"We were the generation that was never going to get old. We were not going to be the establishment, we were going to do films that made statements, whether they were personal ones or political ones."
"George, you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it."
[--Harrison Ford to George Lucas, on the set of Star Wars]
[Peter] Fonda wore the uniform of a Union cavalry general and a bushy fake beard to the premiere [of Easy Rider, in 1969]. The symbolism was evident to him, if nobody else: it was meant to suggest that he and his generation were engaged in the second Civil War. When it became clear that the movie might be a hit, he quipped that the Columbia executives stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension, and began nodding their heads in incomprehension.
[Fair warning: Longest. Post. Ever. ;-)]
A funny thing happened at the Academy Awards ceremony this year. Not the fact that Martin Scorsese finally got that statuette - yes, it was long overdue; no, The Departed was not his best work, but that's the way the Academy works - but its presentation, or rather the chaps they had up there opening the envelope: Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. For if Scorsese represents, in some senses, the last gasp of the "movie brats", those great US filmmakers of the 1970s - still plugging away at the challenging material when so much of Hollywood has long since embraced the banal - then the members of that directorial trifecta could equally be construed as his nemeses.
So, at least, goes the argument of Peter Biskind, in his passionate, stunning, deliriously-enjoyable polemic on the rebellious rise and calamitous fall of '70s American cinema in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998, tellingly subtitled How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood). Across 500 never-dull pages, Biskind tells the story of how a bunch of upstart young turks, free-lovin' hippies and insecure film geeks fought the crusty Hollywood establishment for the right to make (and control) the films that mattered to them - fought them and won, and then threw it all away within a decade, in a morass of self-destruction, ego clashes, drugs, violence, greed, and (in certain notable cases) epic sell-out. It is social history, film criticism and soap opera all rolled into one, a colourful narrative with strong thematics, plenty of dramatic tension and more than a whiff of tragedy - held together with the salacious, hilarious, and occasionally terrifying anecdotes from the people who were there (the ones who survived, at any rate) - predominantly (and fittingly) the directors and their loved/hated ones, but also a host of producers, actors, writers, editors, and critics.
For this is a very human history, composed of individuals (of varying states of mental stability) who, in turbulent times, were suddenly given the keys to the kingdom and left to get on with it, their way. Biskind is excellent on the late 1960s social and political backdrop - the subversive ferment centred on youth, drugs, new sexual mores, and anti-war protests - that both produced the practitioners of what he calls "New Hollywood", and created the circumstances for their rise to power within the studio system. These were young people who had grown up in the counter-culture, and who had a passion for film, both American and, more recently, the products of realism and the new wave in Europe. They wanted to make a different sort of movie, gritty, down-to-earth and (often) politically engaged - and an increasingly young, film-literate and politicised audience shared their tastes. Fuelled by auteur theory - that is, the idea that a film's director should be the ultimate arbiter of medium, message, and content - they also believed that they deserved full control, rather than (as was customary at the time) letting the studios handle pre- and postproduction of their work, including editing.
The studio executives - pensioners to a man - struggled to keep up. Here is the 73-year-old head of Warner Bros, Jack Warner, at a pre-release screening of Bonnie and Clyde:
"If I have to go pee, the picture stinks." The movie was about two hours, ten minutes. [...] The film started, and five or six minutes in, Warner excused himself. He returned to his seat for another reel, and then he relieved himself again. And again. [...] "What the fuck is this? That's the longest two hours and ten minutes I ever spent. It's a three-piss picture!" Beatty and Penn didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Beatty tried to explain the picture to Warner. [...] Finally, grasping at straws, he said, "You know what, Jack? This is really kind of a homage to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the '30s, you know?" Warner replied, "What the fuck's a homage?"
But faced with competition from TV, an unbridgeable gulf between themselves and a film-going public with an appetite for the (to the execs) incomprehensible likes of Bonnie and Clyde, and the resultant impending financial ruin, the execs had no choice but to abruptly, and with distaste, surrender control to edgy young outsiders like Coppola, Warren Beatty, John Calley, Robert Towne, Robert Evans, and others. Biskind's rhetoric in celebration of the outcome made me want to cheer, and is well worth quoting at length:
[T]he '70s was truly a golden age, "the last great time," in the words of Peter Bart, who was vice president of production at Paramount until mid-decade, "for pictures that expanded the idea of what could be done with movies." It was the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work - as opposed to the errant masterpiece - work that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behaviour, that dared to end unhappily. They were often films without heroes, without romance, without - in the lexicon of sports, which has colonised Hollywood - anyone to "root for". [...] The thirteen years between Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and Heaven's Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood, the last time people could be consistently proud of the pictures they made, the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that could sustain it.
