This can’t be said of many films, but Kenneth Bowser’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is as juicy as it is educational. Based on Peter Biskind’s bestseller of the same name, Bowser’s documentary explores how the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” culture revitalized American cinema in the late ’60s and early ’70s. At once entertaining and dizzyingly comprehensive, Easy Riders uses archival footage; interviews with actors, directors, and screenwriters; and narration by William H. Macy to chronicle the many highs and lows of the era. It screens Monday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
- VROOM-VROOM : Dennis Hopper, left, and Peter Fonda, right, star as Wyatt and Billy, two bikers traveling from L.A. to New Orleans in search of America, in Easy Rider. The “New Hollywood” filmmaking culture Hopper’s film embodied is the subject of an intriguing documentary by Kenneth Bowser.
The story begins in 1966. With much of its audience lost to television, Hollywood’s major film studios are largely broke, out of touch, and paranoid, and as a result, American film isn’t really going anywhere. Meanwhile, European film is enjoying a renaissance, with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut pioneering the French New Wave, and Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman making dark, visually striking, and resonant works of art.
According to Bowser’s documentary, it was Bonnie and Clyde that first bridged the gap: at long last, an American film with meaning, artistry, and dimension. However, it couldn’t have happened without the French.
Esquire writers David Newman and Robert Benton had been deeply inspired by the French New Wave, and the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde was their response. As neither of them had any screenwriting experience, the two men brought the manuscript to Truffaut, who helped greatly improve the promising material, giving Newman and Benton lessons in basic screenwriting along the way. Meanwhile, director Arthur Penn and screen heartthrob Warren Beatty had begun to hear the siren song of European cinema as well. After Beatty—who had been eager to play a role that required more than just a pretty face—heard about Bonnie and Clyde from Truffaut during a shoot in Paris, he agreed to star in and produce the film, with Penn as director. The film was picked up by Warner Brothers, albeit with some initial trepidation. Bonnie and Clyde marked the beginning of what would be called the New Hollywood—young, daring American filmmakers able to tap into the youth culture so foreign to most studio executives.
But the major Hollywood studios of the ’60s and ’70s, explains Bowser’s documentary, couldn’t always be counted upon to recognize (and leave unmolested) groundbreaking pieces of cinema. Some films, like Bonnie and Clyde, made it through with some difficulty, where others were compromised or rejected. The studios’ recalcitrance, however, resulted in several interesting phenomena. One of these was the B movie—fun, campy, low budget stuff the kids were into, but which the studios wouldn’t touch. Leading the genre was Roger Corman, a director and producer who cranked out one successful low-budget hit after another. It was working with Corman on films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf that recent film school graduates like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, and Peter Bogdanovitch and actors such as Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Robert de Niro got their first experience in the industry.
Part of the delight of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls comes from seeing the greatest names in ’70s film as unkempt, skinny, ambitious kids. (When, in a piece of old footage, a cameraman asked Coppola to “tell me about your assistant,” and proceeded to pan over to a bashful George Lucas, I about died.) Fascinating, too, is witnessing the fallibility and, often, insecurity of these masters. Choosing Coppola to direct The Godfather, for instance, was seen as something of a risk. Lucas was humiliated by studios’ negative reaction to his 1971 effort THX 1138, and the initial reactions to Star Wars weren’t encouraging either. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws ran hopelessly behind schedule, suffered from a constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark, and seemed at many points like it was going to be a total disaster.
The way Bowser (and Biskind, author of the book on which the film is based) tells it, filmmaking in the ’70s and late ’60s often came down to knowing when to give the young, talented directors of the New Hollywood total creative freedom—and when they couldn’t be trusted anywhere near it. The new generation had the talent and the insight into youth culture the major studios lacked, but they also tended to party hard, drink excessively, have scandalous affairs, get behind schedule, believe cocaine made them more productive, and occasionally go batshit insane. Within a very short radius of every successful film—The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Easy Rider, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Jaws—there seemed to be something crazy brewing.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls contains subtle touches of humor and a good deal of attitude, and some of the opinions of the work’s filmmaker and original author are clear. From the beginning, for instance, it’s assumed that we all agree studio executives are blustering, bloated old fogies. But once this is established, the film largely withholds judgment, allowing archival footage and interviews with Hopper, Fonda, and Bogdanovitch to speak for themselves. In the end, the audience is left to form its own opinions about the era’s hedonistic filmmaking culture—both the masterpieces it produced and the lives it ruined in the process.
The sexual tension between Bogdanovitch and young actress Cybill Shepard, for instance, ruined the director’s marriage. After directing and starring in Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper directed a project in Peru and then went back to the States to edit it—though the editing process quickly began to resemble a nonstop, drug-fueled party in which all of his friends had a say, and Hopper more or less chopped the thing to bits. (“I had final cut,” he says, “and I cut my own throat.”) Sam Peckinpah, director of many bloodthirsty films including The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, seems always at the fringes of the documentary: Every so often it revisits the crazed, alcoholic director with a mix of wariness and awe, along the lines of “Meanwhile, Sam Peckinpah had mostly recovered his shattered career. However … .”
Some of the biggest blows to the New Hollywood community, however, weren’t self-inflicted. Those included the murder of actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, by Charles Manson’s followers. Gruesome headlines had always influenced the way films were made and received—the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, for example, made the release of the Roger Corman-produced Targets utterly out of the question—but this was a tragedy on a much more personal level. For the moment, it seemed, the New Hollywood party came to a halt.
Perhaps as a result of having been adapted from a book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is thoughtfully researched, impeccably detailed, and neatly organized into chapters. Somehow, it takes an incredibly dense subject about which there are myriad anecdotes and opinions and packages it into a cohesive, satisfying work.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is walking here. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.