Paperback Riders: Peter Biskind “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”

First published in 1998. This edition published by Bloomsbury in 2007

Paperback Riders at the pictures.

If, as I do, you love the American cinema of the 70s then you may not want to read this book, you may not even want to read this article. That said don’t let me put you right off, but be warned the magic will be severely tarnished!

Peter Biskind is a writer whose published work looks mainly at the film industry, ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood’, was first published in 1998 and is considered by such as Esquire magazine to be, ‘The seminal account of one of the strangest most exciting decades in American cinema history’. However if there’s another view to consider then it might be that of The Times which refers to the fact that the book is, ‘Brimming with snippets of very juicy gossip’. 

Now I think that’s meant to be a recommendation – but in my view, it’s where eventually the book and the author go wrong. Much of the text revolves around remarkably similar tales of excess, which are piled on top of each other to the point of ennui – and somehow the feeling is that the author revels in it all. The nadir is reached with the explicit and sickening details of the murder of Dorothy Stratten, Peter Bogdanovich’s then-partner, by her ex-lover. It adds nothing to the story of the, ‘New Hollywood’, and doesn’t really tell us a great deal about a very sick minded man – a murderer who killed himself soon after the deed. 

What will hit you – hard – is how it could possibly have been that such a bunch of fuck ups – and such a crude phrase seems like the only appropriate one – could produce so much great art. It says something when serial non-monogamist Warren Beatty is one of only a couple of people who seem to shine – well perhaps glimmer – as being without the worst traits of their contemporaries. The other is Steven Spielberg and it’s interesting that whilst his peers were seen to fade out of sight as the 70s ended – that he just went on to bigger and ‘better’ things, he thrived perhaps even defined the ensuing era of blockbusting spectacle. The 70s was a short period with its focus on ‘art’ (of a sort), explicit sex and violence, and experiments in social commentary and the process of film making which blew away the old accepted ideas and restraints – at least for a while.

This quote courtesy of Wikipedia offers a slightly revisionist view,

The New Hollywood was not without criticism, as in a Los Angeles Times article film critic Manohla Dargis described it as the “halcyon age” of the decade’s film-making, that “was less revolution than business as usual, with rebel hype”. She also pointed out in her NY Times article that New Hollywood enthusiasts insist this was “when American movies grew up (or at least starred under-dressed actresses); when directors did what they wanted (or at least were transformed into brands); when creativity ruled (or at least ran gloriously amok, albeit often on the studio’s dime) 

Biskind’s central premise is right to a degree but his difficulty is in trying to tie so many loose ends into one coherence, which is just not possible. Time has also betrayed him and whereas Scorsese had his hard times his career did not end with, ‘Raging Bull’, and films such as, ‘Good Fellas’, ‘Gangs of New York’, ‘The Departed’, and, ‘The Irishman’, are only a few of his post-1980’s works that have done nothing to diminish his reputation. After, ‘Raging Bull’, it was probably not until 1986 and, ‘The Colour of Money’, that he really found his feet again – but find them he did. Even Dennis Hopper went on to have a career after the 70’s proving if nothing else that pretty much anyone was redeemable. Terence Malick came good again after a long absence and, though Altman’s career was hard to encapsulate in a phrase, he was making the nominated, ‘Gosford Park’, in 2001. True enough though, some others disappeared without trace or in Hal Ashby’s case suffered an early death.

This book is so named because in the author’s view the era under discussion started and ended with two films – ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Raging Bull’. In fact, there was another significant work and that was, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, directed by Arthur Penn which in terms of its amoral celebration of two anti-social law-breaking anti-heroes with some strange sexual overtones, was another mould breaker – not to mention the final scene in which the two die the most extended and balletic of deaths. The film was much derided by the Hollywood moguls but went on to do great business and become something of a modern classic. The fact that it made $70 million on a $2.5 million budget did no harm whatsoever for its industry reputation.

