Of Vice and Men

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

does someone perform a good deed: The careful reader will find one from Coppola on Page 373. There aren't many more. In the book's more compressed sections the distortion is palpable. One example: Two of the three stories used to represent the making of Terrence Malick's Badlands reflect poorly on Malick, while the other reflects poorly on his wife. Didn't anything else happen on that film? How did such chaos produce the movies Biskind celebrates? Ultimately it's Biskind's complete lack of interest in the creative process of filmmaking -- and his penetrating lack of concern for the artistic psyches of his protagonists -- that strikes the reader. Another example to prove this point: Biskind borrows an anecdote from Patrick McGilligan's biography of Robert Altman about young Robert's taste for oral sex, leaving out a much more interesting story in the same source about the way the would-be director imitated Orson Welles' signature. That would seem to be a more meaningful story for Biskind to use about Altman's artistic drives and future -- instead we get a salacious anecdote, one of many.

Biskind's Matt Drudgery aside, there are a smattering of factual errors worth noting. Paul Newman wasn't in Altman's A Perfect Couple for Fox but in Quintet instead, and the director wasn't fired off the Dino De Laurentiis production of Ragtime after Popeye (1980), but after Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). Somehow the politics of Taxi Driver are blamed on "the new centrist administration of Jimmy Carter," which began in 1977, several years after the film was written, two after it was shot, and one after it was released. The rest of his political commentary is equally tendentious, and many other errors of judgment and emphasis could be cited -- Biskind discusses the impact of Hearts and Minds in some detail, without ever explaining just what made that anti-war documentary so special.

Crucially, Biskind goes about answering his central question -- why the New Hollywood failed to take root -- in the wrong way. This mistake lasts the length of the book. You can see the wrong turn as it happens, in the final paragraph of his introduction. Biskind couches the ultimate failure of the "cultural revolution" of 1967 to 1980 in terms of the personal flaws of the young geniuses who "took a toboggan ride into the gutter." But even if the brilliant sybarites Biskind depicts had all been monklike artistes, as detached from physical release and moral sin as this book's one unstained soul, lonesome George Lucas, they would still have failed to create the artistic utopia people like Francis Coppola and producer Bert Schneider were dreaming of circa 1970. Why?

Biskind finally gets his answer on Page 434. "Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed? Probably not. The strength of the economic forces arrayed against [the Hollywood rebels] was too great." In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Old Hollywood can be glimpsed (in the occasional passages devoted to actual filmmaking) weighing down the New Hollywood visionaries with arcane rules that hampered creativity and the sputtering studio marketing departments, which failed to find audiences for many of the best films of the 1970s. In the end, however, the system prevailed, and the suits used the spectacular flameouts of such auteur-o-ramas as Heaven's Gate -- and the low grosses of critical triumphs like Raging Bull -- as an excuse to return to the good ol' days of product for profit.

There were other reasons for the New Hollywood's failure as well. Biskind touches on some of them in his occasional references to the mid-'70s shift from the era of Vietnam and Watergate to the era of Carter and finally Reagan. In Biskind's auteur-centered trajectory, the New Hollywood ended in 1980, with Heaven's Gate and Raging Bull. In mine, it concluded in about 1976, with films like Nashville and Taxi Driver giving way in popular favor to Jaws, Rocky, and Star Wars. It just took a few years for the artists and the media to get the message. But Biskind insists on a lengthier "decline and fall" narrative, personalized around the faults of Coppola and company and their consequent failure to truly seize the day. This distorts history even in terms of his subject's careers, let alone film history. Biskind to the contrary, the filmmakers who were evidently so vital in the 1970s -- and so negligible afterward -- have in many cases stayed right at their old level of artistic achievement in the years since 1980. To be sure, some filmmakers have declined, and Biskind's use of the tragic career of the gifted Hal Ashby is an inspired way to make his case. But decline is a relative thing -- Peter Bogdanovich's has-been-era output includes Saint Jack, They All Laughed, and Texasville, films whose humane insights make them superior, in my opinion, to his mannered smashes of the early 1970s. William Friedkin's best films are the catastrophic commercial failure Sorcerer, and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), films that better express his nihilistic vision than his more celebrated The French Connection and The Exorcist. Dennis Hopper, an insane addict by Biskind's report, directed Out of the Blue in 1980 and Colors in 1988, both superior to the celebrated Easy Rider. Paul Schrader, Biskind says, "has never approached, either as a writer or director, his films of the '70s." Light Sleeper (1992) at the least refutes that view -- it's a thoughtful reflection on the costs of addiction, moral as well as physical, light-years wiser than Biskind's tsk-tsk-tsk.

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