Judge Patrick Bromley tours the filmmaking of the 1970s. Disco ball not included.
How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'N' Roll Generation saved Hollywood.
Walking away from last year's excellent '70s film documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, I was filled with a need to go out and get my hands on every film from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, et. al. Perhaps it's because Decade was made by filmmakers—Richard LaGravanese and the late Ted Demme—and is therefore infused with, above all else, a palpable passion for its subject films. It may also account for the seemingly unlimited access the film has to every important and influential director of the era. Constructed from interviews with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to William Friedkin to Bruce Dern to Julie Christie, and packed with classic scenes from the likes of The Last Detail, M*A*S*H, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and dozens of others, the film paints a true picture of what made these films—and filmmakers, working at their peak—great.
Coming on the heels of A Decade Under the Influence, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is something of a disappointment. Originally broadcast on cable television's TRIO channel, the film smacks more of an episode of VH1: Behind the Music than of a documentary on the movies of the 1970s themselves. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls takes a look back at the decade that many consider to be the last great movement in filmmaking. Interviews with an assortment of individuals involved in just about every aspect of the industry—directors, actors, producers, writers, costume designers—are combined with film clips, production stills, and home movie footage to create a mosaic of the '70s filmmaking scene.
I've read Biskind's book several times, and the film version—faithful to its subject, I suppose—shares many of the same shortcomings. Like Biskind's book, Easy Riders concerns itself more with "the scene" than with the art; the advantage of the book, however, was that it had far more room in which to elaborate. In addition to dishing about the feuds between Altman and Warren Beatty on the set of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the book provided a great deal of information about the actual production, as well as an analysis of the impact of Altman's directorial style, with his large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue. The film version, devoting only a couple of minutes to the subject, focuses strictly on the tumultuous relationship between the director and star, providing little more than gossip. In detailing the production of The Last Picture Show, less attention is paid to Peter Bogdanovich's emergence as a new American auteur than on his affair with leading lady Cybill Shepherd. In a particularly devastating interview, Polly Platt, Bogdanovich's wife at the time, recounts discovering Shepherd on a magazine cover and suggesting her as "the perfect Jacy"—then watching as her husband fell in love with her, leaving Platt behind. The fixation on this type of peripheral information makes Easy Riders an entertaining, but altogether dismissable, effort.
Easy Riders has a large cast of characters, and is therefore able to provide a significant cross-section of the '70s filmmaking movement. The problem is, very few of those interviewed could be considered major players, while too many of the names that shaped the decade are missing. Although it's great that someone like Joan Tewkesbury is asked to be involved, she made her only real contribution to the '70s film scene as a screenwriter on Altman's Nashville. That's no small feat to be sure, but it doesn't carry the same weight as having someone like Altman himself comment not only on that film, but on the films surrounding it as well. Hearing Ellen Burstyn's take on just about anything is valuable, but not so much so for Karen Black (who, it turns out, apparently wasn't acting in House of 1,000 Corpses). By attempting to include such a large sampling of the filmmaking community, each group—be it actors, directors, or writers—feels sorely underrepresented.
The organization of the film also proves to be a hindrance, in that there doesn't seem to be any. Like Biskind's book, Easy Riders gives the impression that it is arranged chronologically, but the coverage seems to be all over the map. Director Kenneth Bowser doesn't seem to be working around any clear idea at a given time. It's as though he felt that if he just let enough people talk for long enough, the result would come together on its own. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Too many sequences ramble without any sense of purpose, with sizeable chunks of time dedicated to The Monkees and hardly any to Apocalypse Now or The French Connection. There is an extended tribute to Roger Corman and New World Pictures, and while Corman's long overdue for some credit, it hardly pays off if we never see exactly what the directors to whom he gave breaks would go on to accomplish. Though films are often given a political or social context (which I would consider a plus), there is seldom a sense of context from a filmmaking perspective; questions of where the ideals of the movement began and how it progressed are teased, but scarcely addressed. We end up asking ourselves where the documentary is going, and what message it is attempting to convey.
The thrust, ultimately, is the sense of (borrowing the words of Peter Fonda) "We blew it." The film, like the book on which it's based, is preoccupied with the question, "What went wrong?" How did this group of young directors, who single-handedly revitalized the industry and revolutionized the studio system, let it all slip away? The film provides the (fairly obvious) answer: excess. Too much power, too many drugs. The frankness with which those involved discuss their fall from grace is one of the film's high points. Hearing Bogdanovich acknowledge his own hubris as the largest contributing factor to his box-office undoing not only humanizes Easy Riders' story, but turns it into a cautionary tale at the same time. Dennis Hopper's discussions about drug and alcohol addiction (located in the bonus interviews, unfortunately) border on confession; in this instance, his stories are more than just "dirt"—they offer a glimpse into the elements that helped shape, and eventually tear down, the filmmaking movement of the time.
Shout! Factory provides a perfectly serviceable presentation of the film. The 1.85 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks good during the interview segments, which are essentially talking heads against a black background. Some of the film clips, though, end up presented in the wrong aspect ratio, and don't always seem to have been taken from the best possible source material. The home movies are, of course, another story—those probably look as good as they can, and are one of the disc's selling points; seeing a young George Lucas interviewed alongside Francis Ford Coppola (Lucas was a production assistant on Coppola's The Rain People) is priceless. The disc's audio is a 2.0 Dolby Digital presentation, and it sounds great—but, again, the film is essentially just people talking and few demands are placed on the soundtrack.
Provided on a second disc is Easy Riders' only extra: approximately 100 minutes of bonus interview footage. While these bonus interviews cannot realistically be said to help the film itself (since they're not actually in the film), they do enhance the value of the disc immeasurably. Presumably omitted from the film in the interest of keeping the running time down, these bonus interviews help round out much of what is lacking in the film. Here, one can find discussions of directors like Altman and Nashville, and of the film critic war between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael and its subsequent effect on cinema in general. Dennis Hopper's substance abuse confessional is here, as is an amusing piece with Margot Kidder where she lists exactly who did what drugs. That Jonathan Taplin's story of Martin Scorsese's efforts to evade the FBI is relegated to the bonus features seems almost criminal.
Ultimately, there are too many caveats to blindly recommend Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. If you've read the book, and would like to hear testimonial directly from the people who were there (as opposed to Biskind, who has been accused of taking some liberties with his version), by all means pick it up. To me, it is best served as a companion piece to the much more accomplished and informative A Decade Under the Influence. My recommendation would be to see that film first; if you're still interested in the story behind the story behind the story, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls may be for you. Better yet, go out and get Taxi Driver.
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