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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Comes To TV

On Sunday night, The Trio Network, whose name probably derives from the number of viewers who are able to receive it, aired a documentary version of Peter Biskind’s 1999 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. For those of you who don’t have access to the channel on your cable or DBS system, or who do (like I do, via DirecTV) and want to catch it next time it airs, here’s a synopsis of the film.

As Biskind described in his book, the 1970s was a true period of renaissance for Hollywood, as the old heads of the studio lost touched with their audiences, and a new crop of filmmakers emerged to fill the gaps. Of course, Hollywood turning itself over happens somewhat regularly. The Hollywood of today is a far cry from the Hollywood of the 1970s, just as the Hollywood of the 1940s, considered by many today to be its golden era, was very different from the Hollywood of the 1920s before talkies came into being.

But in the 1970s, after a decade in which the studios came to the brink of self-destruction by losing their audience, a new crop of young Turks arrived to fill the void.

As John Podhoretz wrote a couple of years ago:

The young French directors of the famous late ’50s “new wave” were inspired by hack Hollywood filmmakers, not by Shakespeare or Balzac or Dickens. In the 1960s, their American stepchildren burst forth: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, and others.
These men could do things with a camera nobody had ever been able to do. They had seen every movie ever made and had broken those movies down frame by frame, turning themselves into the Noam Chomskys of film – the world’s foremost experts on the grammar of visual storytelling.

They brought a new snap and dazzle to film. When that was combined with both a new freedom in subject matter and new technological developments, the medium became exciting again, in the late ’60s and early ’70s – in a way it hadn’t since the advent of television.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

But 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?), 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 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 films contained in Biskind’s title are dark, cynical movies the bookended lots of other dark, cynical movies: The afore mentioned 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 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 “the 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 and the documentary each note), 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 looks secure for at least this decade. (And I’ll be more than happy to be proven wrong about that!)

About Ed Driscoll

  • Rodney Welch

    Interestingly, when people talk about the 1970s, it always tends to focus on those young renegades Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and Scorsese. No question they are important, but any survey of big 1970s auteur names is incomplete without Robert Altman. He was older, of course, but from about 1970 to 1975 he made a string of masterpieces that were fresher and as interesting — if not more so — as those of his contemporaries. MASH, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville
    and several others near-successes in-between — it amounts to a near incomparable winning streak, artistically if not always commercially. And he continues to turn out great work, albeit very much in what Pauline Kael termed a “one-off, one-on” way.

  • Ed Driscoll


    You’re absolutely right–arguably, Altman did his best work in the 1970s. The Easy Riders book had plenty of details about him, but there were less in the film (although they mentioned MASH, McCabe and Nashville, perhaps because they couldn’t secure an interview with him, unlike some of his contemporaries.


  • Rodney Welch


    I hope to see the film sometime. I read the Biskind book when it came out and more or less liked it — it had lots of great, great information, and I got to the point where I was reading it aloud to my film buddies. So many great stories — like that one where Warren Beatty wanted another take for some scene on McCabe, and a flustered Altman eventually went to bed and left Beatty there with a cameraman to do as many takes as he wanted. And — another story — it certainly deflated the myth of Spielberg the wunderkind a bit, given the editing work of Verna Fields on Jaws.

    One complaint about the book, though, was that it was too gossipy, in a kind of ugly way — there were personal details about the people involved that I really didn’t care to know.