‘Easy Rider’, was directed by Dennis Hopper and proved that there could be money, $60 million on a $.4 million budget, in the counter-culture. The returns came as a great surprise in an industry where biker movies had been very much a low budget fringe pursuit – notwithstanding Marlon Brando and, ‘The Wild One’. It was also a film that introduces us to rock soundtracks, conspicuous drug-taking, those lovely bikes, and Jack Nicholson. It also features that paradigm of the entire 1970’s rum bunch – Denis Hopper – serial substance misuser, gun waver, wife beater and apologist for such as Spector,

I don’t know if he shot the girl or not, but I know if he did, it was an accident. When you play with guns accidents happen. 

Quite so Dennis. Quite so.

And there you have it – wildly unpredictable, dangerous, alienating, self-absorbed behaviour from a group of people who were tolerated as long as they were making money – and who believed they could pretty much do what they wanted. Whilst many were convinced of their own genius (and a good few probably possessed it) it was also the case that there was an awful lot of self-doubt among a group of men who as children had often been alienated loners who found solace in moving pictures and who ultimately thought little of themselves. Once praised they allowed their egos to inflate to mammoth proportions. Often consumed by their own alleged genius, they became increasingly ruthless and treated women as little more than disposable playthings. This after all is a group of white men. There are some women on the fringes but they are rarely central and if like Marcia Lucas (George Lucas) and Polly Platt (Peter Bogdanovich) they contributed a great deal to their partner’s success it was rarely recognised. Women were there to have sex with and little more.

There are a number of points that I think Biskind misses. He devotes plenty of type to the directors and presumes that the age and power of the producer is, if not over, then curtailed. At the same time, he writes extensively about Robert Towne, Robert Evans, Bert Schneider, Polly Platt and Leonard Schrader – all of whom were influential producers. So they weren’t quite dead yet.

He also misses or ignores the transition from film star to actor and back again. Early cinema certainly relied on stars and whilst it can be argued as to what point acting skills became more important – and at what point the trend reversed – I would suggest that one significance of the New Hollywood was the advent of acting rather than mere charisma – it also did not always rely on star names and introduced us to a whole new crop of young actors. John Wayne was always John Wayne and early Eastwood was always early Eastwood – but at his best Jack Nicholson could play a part – so could Bruce Dern, Dustin Hoffmann, Jon Voight, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black, Julie Christie, and Sissy Spacek. O.k I know there are some very dodgy politics in that group but that, to some extent, is another matter.

Current independent American cinema can offer Oscar-winning treats such as, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Nomadland’ and there is more recognition of foreign film making not as a sub-genre but something capable of winning the top prize, ergo, ‘Parasite’. The latter was the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for best film and whilst the politics of the Academy are open to question that did represent a diversion from big-budget big studio tales of white westerners. There have been plenty of good independent films that have been critical and commercial successes in recent times without necessarily following a standard Hollywood blueprint. The ever-expanding catalogue of comic book-based superhero movies clearly represents a commercial success but it could be argued that in itself it is only one branch of a much larger film industry. Everyone like a bit of popcorn but you couldn’t live on it.

Whilst Biskind’s book is clearly about Hollywood there is a whole world of cinema out there. I believe the Indian film industry is still the largest by some measures and directors such as Spains Pedro Almodovar are widely lauded. Many modern directors carry the torch, as it were, for the ideas expressed in the Hollywood of the ’70s and regard the film industry as mammon. Those original New Hollywood directors aspired to be known as ‘Auteurs’, which often led to huge problems as they tried to write scripts as well as direct – something for which they had no talent and which was often attempted off the cuff and as the filming was taking place. All this led to chaos and inflated budgets. An example of someone who did perhaps have that capacity was/is Woody Allen. Auteur is a word of French derivation and many of the 70s directors were in thrall to the Europeans such as Bertolucci, Visconti, and Truffaut who they saw as epitomising this approach. So it never was and never is just about Hollywood – something which Biskind does note in his book.