It was a time (as Susan Sontag observed) when people fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself. The possibilities were endless and the movies that were turned out are still astonishing today. (Reading this book led me to watch all sorts of amazing films I'd never seen before: The Conversation, Chinatown, The French Connection, Bonnie and Clyde, The Last Picture Show, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). "Film was no less than a secular religion," Biskind notes, before turning to the era's fondest - and, it turned out, vainest - hope:
Finally, the dream of New Hollywood transcended individual movies. At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art.
Biskind anchors the wider picture in close discussions of a handful of films from each year, and the experiences of the major players in them. Not a chapter goes by without a pen portrait or three of those involved, who generally emerge as the most volatile and disagreeable people you could ever imagine. Take, for example, this tale of Dennis Hopper and Michelle Phillips:
They got married, appropriately enough, on Halloween. The marriage lasted about a week. John Phillips called it the "Six Days' War". Michelle told him Heopper terrified her and her daughter Chynna by firing guns in the house, and handcuffing her to prevent her from running away, saying he thought she was a witch. He hit her, the way he hit Brooke - "one shot," he admits. One morning, when he woke up, she was gone. Michelle told John that Hopper chased her to the airport when he discovered she had left, drove out onto the runway in an attempt to stop the plane from taking off. Later, she called him. Hopper said, "I love you; I need you." She replied, "Have you ever thought of suicide?"
There is plenty more where that comes from: here is William Friedkin, terrifying his crew with fits of frothing rage on the jungle set of Sorceror, intimidating his girlfriend into getting an abortion, and callously endangering his lead actress' life on The Exorcist for the sake of a better take; here is Paul Schrader as the real-life prototype of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (which he wrote), sighting passers-by with his gun, stabbing his brother in the back to get a break, and receiving letters from his fundamentalist parents that read, "Your father and I will miss you in Heaven"; here is Charlie Bluhdorn, head of Gulf + Western studio with his financial fingers in many an illegal pie, described by his peers as "an absolutely unmitigated awful human being" and "a mean, despicable, unethical, evil man"; here is Peter Bogdanovich, dropping his pregnant wife Polly Platt for a teenage Cybill Shepherd, star of his The Last Picture Show, and (not coincidentally, Biskind suggests) never again making a decent film. Here, too, is Coppola, whose notorious antics - stratospheric budgetary excess, fierce insecurities, massive self-indulgence, and general Kurtz-ness - on the storm-lashed, disease-hit, faction-ridden set of Apocalypse Now, and during its torturous nearly-3-year editing process, sunk the fortunes of his own would-be independent production venture, and went a long way towards encouraging the studios to claw back control from their auteur directors at the end of the decade. Scorsese was certainly not immune; he is engagingly frank about the havoc he wreaked during his coke-fuelled late-'70s decline, and how he identified all too strongly with Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.
All this volatility was a major factor in New Hollywood's downfall. Biskind, titling his final chapter "We Blew It" (after a line from Easy Rider), is frank and lucid in his analysis of the how the movie brats squandered their own chances with their legendarily bad behaviour and their increasingly-inflated egos. The other, more controversial, line taken is an indictment of the decade's most financially successful films: Steven Spielberg's Jaws and George Lucas' Star Wars. The former, released in 1975 with unprecedented marketing muscle behind it (TV spots, lots of TV spots), and enjoying unprecedented box-office success, arguably launched the phenomenon of the summer event movie that still plagues us today: the cinema of dumb but highly lucrative fun (with a sideline in father-son relationships). The latter knocked even Jaws' success out of the park, and - in Lucas' savvy control of the merchandising rights - also gave studios a glimpse of just how much cash could be made when a film was truly marketable. (And, from the late '90s with the prequels, proved that one didn't even need an engaging film to break financial records, if a franchise name was strong enough...).
Biskind, and his contributors, are utterly ruthless in their outline of How The Star Wars Effect Wrecked Cinema. Some blame Star Wars itself, and Lucas and Spielberg:
They were, as [stridently pro-New Hollywood critic Pauline] Kael first pointed out, infantilising the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.
Others, including Biskind himself, choose to focus more on how greedy studios applied the lessons of the two films' success: by concentrating more and more on the sure bet, the guaranteed hit, the sequels and safe options and heavily screen-tested, star-powered dead certs - at the expense of the small, the edgy, the unknown, the new and the challenging (and, indeed, of even the high-profile films, which must do great business on their opening weekends, or be cut loose, dead in the water):
Jaws changed the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks - the number of theatres [in which a film was shown on its opening weekend] would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade - and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws.
In a sense, Spielberg was the Trojan horse through which the studios began to reassert their power.
