Culture

Radical Celluloid Chic: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls now on the Kindle

 

The death on Monday of Bert Schneider, the man who, along with his business partner Bob Rafelson, brought you both the Monkees and Easy Rider, brings to a close one chapter in the life and death of New Hollywood. As Mark Steyn wrote on Wednesday:

Bert Schneider was an obscure figure by the time of his death, but back in “New Hollywood” – that interlude between the end of the studio system and the dawn of the Jaws/Star Wars era – he was briefly a significant figure. He started in TV in the mid-Sixties, helped create “The Monkees” and then took them to the big screen in the feature film Head. That flopped, but the next film he produced, Easy Rider, cost less than 400 grand and within three years had made $60 million. There followed Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show.

But, as much as I like the latter, I prefer to remember the late Mr Schneider for his contribution to the gaiety of 1970s Oscar nights. Truly, that was the golden age of Academy Awards ceremonies. On April 8th 1975, Bert Schneider’s film Hearts And Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Instead of an acceptance speech, he read out a telegram conveying fraternal greetings to the American people from Dinh Ba Thi of the Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government. Offstage, Bob Hope was mad, and scribbled some lines for his co-host Frank Sinatra. So Frank came out and said that the Academy wished to disassociate itself from the preceding. Then a furious Shirley MacLaine yelled at Frank that she was a member of the Academy and no one had asked her if she wanted to disassociate herself from the Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government. Then John Wayne said aw, the Schneider guy was a pain in the ass.

The rise of New Hollywood is a story that’s been told countless times, but one of the very best tellings is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, originally published in 1998, but finally released in a Kindle version this week — entirely coincidentally, the day after Bert Schneider died. Biskind managed to interview many of the original players, and wrote a compelling narrative of the collapse of postwar Hollywood and the retirement of the last of the great moguls who built the industry, and the rise of the young turks who would be, for a time, their successors. And then their own usurpation, both through drug and alcohol-induced dissipation, and because Hollywood executives, with a little help from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, rediscovered how to connect with mass audiences.

By the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was in ruins. There were multiple reasons — Michael Medved has blamed the demise of Hollywood’s self-enforced production code and its replacement with the G/PG/R/X rating system as alienating a big chunk of traditional moviegoers in the late 1960s. Concurrently, the urban “youth” market of the 1960s felt alienated by an industry still churning out formula clones of the last big film by “Old Hollywood,” The Sound of Music. The failure of so many of those films that came in its wake, including Dr. Doolittle, Hello Dolly, Star and other expensive, out of control musicals and family-oriented movies, nearly drove 20th Century Fox to financial ruin, and ultimately caused the once-mighty MGM to effectively close up shop as a functioning studio.

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During the late 1960s, age had caught up with the industry as well. In an era whose slogan amongst the left was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” most Hollywood crews were manned by people double that age, who had broken in around the time of World War II or immediately afterwards, and weren’t planning to leave anytime soon. As Steven Spielberg told Biskind:

“It was not like the older generation volunteered the baton,” says Spielberg. “The younger generation had to wrest it away from them. There was a great deal of prejudice if you were a kid and ambitious. When I made my first professional TV show, Night Gallery, I had everybody on the set against me. The average age of the crew was sixty years old. When they saw me walk on the stage, looking younger than I really was, like a baby, everybody turned their backs on me, just walked away. I got the sense that I represented this threat to everyone’s job.”

Ultimately he was — including many of the young turks in Biskind’s book, ironically enough. But prior to Spielberg’s rise as an industry unto himself, as Biskind tells it in Easy Riders, there were two milestones in the birth of New Hollywood in the late 1960s. The first was Bonnie & Clyde, the second was Easy Rider. As leftwing author Rick Perstein told Reason magazine in 2008 while promoting his then-recent book Nixonland:

My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys—you cannot underestimate how strange and fresh that was.

But along with Bonnie & Clyde’s subversive script (written by Robert Benton and David Newman, who got their start at Esquire magazine, then at the peak of its journalistic style and influence), at least the film had a known-star in Warren Beatty, a ravishing looking Faye Dunaway, whose career was still in its ascendency, and a veteran director in Arthur Penn.

In contrast, as Biskind writes, Easy Rider was by far the infinitely more improbable success, a story initially concocted by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and a director whose technique and mindset were...unusual to say the least by traditional Hollywood standards:

The first morning, Friday, February 23, 1968, Hopper gathered the cast and crew in the parking lot of the airport Hilton at 6:30 in the morning. “I was really keyed up,” he says. “As far as I was concerned, I was the greatest f***in’ film director that had ever been in America.” He appeared to be in the grip of full-blown paranoia and, remembers Bryant, “he just started haranguing us about how he’d heard a lot about how many creative people there were on this crew, but there is only one creative person here, and that’s me. The rest of you are all just hired hands, slaves. He was totally out of his mind. He was just raving; probably he had some combination of drugs and alcohol.” According to Fonda, he raged at each astonished person in turn, “This is MY f***ing movie! And nobody’s going to take MY f***ing movie away from me!” until he shouted himself hoarse. [Terry] Southern listened to Dennis’s performance, and made motions as if he were jacking off an enormous dick. He knew, as everybody did, that James Dean was Dennis’s guru. When Dennis came out with something particularly nutty, he’d say, “Jimmy wouldn’t appreciate that, Dennis.” Fonda was looking at his watch, thinking, “This is un-f***ing-believable. We missed the start of the parade.” He continues, “Everybody was looking at me because I’m the producer, and all I could think of was, Oh, shit! I’m f***ed. It’s my twenty-eighth birthday. What a f***ing present I’ve given myself—this little fascist blowin’ us all off, absolutely going nuts.”

