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.