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

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.

All this of course is one viewer's opinion; certainly the conventional wisdom is at one with the author. But a film's ultimate quality really has nothing to do with its popularity with either the critics or the public on its first release. For Biskind, however, like the Premiere editor he once was, those are his criteria for success. He never ventures an opinion outside of that mainstream.

But let's use Biskind to turn this argument around. If the post-1980 films of these men aren't that bad, then are their 1970s films that good? The best thing about Easy Riders, Raging Bulls may be the hard new look it encourages at such landmarks as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, The Conversation, Days of Heaven, and all the others. If a generation yet to come is to create a New Hollywood that lasts, it is films like these, for all the madness of their makers, that they will build on. To be sure, today's young filmmakers acknowledge the recent past; some would say someone like Quentin Tarantino does it almost too avidly. And today's much cannier studio conglomerates efficiently co-opt sprouting countercultures; their fair-haired boys are not the odd mad genius but rather the squeaky-clean Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Will we need to re-experience a new era of national trauma -- and suffer more crash-and-burnout auteurs -- to re-create the conditions that made the 1970s so interesting?

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