But somehow, “the little fascist,” along with Fonda and Jack Nicholson, delivered the goods. Just as Bonnie & Clyde used a traditional Hollywood genre, the gangster film, as a vehicle to subvert the old system, Easy Rider took another veteran B-movie staple, the motorcycle picture, as its mutated form. Roger Corman-style biker films were shot cheap — Easy Rider cost half a million dollars — and could be counted on to bring in around ten million or so at the box office. Easy Rider did double that, an excellent return on what was, in Hollywood terms, a very low investment.

And thus the floodgates were open – Old Hollywood and its middlebrow tone had vanished (and for a time so did much of its audience) and New Hollywood had risen, incorporating elements of the French Nouvelle Vague and Italian postwar cinema, along with big heaping helpings of Radical Chic and Punitive Liberalism.

But as Biskind writes, Hollywood’s avant-garde unwittingly sowed their own destruction. Francis Ford Coppola helped to usher the era in with his first two Godfather movies. But he brought with him a young apprentice named George Lucas.

Ironically, Lucas would probably have never been given a chance to direct in the old Hollywood studio system, which would never have greenlighted a film like THX-1138. The same is true with the science fiction film that Lucas proposed as his follow up to his surprise 1974 hit, American Grafitti (itself essentially a Roger Corman-style teen flick released by a major studio).

Star Wars is both a product of the Hollywood of the 1970s, and the cause of the era’s demise. Made in an era when a young director could propose a film with an incomprehensible science fiction plot (rebels and princesses in spaceships trying to blow up a huge space station with laser sword fights thrown in for good measure — say what?), and get it bankrolled by one of the most important studios in Hollywood, Star Wars grossed 400 million dollars in its initial release alone. Because 20th Century Fox thought the film would be lucky if it were profitable, they cared little about its merchandising and sequel rights, and happily signed them away to its director. To this day, a big chunk of the revenue of Hasbro Toys comes from the deal that Kenner Toys (purchased by Hasbro in the mid-1990s) originally made with George Lucas.

Of course, it helped that Star Wars worked in contrast to the films of Lucas’s peers. Both of the films contained in Biskind’s title are dark, cynical movies with bummer endings that bookended lots of other dark, cynical movies: The aforementioned Godfather flicks, as well as Chinatown, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. Those are all excellent films, of course, but of a kind. No wonder film critic Robert Phillip Kolker encapsulated the era with a book titled A Cinema of Loneliness. And no wonder Star Wars practically printed money — it really was a breath of fresh air during that period.

The triple punch of Star Wars, combined with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Close Encounters, sealed the fate of “New Hollywood,” creating effectively “New, New Hollywood.” The studios had a new formula to run on, one that exists to this day: the summer blockbuster, opening nationally simultaneously in hundreds of movie theaters (something that hadn’t been done prior to the first Godfather movie, as Biskind notes), basically a Republic Serial or Roger Corman movie, but slickly done by Hollywood’s best craftsmen and actors working on an enormous budget. Add to the mix ancillary revenues from DVDs, videotapes, and merchandising, and Hollywood’s current formula held up for more than a quarter of a century.

The original Hollywood existed not as a giant artists’ garret, but as a vehicle to make money. But the post-1960s Hollywood occasionally forgets that formula. Sandwiched between blockbuster crowd-favorites of the 1960s such as Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music and The Dirty Dozen and then the Star Wars, Star Trek and Indiana Jones movies (not to mention the bulk of Steven Spielberg’s first twenty years of filmmaking), the artists that Biskind interviews seem not to understand what an aberration their late ’60s to early ’70s films were. Much as I love some of the darker movies of the 1970s (such as M*A*S*H, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and The Conversation), while all of these films were critics’ darlings, it has always been popcorn fare that’s kept Hollywood afloat.

The last decade was a reversion of that formula though. As Daniel Henninger wrote in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, “For activist and professional Democrats, the most ignominious day in their collective political lives” wasn’t September 11th 2001, but had only just recently occurred in the previous year, the Florida presidential recount. “The 2000 election ended only when the Supreme Court resolved it in favor of George Bush. Republican and independent voters moved on, but many Democrats never did; they were now being governed by an illegitimate president.” That notion, coupled with an intense case of political correctness that had straitjacketed the minds of virtually all Hollywood screenwriters, particularly when it came to the nexus of terrorism, religion and radical chic politics caused Hollywood to spend the last decade in a perpetual state of existential confusion. Traditional-themed movies such as the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchises printed money. Films made outside the system such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion and the Philip Anschutz-produced Narnia movies made large sums of money. But the children of the revolution that Biskind described in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls spent the decade producing such box office duds as Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, The Interpreter, and Redacted.

The cinematic revolution of the early 1970s no doubt seemed fresh and exciting to its participants in the eye of the cultural hurricane. But constantly reliving the glory days is a loser’s game with ever-diminishing returns. To understand why Hollywood seems perpetually trapped in the first half of the 1970s, downloading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is essential.

(Note: Portions of this post were based on my review of the 2003 documentary version of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for Blogcritics, which is also available on DVD.)