Friday, June 11, 2010

The '70s as the last golden age of filmmaking: 10 things I learned from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

I've been enjoying Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind's 1998 chronicle of the rise and frequent falls of the major directors of the 1970s (notably Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Hal Ashby). These guys helped rejuvenate the industry before the corporate studio-driven 1980s kicked in. As in the case of his more recent Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Biskind sometimes lets juicy Hollywood gossip overwhelm his insights about the filmmaking process, but here are 10 things I learned from the book:

1) Whenever studio heads screened a groundbreaking film, almost invariably, some executive stood up and proclaimed the movie utter trash. For example, even after the audience laughed and cheered throughout George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), Ned Tanin stood up and said "This film is unreleasable." Studio head Jack Warner said after watching Bonnie and Clyde (1967), "That's the longest two hours and ten minutes I ever spent!"

2) Writing is key to becoming a director. George Lucas' wife Marcia once pointed out that "George was not a writer, and it was Francis [Ford Coppola] who made him write, [and] said, `If you're gonna be a filmmaker, you have to write.' He practically handcuffed George to a desk." At another time, Martin Scorsese composed a screenplay with Mardik Martin in his cold Plymouth Valiant in the winter: "We were used to that," said Scorsese. "We were film students. Film students wrote anywhere."

3) Of all of the directors discussed, Peter Bogdanovich appeared to have the swiftest rise to success and the steepest fall from grace. After the critical and popular success of The Last Picture Show (1971) (when Peter broke up with his wife for Cybill Shepherd) and Paper Moon (1973), critics viewed his next picture, an adaptation of Henry James' "Daisy Miller" as a vanity project designed to promote Shepherd's career. Part of the problem lay in the way Bogdanovich revelled in his glory. Biskind includes this exchange between Peter and Cary Grant: "Will you stop telling people that you're in love. Stop telling people you're happy," said Cary.
"Why?"
"Because they're not in love and they're not happy. And they don't want to hear it."
"But Cary, I thought all the world loves a lover."
"Don't you believe it. It isn't true. Just remember one thing, Peter, people do not like beautiful people."

Later, Bogdanovich directed a musical At Long Last Love (1975) that tanked. Then, after his relationship with Playmate Dorothy Stratten ended with her murder, Bogdanovich's filmmaking career continued to decline. Biskind quotes him later in the 1990s at a New York party saying "Remember me? I used to be Peter Bogdanovich."

4) In books like this, largely based on many interviews that Biskind conducted with people in the film business, paragraphs occasionally carry disclaimers at the bottom in parentheses in which the director or star under discussion denies the drug use or the affair just brought up. These interjections get to be amusing after awhile. Some examples: "(Hopper denies the event took place.)" "(Milinaire refuses to comment.)" "([Amy] Irving denies sleeping with Hoffman.)" Biskind admits the book is distorted by all of the drugs taken at the time, the self-serving memories, and the fictional ambiance of Hollywood. He characterizes the research of the book as a "maze of mirrors."

5) At times, Biskind comes up with a refreshingly exact description of a director's style. He characterizes Robert Altman's M*A*S*H as the work of an auteur: "There were the themes, the `anti-s': militarism, clericalism, authoritarianism. (The New York Times noted that it was `the first American movie openly to ridicule belief in God.') There was the improvisation, the ensemble acting, the self-consciousness that drew attention to the filmmaking, the loose-knit narratives that dispensed with the traditional beginning, middle, and end, where the energy of the individual sequences carried the piece. And finally, there was the layered soundtrack with overlapping dialogue." Altman was older than many of the other major directors, and his output was often not that successful commercially, but he persevered in part because his movies were often so cheaply made. I would have liked to have seen Biskind balance out his portrait with consideraton of Altman's later successes such as The Player (1992).

6) Don't trust a romantic scene in a Warren Beatty film when the music drowns out the dialogue. As Warren and Julie Christie "walk through the rose garden of a grand estate" in Heaven Can Wait (1978), they appear to be madly in love, but according to Biskind, what she's actually saying "in her clipped British accent" is "I can't believe you're still making these fucking dumb movies when, I mean, there are people all over Europe making fabulous films, about real things, Fassbinder and so on, and you're still doing this shit."

