Movietome- Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Welcome back to Movietome, my long-running, frequently-updated look at the weird, wild, and sometimes libelous world of film industry literature. As promised in my last/first Movietome outing, today we’ll be tackling Peter Biskind’s classic movie brat tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. So fire up those coke nostrils, crank up the Steppenwolf, and cinch that American flag bandana tight around your balding white baby boomer pate, ‘cause we’re about to go on a magic carpet ride.
First published in 1998, Bulls initially caused controversy for its many prurient, possibly apocryphal, tales of bad behavior among the powerbrokers of 1970s Hollywood. From Dennis Hopper’s drug mania to Margot Kidder’s libertine sexuality, Biskind seemingly left no over-the-top anecdote of the New Hollywood era untouched. Biskind even details Five Easy Pieces producer Bert Schneider’s aborted attempt to smuggle noted Black Panther and murder suspect Huey P. Newton out of the country aboard a submarine. And that’s not even the most preposterous thing in the book. Bulls is a raucous page-turner that falls just barely on the respectable side of the journalism/tabloid divined. It helps that Biskind is a masterful writer, able to balance the demands of both history and entertainment (and entertainment history.) With an exhaustive scope and shifting perspectives, Biskind deftly manages to chronicle the heady half-decade when studio execs handed the keys to the film industry over to a new generation of precocious, petulant directors to do pretty much whatever they wanted. And in doing so, created an instant classic for film fans: a must-read for anyone as fascinated by the stories behind movies like Days of Heaven and Taxi Driver as the actual films themselves.
A veteran industry journalist and former editor of Premiere magazine, Biskind was equal parts Hollywood lifer and outside observer. He’d spent decades on the studio beat collecting tall tales and rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood elite. His reporting skills, plus a background in academic film criticism, made him uniquely qualified to be the official biographer of the New Hollywood era. A hit upon publication, Bulls was subsequently adapted into mediocre, heavily-truncated 2003 documentary narrated by William H. Macy. It’s no surprise that the 90 minute film adaptation. At 400+ pages with comprehensive interviews with over two dozen major players, the only way Bulls could’ve successfully made the transition to screen would have been as a muli-part Ken Burns miniseries on PBS. Picture, if you will, the camera slowly panning across a black-and-white still of Bud Cort’s porcelain frogface while Morgan Freeman coos on the soundtrack: My Dearest Adelaide. Second unit on Harold & Maude has been long and arduous. Phosphate poisoning claimed the lives many men, including our best boy and most of the locations department. How I long to hold you in my embrace once more. One day I’ll be in a movie with Bill Murray about sharks. Yours under God’s glory –Bud Cort, 1971.
But despite its Franzenian complexity, Biskind does and excellent job keeping everything lucid and organized. He wisely chooses to center most of the action on specific individuals, rather than chronologically or film-by-film, which would have been more academic but much less fluid. We get to follow Martin Scorsese for a bit from his early Mean Streets days through the triumph of Taxi Driver to the coke-fueled flame-out of New York, New York. Then Biskind rewinds and reset, picking back up again in the late 1960s to follow some other key figure, like George Lucas or Cybill Shepherd. The narratives overlap and intertwine as key luminaries come together and bounce off one another. As such, Bulls is one of the great all-time nightstand books. You can pick it up at any time, flip to any page at random, and just begin reading. An elliptical snapshot of an era more than anything else, Biskind doesn’t try to force the facts to conform to any sort of preconceived narrative. Biskind would go on to use a similar approach in his excellent follow-up Down and Dirty Pictures, which viewed the early ‘90s indie film explosion through the dual lenses of Sundance and Miramax. Good news: Pictures will almost certainly be the subject of Movietome at some point in the future. Bad news: at the rate I’m writing these, it probably won’t be until the early Santorum administration.
But despite all the bad behavior on display (drugs, infidelity, panther smuggling, etc.), what’s really memorable about Bulls is just how unpleasant everyone comes across. It should surprise no one that Hollywood is a town where artistic innovation is recognized only when coupled with equally savvy business acumen, where more creative energy is spent trying to get things made rather than making them. It’s easy to understand in an abstract sense that the film industry is driven by “ego” and “ambition.” But it’s quite another to move to L.A. with stars in your eyes and witness firsthand just what those words actually mean. It’s largely true that anyone with any measure of success in the movie business is basically teetering on the precipice of severe mental illness. And this was especially true in the 1970s, when a lax cultural attitude toward controlled substances only exacerbated these filmmakers inherant neurosis.
And like a baseball statistician taking different eras into account, it helps to consider the time in which outsized personalities like Frances Ford Coppola and William Friedkin operated. People take for granted how different it was to be alive and think about things before irony became our culture’s default way of looking at the world. The cooler younger brother of Humility, Irony works to subvert the importance of everything it touches. It was something David Letterman invented in order to place in-between himself and the corny bullshit he had to do as a TV talk show host so that he could continue to live with himself. Then came Spy magazine, then Seinfeld (“the last show that actually changed the way people think,” as a friend of mine once pointed out.) By the end of the 20th century everyone had gotten wise to what was going on. Now we all live inside of a duplicitous pop culture onion that’s forever being peeled at exactly the same rate as the core is regenerating. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but it’s important to realize that even though the movie brats’ films still feel as contemporary as ever, the way those filmmakers processed information, cultivated ideas, and viewed their careers was fundamentally—even biologically—different.
