a desire to see every great American film of the 70s, starting right now. After more than three decades of close study, I still have some major gaps in my resume that I need to close, including "Night Moves", "Images", "The Parallax View" and "The King of Marvin Gardens". I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this era of film, as it's a terrific if sometimes infuriating supplement to true academic "film school" writing (much of which is dreadful, which is why I avoid most of it). Read it and watch the long version of "A Decade Under The Influence", and I'll bet you'll have that Netflix queue tipping hard toward 1974 in a matter of hours.