Biskind draws a direct line between Jaws, Star Wars, and all the Michael Eisner/Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson "high concept" (a wonderfully ironic misnomer, essentially denoting any film whose pitch and purpose can be fitted into 25 words or less) bollocks that has filled multiplexes since the early '80s. It's a compelling and sobering argument.
It is also, in the nature of polemic, highly exaggerated and on the flawed side (if not, I think, fatally so). For one thing, matters are arguably improving - Hollywood is showing signs of learning from the '90s independent cinema boom, Eisner is finally gone from Disney, and even Bruckheimer is letting Johnny Depp do his thang, these days - although the onslaught of the generic shows little signs of letting up (enough comic book flicks that aren't made by Christopher Nolan or David Cronenberg, already), and the film landscape looks more and more polarised between stultifying summer silliness on the one hand and worthy winter Oscar-bait on the other. The '70s, meanwhile, had its share of ridiculous to offset the sublime - Towering Inferno, anyone? - and, even at its height, New Hollywood was never as noble or as independent as it wished to be. As Margot Kidder (consistently one of the most insightful interviewees in the book) comments:
"The secret that we all held in our hearts that no one revealed to each other was how ragingly ambitious we all were. That was the sense of recognition [...] of a fellow traveller, someone who was going down the path toward success, not ruthlessly, the way these young, poof-dried agents did, but with some integrity, but still determined to get there. So for any of us to have posed, which we did, as hippies, political activists, or all-the-way spiritual beings was nonsensical."
(Also, c'mon, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn't all bad!)
So set is he upon his tragic arc that Biskind overstates his case, underplaying the wider social and political context of the '80s - in contrast to his treatment of the late '60s. The death knell of '70s cinema, we are told, was sounded almost entirely from within; it was the filmmakers themselves who "blew it". The '70s audience is portrayed as edgy and intelligent and subversive, willing to go out and find what it wanted; the post-'70s audience as merely a passive receptacle for the product that the industry deigned to bestow upon it, even when that product changed, drastically. "They [Simpson, Bruckheimer, et al] took the audience by force," Biskind tells us. "It was little better than rape." This may have become true as the years wore on, but in the early '80s, at least, there were surely other factors in play - not least, the newly-conservative political culture, led by Reagan and Thatcher and born in reaction to the revolutionary year of 1968. It is left to Robert Towne to inject a note of reason along these lines:
The Don-and-Jerry pictures were perfect for the Reagan '80s. As Towne puts it, "So much about the '70s was about revealing the disparity between what the country said it was, and what the filmmakers perceived it to be, and they had an audience that was interested in that. When the '80s came along, we entered a world of steroided-out superheroes, starting with Superman. Sly, Arnold, even Bruce Willis would re-fight the Vietnam war, and win. A country that in LBJ's words had become a helpless giant, needed a fantasy where it was not impotent, where it was as strong as Arnold, as invulnerable as Robocop."
Still, whether or not audiences voluntarily chose Rambo over Travis Bickle - and I think that in many respects they did - the fact remains that cinema stopped being the counter-culture. It went mainstream again, it became - presumably for the enhanced merchandising opportunities - good, clean family entertainment (how many of genuinely challenging, adult films get made these days? and how many make any real money when set aside the comic book franchises, the treacly romcoms, and the buddy action flicks?). The '80s audience still consumed cinema and adopted its slogans - but it did so now in a quite different way, as is evidenced by the use of the moniker 'Star Wars' for a US missile programme.
Finally, a brief note on method. Biskind takes his material largely from interviews conducted, over the course of several years, by himself. He sources everything, exhaustively (certain comments come from anonymous informants, but most are credited to those directly involved). He notes significant divergences where they have been voiced to him - although, as this tends to take the form of "(X denies this)", the weight tends to rest with the juicy stories rather than the demurrals, and I don't doubt that some of the people discussed in this book are unlikely to speak to Biskind so freely in future! The tone steers clear of the tabloid, generally, but since this is basically an oral history, Biskind's introductory note is a wise and necessary caveat:
In a town where credit grabbing is an art form, to say that memory is self-serving is to say that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Moreover, defect of memory is a shield that enables people to go to work in the morning, protecting them from the unspeakable behaviour taken for granted there. As Paul Schrader puts it, "In this business, you've got to have a selective memory. Otherwise it's too painful."
And, you know, I loved every page of it.
Last word, from Leonard Schrader:
"We wanted to make great films, we wanted to be artists, we were going to discover the limits of our talent. Now what was left was power for its own sake, not as a means, but as an end. This generation started as believers. They behaved as if filmmaking were a religion. But they lost their faith."