on 1 April 1999
It's hard not to enjoy a book chock full of nasty gossip about famous people, but by the time you reach the end of Biskind's book, you may be as tired of the author as you are of the self-indulgent directors he profiles.
The book is undeniably fun to read -- after all, who doesn't enjoy watching smug hippies with more pretension than talent self-destruct? But Biskind's writing is slap-dash at best. He often changes from last to first names even when referring to minor figures, causing the reader to return to earlier paragraphs to figure out exactly who is taking drugs with whom. Or who is sleeping with whom. Or backstabbing. Or stealing writing credits. Or attending Ho Chi Minh rallies. Etc.
Biskind is almost as bad a film critic as he is a writer. He can't seem to tell the difference between truly dreadful films like Easy Rider and Shampoo (which deserve to be remembered, if at all, as cultural artifacts) from genuine achievements like The Last Picture Show or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He simply loves them all.
All except Star Wars and Jaws, that is. In fact, Spielberg and Lucas come in for lots of gratuitous criticism simply for being more interested in telling stories than deconstructing genre -- or experimenting with drugs or smuggling Huey Newton into Cuba.
In the end, Biskind never does resolve his fervor for the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll generation's work and politics from the undeniable evidence that their self-indulgence was ultimately ruinous. But there are so few books about film and the film industry that make for good popular reading, you simply have to make the best of what you get. We'll just have to wait for a book where the skill of the author is up to the fascinating subject.
on 20 August 1999
"...But it should have been perfect [but] in the end, we f***ed it all up. It should have been so sweet too, but it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given something that f***in' valuable again".
-Nicky Santoro in the film, "Casino".
A common thread in some of Martin Scorsese's films is the "loss of paradise" theme. How cool was the gangster world of "Goodfellas" before Henry Hill screwed it up by dealing with drugs? Or how cool was Saul Rothstein's world in Vegas before he screwed it up by marrying a scam artist?
In both of these films the chararacters were given the world and in the end the messed it all up. Have you ever wondered why Mr. Scorsese might have gravitated towards these themes? Well, after reading Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bull", I think you might find the answer.
It's a fascinating read about how, for a brief moment, Hollywood went loopy and handed over it's power to the street guys, the directors. Scorsese, Hopper, Beatty, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Friedkin, etc. They became the town's "White Knights" and saved Hollywood from literally going senile.
Now, I don't know how many of the book's stories are actually true, but what the hell! It's a fun - lurid read! The only drawback is the depressing ending, which, of course, is how the young innovative directors scewed up and were never given something so valuable, as running Hollywood, again.
on 9 June 1999
Biskind presents us, in typical Hollywood fashion, with two, boiled-down, over-the-top stereotypical faces of movie-makers, a fork in the road as it were for the coming years of American cinema: Dennis Hopper, who I'm convinced after reading this book is as a vile a sack of flesh to ever walk the earth--save for Robert Altman--and the Godfearing, uptight, clean-cut, corporate guy like Spielberg. Frankly, neither offer me very much reason to ever want to see a movie again, much less one of theirs. (Anyone who saw "Saving Private Ryan" and didn't think it was as facist, flag-waving, propagandaist a piece of movie-making as there ever was is fooling themselves)
Distaste, awe, and feeling like a rubbernecker at a traffic accident is the culmative effect that book creates. Biskind shows the reader warts and all and spends most of the time showing how the warts are some of the most fascinating parts of this rather indistinguishable crew. (All of whom, except for, like, Mr. Love Machine Warren Beatty, come from quite similar backgrounds: outcasts, scrawny, imaginative, no good with women, went to movies a lot, wanted to make their own films, couldn't deal with human beings the way the rest of us Joe Schmoes do, and instead of learning people skills that might make them better humans, they only threw themselves further into the maw of the Hollywood machine.) Why else, then, does Biskind mention, for example, that Polly Platt didn't wear underwear or that Bogdonavich carried reviews of his movies around with him, except to provide the salacious details that together work to tear down the gods of the 70's? That is his intention. And after he's done tearing them down, what's left in their place...what?
Some would argue that these people's behavior served a means to an ends. Disgraceful, harmful, destructive behavior should never be rewarded, encouraged, or condoned no matter how much money a movie made or how exciting the car chase in "The French Connection" was. But that is not the case in Hollywood as Biskind's text demonstrates. These people are lauded, and perversely, are still talked about to this day for their over-the-top excesses. In fact their excesses far outshone their talent. (For some reason, Dennis Hopper's name comes to mind.) Tragically, or fortunately, everyone gets his or her comeuppance in some way, thanks by in large to their own breakdowns and to the cut-throat 'win at all costs' world they live in. These men who would be king were just men, who burned bridges and ruined lives and behaved like apes. No, wait, that's an insult to apes.
Sadder, still to me, is the success bestowed on the ones sober enough, willing to massage the system enough to turn out the pap the movie machine needs to keep feeding the masses. (See also "The Phantom Menace") As we learn, some of the rebels shot themselves in the foot, (in some of their cases, they should have aimed a lot higher) while the others accumulated power so that the system commodified their talents and made them the bar by which other films are, I think, unfairly judged. (In Hopper's case, he just lived long enough so that everyone forgot what he'd done and by then his whole "crazy guy from the sixties" act was his shtick and landed him "Speed" et al.)
What seemed neglected in all of Biskind's wart exploration was the new way the distribution channels and release schedules were discovered with the success of "The Godfather" and "Jaws". Suddenly the studios have a new way of getting more money. That, to me, seems to be as much of the cause for the blockbuster mindset of these men (and, yes, they're mostly men, I'm afraid) that run the movie business. By today, movies, the end product, is basically just product, no more personal than a can of soup. Much the way it was before the 70's began.
To those critics of this book who think "Easy Riders'..." is confusing or hard to read, I would say that they should think of this book as a book version of "Nashville"--Lots of different people, all talking at once, all moving in different directions intersecting, occasionally, long enough to hate one another's guts--or make a good movie. Like Altman's movies, this book, then, is the hero, or as Biskind is quick to point out, the director become the star. In this way, Biskind is emulating the form that was to be so popular during this heyday.
On a final note, the person whom I was most disappointed in was Pauline Kael. I once thought of her as the be-all end-all, untouchable of critics. Pauline, we learn, is more or less another tool. Pauline, if you're reading this (yeah, right) count one of your fans heartbroken. Read this book and weep.