Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

auteur: n, a director whose influence on a film is so great he is considered its author.

Before Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda made Easy Rider, Hollywood was controlled by the studio system.  Directors were considered employees who worked for producers.  While many of them became known for a signature style, they did not have full creative control over their work.  The producers and the studios had final say.

Dennis Hopper and his contemporaries meant to change that.  In France, Jean-Luc Goddard and Francios Truffaut among others where changing the game.  They were auteur directors who controlled every aspect of their movies, from concept, to script, to cinematography, to editing.

Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, traces the early days of American independent movie-making.  He follows a cast of well respected directors: Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Robert Altman and several others.  Looking at their collective body of work it’s impressive to see what a great decade the 1970’s were for American film:  Nashville, The Last Detail, M*A*S*H, The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Star Wars, Badlands, Taxi Driver, Jaws, Raging Bull.  All  made against the odds while their creators struggled to maintain complete control over them by working outside of the Hollywood studio system.

Mr. Biskind has done his research. The story of each filmmaker is extensively detailed.  Their character; their peccadilloes; their struggle with the studio, their peers and themselves is thoroughly examined.  For instance, who knew that Peter Bogdanovich kept a piece of celery in his pillow because the smell helped him sleep.  While I was reading the New Yorker reviews Pauline Kael wrote in the early 1980’s when I became a serious film goer, I was unaware of how important she was to film makers throughout the 1970’s. Her backing was the factor that made several of the above mentioned films possible.  Film critics had the power to make or break a movie in the 1970’s when films were released slowly to build word-of-mouth as they entered theatres across America.

This makes Easy Riders, Raging Bulls interesting reading for film buffs like me, and I suspect even for those with only a passing interest in the topic.  However, I did have three problems with Mr. Biskind’s book.  First, he makes a habit of repeating salacious stories that cannot be confirmed.  He relates a particularly unflattering anecdote about a film maker as though it is true, only to insert “the film maker denies this” afterwards.  I suppose that it’s difficult to write a book when so many incidents come down to “he said” “she said,” but I found Mr. Biskind too often went with whatever version was more sensational.  The second problem I had with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is also one of content.  For my taste, there was too much about the film maker’s personal lives, their sex lives in particular.  I would have liked more analysis of their films than details about their sex lives.  Though their sex lives were epic.  Epic.  Really.  You’ve no idea. Finally, why is there no examination of Woody Allen?  Mr. Allen spent the 1970’s as a true auteur, making some of his best work: Annie Hall, Manhattan.  Nor does Mr. Biskind look at John Sayles or John Cassavettes who never hit the big time the way Spielberg or Coppola did, but always remained in creative control of their work.

In then end, almost all of the directors Mr. Biskind covers fell victim to the cliche of Hollywood.  Fame became too much for them.  Their self-absorption and their self-aggrandizement grew to such heights that they over-reached, drove away those who had helped them early in their careers only to wind up producing a disaster that ruined their careers:  Popeye, At Long Last Love, One from the Heart, The Last Movie, 1941, Personal Best.  Some, like Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg recovered from their flops and continued to produce good work, while others faded into Hollywood’s sidelines.  By the end of the decade, the studios and the producers were back in power, and American movies were generally worse than they were in the mid-1960’s.  Can anyone imagine a line around the block in 2011 for a movie that didn’t have an alien or a cartoon superhero in it?

Pauline Kael saw this coming.  Towards the end of her career she became known for her argument that Star Wars and E.T. had become the norm, infantilizing American movies.  This did not make George Lucas happy.  In fact he named one of the villains in his movie Willow after her, General Kael.  Mr. Lucas would most likely deny this, of course.  But  Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains your best source for a look at the last great decade of American movies.

 

I first ran this review back in 2011 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I may have been a bit harsh toward the end there, but overall this review still stands.  Movies have long been second in cultural importance to television drama.  Today we live in a golden age of television which has become the “novel” of our time.  As for movies, do grown-ups still go to those? 

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5 Comments

  1. crimeworm says:

    Yes, I agree there were a lot of salacious stories, but including them made him a lot of enemies! I also read the Miramax one, but the source master is just nowhere near as interesting. I enjoyed The Kid Stays In The Picture – Bob Evans straddles Old and New Hollywood, and is great company. I haven’t read the follow-up – have you? And Biskind’s book about ’50s cinema? I’d love to know if they’re worth investing in, and you clearly know your stuff when it comes to movies and books about them, so any advice would be appreciated. I have You’ll Never Eat Lunch… and Adventures In The Screen Trade, but have yet to read them. Also Tinseltown; I treated myself for my birthday last year, although I wasn’t aware of the murder until I saw the book. I just thought, that’s my knd of thing! If you’re interested in early British film making, Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet is a book I adored!

    1. This is the only one I’ve read of the ones you mention. I guess I’m more interested in reading about movies as an art form than I am in reading about the lives of those who made them. But, I admit, I will watch a salacious “documentary” now and then.

  2. crimeworm says:

    Sorry – source material, not master! Bloody predictive text!

  3. Jim Randolph says:

    Read Blockbuster by Tom Shane as a counter argument.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    Theres a danger with this kind of book that it becomes just a catalogue – did you feel that about this book? Reason I ask is that my husband has an interest in the history of films so this might be something he would like to read but i know he wouldn’t be that tolerant of lists of details

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