Book review: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Easy Riders, Raging BullsEasy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is remarkable.

No, I mean it. If you’re a film buff there’s no need to complete reading this review. Just go read the book: you’ll thank me later.

Still here? Well, okay. The work is cobbled together through reams of interviews to provide a more or less seamless account of the rise of the auteur in the ’60s and ’70s. Well, those generally hailed as auteurs – thanks, Pauline Kael – rather than those who actually were auteurs. You know: Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Friedkin, De Palma, et cetera. (Add to that the associated producers, writers and actors – Nicholson, Beatty, Towne, Hopper and the like – and you’ve a colourful cast looking to smoke, snort, drink, fuck and generally behave badly with anything or anyone around.

At times the work veers towards the seedy environs of Hollywood Babylon – drugs, rooting and the snorting of ashes (no, really) are all here, though it’s not treated as salaciously as Anger would have. Indeed, for all the terrible behaviour – and there’s a lot of it, because it was the ’70s and we are talking about cultural giants loosed in a playground of hedonism and pre-AIDS what-me-worry? freewheeling shag-o-rama.

But at heart the book’s a documentary account of hubris. Again and again. Men of vision (and degenerating social skills, usually not helped by titanic drug abuse) are brought low by their own self-regard, their inability to plan, their inability to be liked. Almost all the directors covered – Spielberg is an exception as he’s managed to play it safe. (Though Biskind is fairly excoriating about his naivety.) There’s not a lot of sympathy for the men involved – generally they’ve bought the bullshit on themselves – but there is such an excellent feeling of “what if?” evoked by the writing. There’s certainly elements of hippie dreaming undone by greed and the encroaching fingers of drugs and violence, though.

Through all the ridiculous claims and he-said-she-said stuff which packs the length of the work, Biskind is meticulous to seek clarification. There’s many places where the respondent has chosen to remain silent, though, leading to plenty of wonderful speculation.

Biskind’s written a couple of other books on film. My reread of this one has whetted my appetite, and I’ll be interested to see if the newer generation of directors and producers can produce as much vicarious entertainment as appear here. I’ll also be interested to see how he further develops the idea – shared by Robert Altman – that this generation killed the movies by making everything stupider, a form of what he terms visual rape. There’s much rumination on the idea, and it certainly sparks conversation if nothing else.

Go on, go read it. Then go watch the movies mentioned in it that you haven’t seen. Because I guarantee, there’ll be a bunch.

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