Something else that Biskind failed to predict/observe/comment on was the rise of a technology that made film making more democratic, as Coppolla, long a fan of such innovation put it,

‘Cinema is escaping being controlled by the financier, and that’s a wonderful thing. You don’t have to go hat-in-hand to some film distributor and say, ‘Please will you let me make a movie?

Thus a film like, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, could be made in 1999 for (the estimates seem to vary) an initial shooting cost of $60k and an all-in production cost of $750k whilst netting a quarter of a billion dollars. We’re back in the realm of, ‘Easy Rider‘, in terms of rewards.

Additional recent technological developments include streaming and CGI. The former potentially removes a whole tranche of the business – the cinemas. The latter makes a film such as, ‘Lord of the Rings‘, possible (compare it with Ralph Bakshi’s version from 1978 – though some people are very fond of it). As yet human actors have not been replaced but …. who knows? Foresightful companies such as Disney have their own streaming channels – whilst such as Netflix and Apple have risen anew  – above all this, money will still call the tune. Being a Luddite I’m an aficionado of a company called Cinema Paradiso (if you know that film then you’ll guess where they are coming from) who can deliver DVDs to my door of the less commercial non-Hollywood type. How long that format will last is anybody’s guess.

Biskind is right to identify the New Hollywood of the 70s as a seminal time – and I wouldn’t argue with the films he uses to bookend the period. The tittle-tattle about what went on is interesting to a degree but the salient point is that it produced some fantastic work. That golden era neither disappeared entirely nor prospered as it had given that the worst excesses were reined in. There might be two other films that marked ‘the end’ one of them being, ‘Heavens Gate’. Typically, after great success with, ‘The Deer Hunter’, director Michael Cimino was given the keys to the kingdom and spent $44 million producing a film that recouped $3.5 million. It was a ‘flop’ – critically panned by almost all – and yet in 2015, BBC Culture ranked, ’Heaven’s Gate 98th on its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time (albeit with the help of some judicious editing of the original cut in the meantime).

Another key production would be the ‘Star Wars’ series which introduced the idea that associated merchandise could be as lucrative as the films and which was seen as ushering in the blockbuster at the expense of, as Pauline Kael put it, movies about, ‘Things that mattered’. Don’t disrespect The Force I say!

In many ways these examples sum it up – there is no neat summation. There is just a web of sometimes interwoven but often unconnected contradictory strands in an industry where the only certainty is that money will always have the final say. Dead careers are resurrected, films that have been rubbished are re-evaluated and praised, technology changes – sometimes almost without precedent. Audience taste changes and occasionally things come out of the blue that no one foresaw.

Here’s what some of those profiled had to say about the book – although it might be a case of they would say that wouldn’t they!

Robert Altman, ‘It was hate mail. We were all lured into talking to this guy because people thought he was a straight guy but he was filling a commission from the publisher for a hatchet job. He’s the worst kind of human being I know.’

Steven Spielberg, ‘Every single word in that book about me is either erroneous or a lie’.

Roger Ebert (film critic), ‘Biskind has a way of massaging his stories to suit his agenda’.

William Friedkin, ‘I’ve actually never read the book, but I’ve talked to some of my friends who are portrayed in it, and we all share the opinion that it is partial truth, partial myth and partial out-and-out lies by mostly rejected girlfriends and wives’.

Peter Bogdanovich, ‘I spent seven hours with that guy over a period of days, and he got it all wrong’.

It’s not easy to sort out the strands that go toward making a film, where the money comes from or the influences of producers, directors and distributors. There are though a crop of modern directors who if nothing else buck the trend of conformity – Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, even John Waters and David Lynch.

There are also plenty of films – ‘Manchester by the Sea’, ‘Inside Llewelyn Davies’, ‘Into the Wild’, ‘Memento’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Nomadland’, and, ‘Whiplash’, to name a very few, that indicate that if nothing else imagination is out there and alive and well. It’s not all crash, bang, wallop.

With all that – and on balance, I would say – do read the book. If nothing else it’s a great nostalgia trip.

About Gordon Sharpe 117 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts
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