Monday, July 07, 2008

Peter Biskind, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" (1998).

As someone who loves film, it would be hard to deny the power and influence of the American directors who came into their own during the 1970's. Young men like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg are among the filmmakers that developed their identities and reputations within that decade. But there were a whole host of other young lions that made their mark, only to burn out as the 1980's loomed. Bob Rafelson (5 Easy Pieces-1970), William Friedkin (The Exorcist-1973, The French Connection, 1971), Paul Schrader (Hardcore-1979), Hal Ashby (The Last Detail- 1973, Harold and Maude- 1971), and Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show-1971) were among a large group that made their bid for cinematic eternity.

Why was it that so many folks with so much promise burnt out while The New Hollywood was still in its incipient stage? Why did the movement flare so brightly, only to be overtaken by the "high concept" blockbusters that raged in the 80's? What legacy did these figures leave on the industry? To find out some answers, Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a good place to start. Not only does it document the adventures of the aforementioned directors, but it gives ample attention to the producers, studio executives, editors, screenwriters and actors who contributed to the creation of an incredible body of work. Some of these people you'll recognize (Barry Diller, Robert Towne, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, etc.) and some you will not.

The fact is that there was virtually no end to the crazy bunch of characters helping to push the celluloid to its limits in the 70's. And not only did they work together, but they fought, played and fucked one another as well. Before reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I had no idea just how incestuous the scene was. Still I probably should have gleaned some hint from the book's subtitle- "How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood". Truth be told this is an incredibly salacious account. Biskind doesn't spare his reader the blow jobs, the back-stabbings, nor a single gram of coke. Of course these details help its 439 pages proceed at a very brisk pace. There's nothing like blood and other bodily secretions to keep the reader piqued.

Frankly there were times when I felt downright dirty reading this. The sordid tales of infidelity among these Hollywood couples were particularly unsettling. The women in the circle were often treated no better than cold cuts shared at a Super Bowl party. They were consumed, marginalized, passed around, passed over, and taken for granted. Nobody is spared. The antics of guys like Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and producer Robert Evans are widely documented by other sources. The deeds of those silver screen wild-men are indeed notorious. But who would have known the extent of exploitation, emotional abuse and betrayal guys like Coppola, Shrader, Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Scorcese heaped on their spouses, lovers and friends?

Don't get me wrong. There is a lot more in Biskind's book than scandal and whore-mongering (although there is a hell of a lot along those lines). I felt like I got a much better understanding of the insider perspective of movie-making during one of the most exciting times in the medium's history. I don't know how Biskind managed to collect all of this information (much of it obviously quite damning), but I'm glad he did and happy that I found it. I'd say that it's indispensable for the modern-day film connoisseur. It's important to know why everything worked out the way it did, and why it couldn't possibly last. It also serves as a potent warning to any artist who dreams of quick success and unbridled liberation. Such conditions cannot possibly last long, given human nature.

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