7) Sometimes Orson Welles could be difficult to live with. At one point, he moved in with Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill: "Orson Welles was living in a bedroom off Peter's study. He turned it into a toxic waste dump full of half-eaten dinners and redolent cigar butts. Cybill couldn't stand having him around."

8) Of the more successful directors, Steven Spielberg best described what making a blockbuster entailed, in this case Jaws. As he put it, "I thought, This is what a hit feels like. It feels like your own child that you have put up for adoption, and millions of people have decided to adopt it all at once, and you're the proud ex-parent. And now it belongs to others. That felt very good."

9) Faye Dunaway did not appear to get along with Roman Polanski during the shoot of Chinatown (1974). She reportedly threw a paper cup full of urine at his head after he forced her to do a scene when she needed to go to the restroom. Somehow that anecdote suits the mood of the film perfectly. Once again, after the initial Paramount screening, someone said, "What kind of dreck is this shit?"

10) Many of the directors eventually reached a Heaven's Gate moment of hubris and excess when their massively expensive, obscenely over-budget production tanked at the box office in about a week. This happened with William Friedkin (the director of the massively successful The Exorcist 1973) when he made Sorcerer (1977). This happened with Francis Ford Coppola when he directed One From the Heart (1982). Though highly regarded for his Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino did not fare as well with Heaven's Gate (1980) considered one of the epic bombs of movie history. I've found that I can watch it on DVD in bits and pieces. Even though the film is massively overblown, self-indulgent, and tedious at times, it is extremely well-shot, and it's fun to see Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert in their prime. Also, Jeff Bridges got to hang out with Kris Kristofferson, which no doubt helped prepare him for Crazy Heart.

At any rate, the directors in Biskind's tome often suffered from "too much, too soon" disease. Their early massive successes messed them up later on. As Biskind puts it, "the new Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered."

The book left me wondering--how much do current directors such as the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Chris Nolan, and Wes Anderson owe to these wunderkinds of the 1970s? Will there be another period like it again? Many of the '70s auteurs take a bleak view of changes in the industry since 1980. Robert Altman said: "Last summer [of 1997] trying to find a picture to see, I went to the multiplexes in Beverly Hills. Every single screen was playing Lost World, Con Air, My Best Friend's Wedding, and Face/Off. There wasn't one picture that an intelligent person could say, `Oh, I want to see this.' It's just become one big amusement park. It's the death of film." As Friedkin puts it, "Star Wars swept all of the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald's got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we're in a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole."

10 comments:

J.D. said...

You should read Biskind's follow-up book where he goes after the Weinsteins and Miramax and Robert Redford and Sundance. More behind the scenes gossip!

It really is a good read.

Alto, I'd love to see him tackle the 1980s. At the end of EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, he hints at a fascinating thesis for that book: how the directors collapse of power made way for the rise of the producer and movie star-driven vehicle.

Craig said...

Biskind makes my teeth itch. He's like the kid in the corner counting the zits on everyone's faces. But I enjoyed reading your synopsis (especially #6, on Christie and Beatty), which susses out the good stuff and leaves the rest for the dregs.

To me, the "Star Wars ruined everything" thesis is too simplistic. Have you ever read Tom Shone's Blockbuster? He takes Biskind to task for that, and while I don't agree with everything Shone writes I find his argument persuasive on that score.

MovieMan0283 said...

Also Exorcist was definitely part of the progression away from arty films to mega-blockbusters, so it's a bit hypocritical of Friedkin to lash out at Lucas. (Maybe it has more to do with SW trouncing Sorcerer at the box office that summer?)

I haven't read the book, except in bits and pieces, but quite enjoyed the documentary. Have you seen that (if not, check it out; I think it has a lot of material that's not in the book, as it was more of a spin-off than an "adaptation" but I might be wrong).

Sam Juliano said...

Interesting book, Film Dr. I can remember that 1974 People cover as if it were yesterday, and Bogdonovich's quick rise and fall will always intrigue. If you learned those ten things from the book, I'd say it's a worthwhile read on balance! I may have to place an oder. ha!

Craig said...

(Maybe it has more to do with SW trouncing Sorcerer at the box office that summer?)

That's probably a big reason for Friedkin's resentment (though a disturbing number of folks seem to agree with it). Ironically, I'd rather watch Sorcerer again today than Star Wars. I think it's held up better and is a lot more interesting.

Hokahey said...

