An introduction to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2006)

[This text appeared as an introduction to the Bloomsbury *21 Reads for the 21st Century *edition of Peter Biskind's definitive history of the New Hollywood]

Books about Hollywood tend to adopt one of two tones. They’re either blinded by the lights, willing conspirators in the spectacle of the movies, or else transfixed by the shadows, the skull beneath the skin. You either get Hooray For or Babylon - and if you place too much faith in one, it begins, disturbingly, to mutate into the other, like Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now!. You could argue that this has become the meaning of Hollywood: no longer just a place or a system of film production, but a sort of international shorthand for the proximity of glamour to degradation.

Easy Riders Raging Bulls contains more than enough megalomania, conspicuous consumption and dead starlets to satisfy both the moraliser and the thwarted hedonist. It has Bob Evans’ monogrammed slippers and Paul Schrader’s guns. It has Steven Spielberg flicking through model agency books to find a date. It has Dennis Hopper. It’s also a celebration of a moment which, as it recedes into the yellow tint of a McCabe & Mrs Miller past, feels increasingly important, both because of the work that came out of it and the lessons it has for us about that other great Hollywood binary: art and money.

The period roughly bracketed by Bonnie & Clyde and Star Wars was a time when the elderly gatekeepers of the American film industry were completely wrong-footed by the emergence of the counterculture. Their formula stopped working, so they were forced to put their cash into the hands of directors, with chaotic and occasionally brilliant results. For a few years it was possible to get studios to fund films which didn’t follow conventional narrative arcs, which pushed visual boundaries and didn’t always reproduce the standard Hollywood message about the world. It was an era of ambiguity and lens flare: stare into the sun and the bank robbers look like politicians, producers are political radicals, the Corleone family legitimate businessmen and Travis Bickle a hero like he never could be in Vietnam.

In the New Hollywood, rich women gave their hair-dressers head at Nixon fund-raisers while poor ones sang in bars and watched their boyfriends smash up motel rooms. Things were never perfect, though they were often beautiful. Speech was mumbled. Conversations could be hard to make out, even if you were in the apartment next door with high-end recording equipment. Sometimes, joyously, almost incredibly for a medium as locked-down and ruinously expensive as American cinema, the action was improvised. Simply to get into a position where you can burn through someone else’s money by improvising on 35 millimetre film: there’s a thing for any creative artist to lie awake imagining.

If there’s a message film-makers should take away from Easy Riders Raging Bulls, it’s this: fight, by whatever means necessary. Fair or foul, no one will remember thirty years down the line, except the friends you betray. The New Hollywood was a dream of artistic liberty built on tantrums, deviousness and the cynical manipulation of others. Sometimes the combat got really ugly: Coppola freaking out in the Philippines, Hal Ashby succumbing to coke, Warren Beatty demanding a thirtieth take at three in the morning. And in the end, as Peter Biskind and Billy and Captain America point out, they blew it. Instead of a happy ending, the bloated figures of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer strode over the horizon, the surgically-enhanced attention-deficient twins of eighties High Concept. Instead of a utopian community of artists, the great might-have-been embodied by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, there was Top Gun. The nearest the New Hollywood got to its dream of creative autonomy was George Lucas’s Skywalker ranch, which turned out to have more in common with the Microsoft campus at Redmond than a Digger commune. Perhaps there was always something slightly infantile about the Hollywood brats’ wish to have their cake and eat it, to be European auteurs with houses on Mulholland Drive.

One by one, the transgressive images of the New Hollywood have been commodified. Through the magic of post-production, comfortable middle-aged consumer Dennis Hopper can wave out of the window of a Ford Cougar to his younger easy-ridin’ self. It’s a Europe-only ad, so Dennis can take the money without blowing his cool for the domestic market, but it shows how hard it is to think back to a time before these films were part of our common currency, before boxing was in stately black and white and Ride of the Valkyries soundtracked backlit helicopters. Easy Riders Raging Bulls helps us do that. At times the book is suffused with wistfulness for what was and might have been, a Gatsbyesque golden glow through which we glimpse something very like paradise, a little group of young people hanging out by the beach, somewhere beyond Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway.

August 2006