Peter Biskind's hypothesis—that the most original American movies were made in the late 1960s and '70s, after the collapse of Hollywood studio system and before the advent of blockbusters—kicks ass. His 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls makes villains out of corporate Hollywood's neutered weasels and heroes of bearded coke fiends. It also promotes healthy contempt for the '80s—hatred of easily brandable exports, box-office betting, R2-D2 figurines.
Who would want to fight it? Who would want to say that those lonesome or bloody movies (Bogdanovich, Peckinpah) are boring and forgettable? And that Tootsie was the one you saw seven times in the theater? You'd come off as square, disrespectful of elders, ignorant of the grammar of violence.
So you don't deny the Biskind hypothesis because, though it seems certainly romantic and probably facile, it is also cool. And now Biskind's engaging book about movies has itself become a movie; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Trio) premiered Sunday at 9 p.m. Along with some very good '70s films, it will run all month on Trio, the fledgling arts channel. I have been disappointed with Trio's programming in the past, but this movie is really good—if, for your own enjoyment, you don't worry too much about the polemic or the corny mythologizing. Suspend disbelief (Bonnie and Clyde "perfectly reflected" the race riots and mid-'60s Vietnam protests?!) and savor the good vibes of Peter Fonda, Hopper, Jack, Marty, Polanski, Beatty, Coppola (sellout?—no, he's cool), De Niro, Bob Evans, and anyone who can do an impression of the former boss of Paramount, Austrian mogul Charlie Bluhdorn.
While Easy Riders, Raging Bulls plays plenty of clips from the muffled, nonlinear movies it honors, its producer, Kenneth Bowser, has opted for a superorthodox TV documentary style: Period film patiently explained by voice-over and experts. Among those experts are Peter Bart, Ellen Burstyn, Karen Black (looking unsteady), Margot Kidder (looking great), Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Schrader, Cybill Shepherd, and Arthur Penn. The hippie survivors have stories to tell—about sex and drugs, though actually no rock 'n' roll—and they have film to back them up.
There's Polanski, leggy Sharon Tate by his side, chattering while sitting on a diving board. There's Beatty boasting modestly of his "bad habits and excesses." There's Roger Corman, the prolific B-movie producer, flaunting his very appealing combination of pragmatism and largess. And there are the many, many anonymous hands razoring out straight white lines and shoveling them up noses. The narration—cleverly read by William H. Macy—explains that the creative requirements for these guys was fourfold: "women, wine, parties, and good blow."
The opening aerial shots of the dilapidated studios of 1966 are hypnotic; I've never seen an image that so clearly made the case that Hollywood almost bit the dust. When a bulldozer slams into a blue Tara-like house, designed perhaps for a plantation movie, I winced. And then the rubble falls into the hands of a wild bunch—blustery guys who'd been to Paris to see Truffaut and Godard, and who now wanted to be auteurs—and it's hard not to cheer. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls drags only when it enters too deeply into the on-set politics of particular movies, especially the dogs, without putting the mini-dramas into context. The interviewers are more eager to get dirt than analysis—Liza Minnelli and Martin Scorsese's fling on the set of New York, New York; Bogdanovich's affair with Shepherd on The Last Picture Show—and they miss chances to connect the movies to larger cultural phenomena or even to the other arts. Sometimes, too, the memory-addled subjects seem tired of their 30-year-old war stories. Dennis Hopper's best moment in this movie comes when he tries to recall a drama on the benighted set of his Last Movie. "A fight proceeds," he begins, already flagging. "Whereupon it ends and everyone leaves."
When Jack Warner, the money man, first saw Bonnie and Clyde in the mid-'60s, he allegedly complained that he couldn't tell the bad guys from the good guys in it. (Simpleton, he also didn't know what an "homage" was.) To the mavericks, that was the point: Good and bad were about to be inverted and the lunatics were going to run the asylum. But that was then. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it's easy to tell the good guys from the bad: The good guys are, if not dead of drugs, having a laugh over the beautiful wreckage they left behind. The bad guys are out running DreamWorks or making Star Wars Episode III: Circle of the Force.