This is a great book, and I enjoyed your observations here.
2. Really enjoyed your comments about writing. That's what I tell my would-be filmmakers in Film Club. You gotta write something down! ... I had a white Plymouth Valiant when my wife and I lived in San Francisco.
6. Love the story about Julie Christie. That garden in the image is on the grounds of the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California, not far from where I grew up.
9. The cup of urine totally fits in with a bleak film noir filmed by Polanski.
10. You know what? I love Heaven's Gate. Believe me, I am aware of its flaws, but it is beautifully shot, I love its epic scope, and it has a number of thrilling moments. I love Westerns - and I like this film's take on late 1800s scenario of the downtrodden immigrants exploited by the rich industrialists. I was quite tickled to find it in a book including it in "the best 100 films ever made! " The book talked about how it was very popular in France where it was considered the first socialist Western.

Star Wars certainly changed the way people saw movies - putting an end to the double feature and the custom of being able to see a movie repeatedly for the price of admission - which led to the birth of multiplexes, which began with subdividing (and destroying) countless singles-screen theaters. And then along came the 80s - the wasteland of American film history.

filmdr said...

Thanks, I will J.D. You are referring to Down and Dirty Pictures, I take it. It's funny to think of Biskind taking on the '80s, because he does such a good job of denigrating that decade in advance. I like the way Biskind foreshadows many of the problems with the modern day blockbuster. As he writes, "every studio movie became a B movie, and at least for the big action blockbusters that dominate the studios' slates, second unit has become first unit." I also liked his characterization of '80s films as "star vehicles comprised of little more than a series of movie moments set to a pounding score."

Thanks, Craig. You probably noticed your influence on this post given your excellent series on Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution. I can see what you mean about Biskind's weaknesses (he can be mean-spirited), but Biskind is informative in terms of filmmaking technique, and Mark Harris does owe something to him. I look forward to reading Tom Shone's book. It's also funny how Mark Harris has a nice piece in Entertainment Weekly about how the blockbuster formula is no longer working this summer.

Also, I like the point about the damning influence of Star Wars. '70s films like The Godfather, were all about exposing the moral ambiguities and the political corruption of the Nixon era. There's a sense that Lucas sensed that people were getting tired of that and wanted something more positive, but then later he got caught in the Star Wars machine. I also like the association of the "innocence" of Star Wars with Ronald Reagan's mode of leadership.

Thanks, Movieman. I'll look into the documentary. Biskind also includes a humrorous portrait of Friedkin turning to Jeanne Moreau for New Wave comfort after the tanking of Sorcerer.

Thanks, Sam. I found Easy Rider, Raging Bulls very readable in proportion to what I know about the films involved. Biskind does an especially good job with Martin Scorsese.

Thanks, Hokahey,

Biskind's book also includes great portraits of the screenwriters Robert Towne and Paul Schrader.

You should write a post about your liking of Heaven's Gate, because I wonder if people just had a hard time appreciating the film's good points in the midst of the general critical slaughter. Didn't you find the whole opening scene in Harvard a bit unnecessary (I had fun juxtaposing in my head the image of the older Joseph Cotten with the fake older version in Citizen Kane)? Didn't you find the dancing and rollerskating scenes a bit much? At times, Cimino just seems to fall in love with the idea of film movement. Heaven's Gate struck me as the anti-Breathless, an argument in favor of a not shooting so much film per shot used in the movie. Heaven's Gate seems to sacrifice much (plot, pacing, balance) in favor of the perfect shot.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - Yes - the pacing of Heaven's Gate is marred by a number of overlong scenes. I rather like the roller skating and dancing scenes - but the lengthy scene in which the immigrants express their outrage and argue over what to do is just a mess and a bunch of noise. Your suggestion of a post is a good one. As I said, I can see this film's many flaws, I just love it for its vision. I respect the filmmaker's passion for a vast visual epic of the West. I love filmmakers who take a risk. When you look at the films being released this summer, it's all old stories. Not many new ventures.

My favorite Biskind book is Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. It includes great analyses of 50s sci-fi and Westerns. I use its theories a lot in film history.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the tip, Hokahey. I look forward to reading several Biskind books as the summer goes on.

Kelli Marshall said...

You sold me with the anecdotes about BONNIE AND CLYDE (love that film!), Julie Christie's dialogue, and Faye Dunaway's urine cup!