Monday, January 16, 2012

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

[ This week, Joe reviews books that are on the older side, but still relevant.  Today, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" by Peter Biskind.  On Thursday, "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks" by Nicole Laporte. ]

Baby Boomers lived their entire lives convinced they were the best thing that ever happened to American culture.  They had the best ideas, they had the best music, they had the best politics, they had the best sex, they had the best drugs.  You can try to argue any of these points; but it doesn't matter, because you don't know what's best anyway.  They do.

Peter Biskind's 1999 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" carries forth the legend that Boomers had the best films.

"Legend" is the right word, as Biskind's book definitely stems from the "print the legend" school of reportage.  While Biskind aims for journalistic accuracy, he cops to printing conflicting information and rumors, and allows his readers to entertain different possibilities while acknowledging that his account may not be precisely what happened.

Covering the span of Hollywood history that began approximately with Easy Rider* and ended with Raging Bull, Biskind details the shabby state of America's post-studio system movie industry and the events that allowed, almost accidentally, a bunch of young hippies with unrefined ideas to take creative control of mainstream filmmaking.

Resent the Boomers all you want, but there's no denying that this is a period of American film history well worth exploring.  A perfect storm of cultural circumstances -- the crumbling studio system, television threatening to replace theatrical exhibition, a youth culture fighting for civil rights and free love while simultaneously being called to war -- allowed for what was ultimately a brief window of time wherein the decision-makers at the major film studios acknowledged that they had no idea what to do next, and ceded control to pretty much anyone who looked to be "with it" and talked like they knew what they were doing.

Biskind's book is written as a series of anecdotes, one leading to another.  I like his style of taking advantage of a natural break point in the middle of one story to introduce people or places that will take the lead in an upcoming story.  For example, in the middle of a long chapter about Warren Beatty's travails while making Bonnie and Clyde, Biskind will step away to write a couple paragraphs about Francis Ford Coppola shooting Finian's Rainbow.  The only connection between the two events is that Beatty was editing and screening Bonnie and Clyde on the Warner Bros. lot at the same time Coppola was shooting Finian's Rainbow there.  But it gives Biskind an opportunity to add a little texture, and to also get some low heat on Coppola and George Lucas before those two go on to dominate later chapters.

Books like this, by their very nature, must augment a certain time or place or person.  An unavoidable side effect is the aura of exclusivity it creates.  "You weren't there.  And it's over now, so you never can be there."  Again, it's that kind of Boomer mentality of, "We did it best.  Sucks for you that you'll never be as awesome."  It's worth noting, however, that Biskind's book was published in 1999, which means he was researching and writing it while the independent film movement of the '90s was in full swing - an era of freedom and creativity in American film history that some would argue rivals the New Hollywood of the '70s.  A bit of a blind spot on Biskind's part.  (Although it's been a long time since I've read it, I remember John Pierson's "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" being a good book about '90s indie film.)

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is certainly flawed, and the veracity of many of the stories and anecdotes can be called into question.  But the historical facts of that period of filmmaking seem to be in line and, well, as for those questionable anecdotes... what can I say?  I'm a sucker for them.  So I fully recommend this book.  It helps if you find film history as fascinating as I do.  Although these histories may be peppered with inaccuracies and self-mythologizing -- and really, what history isn't? -- this is an entertaining and informative book, though best taken with a grain of salt.

*The book's history actually begins with Bonnie and Clyde and some mention of Mickey One, which predate Easy Rider.  But that clearly would have made for a less catchy book title.

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