Of Vice and Men

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, immature auteurs take over Hollywood -- until the empire strikes back

Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, Hollywood films were less about grabbing a big opening weekend gross than they were about challenging audiences with dark and adventurous themes. To many this period now seems like a golden age, but in fact this Camelot was brief, a short glowering moment of reaction to Vietnam, Watergate, and other national traumas. The films in question -- the best of them and the rest of them, from The Godfathers to Chinatown, from Shampoo to Nashville -- were, whatever their individual merits, all genuinely disturbing portraits of an America in crisis.

Over the years a paisley-hued nostalgia has crept over this lost time, a nostalgia only increased by the sight of the focus-group-driven mall fodder now on view at your multiplex. It was, after all, a period when movies really seemed to matter, and the camera-crazy young men at ground zero of the New Hollywood were its driving forces. Compulsively readable and full of new information -- some of it actually not about the sex and drug habits of the celebrities he profiles -- Peter Biskind's entertaining history of the rise and ultimate fall of this "movie brat" generation, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster, $25), has achieved much favorable attention of late as a compelling take on -- and wake for -- that era. This is both deserved and unjust. It is an overdue corrective to several grand illusions, but it is neither fair nor definitive.

Biskind's approach is the flip side to the hagiographic paeans to the genius of that lost generation, which make up much of the existing literature on the period. Starting in 1967 and moving through time year by year, tripping between the pitching of one film, the editing of another, the release of a third, and so on, he stitches a compelling tapestry of the deals, ideals, rivalries, and (ultimately broken) friendships that occupied the lives and lies of some of the period's major talents. One reason his book succeeds as a good read is the reason it ultimately fails as history -- Biskind has imposed an easy gloss on the period, an arc of rise and fall that purports to explain not only why the film school generation of Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, and friends failed to maintain the high level of their earliest work but also why today's Hollywood films are so bad by contrast. It seems, and there's a wealth of gossip to prove it, that most of these gentlemen were too self-indulgent to sustain either their artistic edge or control over their work for very long. And they were fatally ambitious -- less in their artistic follies (although there's some of that too) than in hedonistic intakes of both power and powder. From Altman to Ashby to Schrader to Towne, they didn't just say "no" to their baser impulses, and as a result we have to watch Titanics and Godzillas into the millennium rather than all those Godfather-quality movies that could have been made.

But this is too simple. To address his first concern, after a while Biskind's indefatigable prosecutorial brief makes him seem like the Kenneth Starr of film journalism -- no liaison goes uncovered, no bender unrendered. His relentless lack of generosity toward his subjects makes us resent, if not suspect, the author. He capably constructs telling novelistic caricatures to replace the artists we thought we knew: While we were sort of aware that some of these guys were wild men, the extent of the megalomania, the neuroses (and in Steven Spielberg's case the nerdishness), was hitherto unguessed by this reader. St. Martin Scorsese's halo is particularly dented, but in the end nobody comes out looking very good. A constantly played theme is how miserable a batch of husbands these bastards were, career after career falling apart after one auteur or another dumps a faithful and more talented wife or girlfriend in favor of one passing fancy or another. Of course the fact that Biskind's primary sources are in many cases the still-angry ex-wives and ex-girlfriends might have something to do with these particular insights. It was a real journalistic coup for Biskind to seek out these deep-background witnesses; revenge is best served cold, after all. And while judging film directors for their broken relationships -- and not their films -- is like judging a president by his sex life, Biskind's Hogarthian sketches of fame going to many heads, and money corroding both love and friendship, all rings very true. It's a universal story no less valid today -- just ask the "King of the World."

Biskind has done a prodigious amount of interviewing (if almost no archival research), and much of what he's uncovered is fascinating. Familiar stories about the making of films from Bonnie and Clyde to Raging Bull are filled out with new detail, and there is also some valuable material here about the roots of today's market-driven cinema in the experimental new release patterns in the mid-1970s. The crosscutting approach works very well even if it makes less individualized trends in politics and economics harder to spot.

The unpleasant fact remains, however, that in emptying out his notebooks Biskind almost invariably selects whatever makes his protagonists look bad, or petty, or foolish. Director A gets slagged by ex-friend B and ex-lover C, who in turn are ripped apart as phonies by X, Y, and Z. Sources who spoke at length and on record to Biskind are particular targets, none more so than the voluble William Friedkin. Was he granted right of reply? Was anyone? Only occasionally

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