Irony did not enter into the worldview of people like Copolla and Friedkin, et al. These were some serious-ass motherfuckers who were not fucking fucking around. Every film was a potential masterwork that might forever alter the course of human history, and as such demanded to be treated seriously. If anything stood in the way of their film’s completion, the movie brats weren’t just angry or annoyed, they were despairing. This was also the first generation of filmmakers who viewed themselves as artists with a capital A. Drunk on the uncompromising allure of iconoclasts like Van Gough and Hemingway, they exerted fanatical, undemocratic control over every aspect of production. They didn’t view their lives or careers in any sort of rational context. It was life and death—a fantasy many of the movie brats did their damndest to make a reality.
By the mid-1960s, the Hollywood studios had run out of ideas. Relying heavily on turgid roadshow musicals and historical epics, they had completely alienated the postwar baby boom generation that now comprised the bulk of the ticket-buying audience. Meanwhile, baguette-swilling French film critics had concocted a preposterous thing called “The Auteur Theory,” which posited that the director was the one sole true author of a film. This theory bounced back across the Atlantic and in inserted itself, larvae-like, inside the warm, mushy brains of a fresh young generation of geeks attending a newly-invented, semi-disreputable form of higher education: Film School. This perfect confluence of events led to “The New Hollywood.” Desperate for a hit, the studios gave this new crop of directors the power to basically do whatever they wanted. The result was Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show, Chinatown, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Exorcist, M*A*S*H, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many more classics and near-classics. The films struck a nerve with the public and everyone got rich. It was a great system that worked splendidly for all involved… for a little while. But what the movie brats never accounted for was that it was a system that worked only as long they were infallible. Once the first round of duds started to roll in—Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, etc.—the system was in jeopardy. And once the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars codified the idea of the modern-day blockbuster and showed the studios a better way to make money, Eden was over.
In and of themselves, Jaws and Star Wars are great, imaginative films. But the new studio business model that Spielberg and Lucas helped (if only inadvertently) create led directly to the cinematic fallow period of the 1980s, which continues to devolve today (see also: 2011’s slate of insipid reboots and robot cock punching movies.) It’d be hard to argue that for just two good movies, the trade-off was worth it, but there you have it.
BONUS: For fun I decided to pair up the most notable filmmakers of the New Hollywood era with what 1990s alt-rock back they most resemble, in terms of both overall career arc and aesthetic sensibility. Here you go…
Robert Altman: Enduring and admirably prolific. Frustratingly hit-and-miss. Points for ethical integrity and consistency of vision. Demerits for predictability. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Pearl Jam
Hal Ashby: Respected but not necessarily influential. Semi-reclusive. Long hair in the beginning, short hair at the end. Career disappointingly abbreviated. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Soundgarden
Peter Bogdonovitch: Suspect artistic credentials and overall uncoolness somewhat mitigated by the high quality of early work. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Stone Temple Pilots
Francis Ford Coppola: Brilliant, mercurial perfectionist hampered by a consistent inability to play nice with others, or scale back on overreaching ambition. Career recently resuscitated in unrecognizable form. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Smashing Pumpkins
Brian De Palma: Technical mastery paired with an often grating aesthetic sensibility and offbeat sense of humor. The sort of thing where you either get it or you don’t. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Primus
William Friedkin: A real asshole’s asshole. Hit a couple of dingers out of the park early and has been treading water ever since. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Hole
Dennis Hopper: Charismatic iconoclast. First major work forever altered the artistic landscape of his chosen profession, dragging it kicking and screaming into the late 20th century. Burned out almost immediately thanks to untenable self-righteousness, unrealistic expectations for creative autonomy, and fuckloads of drugs. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Nirvana
George Lucas: Borderline autistic introvert who created an enduring, singular piece of work early in his career that forever defined the aesthetic sensibility of a generation. Has worked tirelessly ever since to destroy the massive amounts of residual goodwill generated by said early work. Polarizing figure. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Weezer
Bob Rafelson: Early superstar of the scene with mounds and mounds of artistic credibility. Turned out to basically be just a one-hit wonder. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Screaming Trees
Paul Schrader: A walking black cloud of a man obsessed with darkness and depravity. A one-of-a-kind original. Often imitated, never equaled. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Nine Inch Nails
Martin Scorcese: Talented, sophisticated workhorse with finely-tuned pop sensibilities. Long career punctuated by high highs and only moderately low lows. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: R.E.M. (note: this was written prior to R.E.M.’s recent break-up –MW)
Steven Spielberg: Unassuming wunderkind who surprised everyone by having the longest-lasting and most commercially prosperous career of his entire peer group. Success thanks in no small part to solidly middlebrow artistic ambitions. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Terrance Malick: Reclusive, unprolific genius. Work defined by pastoral, ethereal beauty and an almost ghostly melancholia. Occasionally obsessed with old-timey Americana. ‘90s alt-rock analogue: Neutral Milk Hotel
I’m not sure who Robert Towne would be. Alice in Chains, maybe? Please feel free to talk about your own director/band match-ups or discuss mine in the comments below.
Up Next: Jane Hamsher’s Killer Instinct, in which a neophyte movie producer wonders, along with the reader, just what the hell she’s doing on the set of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.