Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book: Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind tells the story and individual stories of movie-making in the heady 1970s. Indeed, as the book is very much about personal stories, it is important to keep in mind the note of caution from the Introduction:
… very little of what matters is committed to paper…an endeavour of this sort is dependent on memory – in this case of an era twenty or thirty years in the past. Not only is the terrain distant, but in this period memory has been enfeebled by booze and drugs. 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.  ….As director Paul Schrader puts it, “In this business, you’ve got to have a selective memory. Otherwise, it‘s too painful.”
Biskind's narrative runs as follows: Hollywood studios are directionless and suffering financially, while the film industry abroad (Europe, Japan, Latin America) is forging ahead with successful and innovative productions. Hollywood executives no longer know what works and are more receptive to the new. In step the rebel directors (e.g. Francis Ford Coppola, Kubrick, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Terence Malick, Paul Schrader, Spielberg, Lucas).This school of diretcors perceive themselves more as risk-taking "auteurs" than as cogs in the studio machinery. They produce a series of hits that leave the executives baffled: Bert Schnieder, producer of the counter-culture hit "Easy Rider", observes:
“When it became clear that the movie might be a hit , he (Bert Schneider) quipped that the Columbia executives stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension and began nodding their heads in incomprehension”
The ultraviolent "Bonnie & Clyde" also left the studio scratching its head; the studio was even forved to re-release the movie after they botched their first attempt, failing to appreciate the swell of demand for the picture. Francis Ford Coppola, who is very much a centrepiece of the book, blew everybody away with Godfather. 

And so this new wave of creatives fast shot to the top. They were showered with wealth and power and in these heady decades, drugs were also never far away. Not the best combination. One by one the rebel directors imploded, both personally and in terms of the quality of their output. By the time the decade was through, so many directors had their best work behind them and were personally burned by so the going-ons of the decade. Dennis Hopper, who co-wrote and directed Easy Rider, was trusted by the studios to make his own movie, "The Last Movie", which proved his downfall. Copola lost his way in the jungle (things were never the same after Apocalypse Now). Lucas couldn't get past Star Wars. Scorsese poured everything into Raging Bull, admired by critics but a flop at the movie houses.

For Biskind, it is the personal going-ons that take precedence in the story telling - the personal affairs, the debauchery and psychotic behaviour, the drug fuelled madness and the magnified egos. The stories are colourful but there is way too much "he said", "she said" tittle-tattle, unnecessarily adding a few hundred pages to what could have been a much tighter book. Also, Biskind seems to focus purely on the negative character traits, which may lead to more interesting behaviours and makes for richer gossip and make for a neater narrative, but does suggests that Biskind's lens is unnecessarily distorted. Admittedly, if even half the stories are true, the publicised antics of contemporary actors and directors pale in comparison to what many of the depraved wild children of the 1970s got up to, although as producer Don Devlin comments at the end of the book:
“The directors of this decade were not unusual in their self-absorption, ruthlessness, or cruelty. Such behaviour goes with the territory. “Directors, in order to stay in the game, are among the worst people we’ve got” observes producer Don Devlin…”You have to be absolutely ruthless. Many of them are sociopaths.”
Overall, Easy Riders Raging Bulls starts off really well and it ties up nicely, but there is a bit too much gossipy story telling in between. 

*** - The majority of people love this book. although I did find one review that resonated with my more measured opinion.

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