What I've been reading
I'm not sure if I've mentioned before how much I like not only the thing, but how the thing is made, and therefore I love reading books about how, say, movies are made almost as much as the movie itself. So I was jazzed to read this book, which is about the seismic shift in Hollywood from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. In that decade, a slew of new directors changed the way movies were made and how they were perceived. Biskind's book is pretty fascinating, and it's amazing that it's so, mainly because I hated pretty much everyone in this book. Yes, hated!
It's not surprising to anyone that creative types in a highly competitive business are often evil, but it's strange that every creative type in this book, with one exception, comes off as a complete scumbag. That one exception is Steven Spielberg, and from what the people in the book say, that might be because he's not a true "artiste." But we'll get back to that! (I should point out that a lot of the women come off pretty well, but that might be because this time period was still notable for its sexism, despite the women's movement.)
Biskind begins in the mid-1960s, when Hollywood had become a bit staid and conservative and moviegoers were abandoning theaters in droves. Television had taken a huge chunk out of their audience, and the owners of the movie companies, all old men, some of whom from the earliest days of Hollywood, no longer had any idea how to connect to the younger audiences. Into this mess came a bunch of directors and producers (and, to a lesser extent, writers and actors) who had been influenced by French New Wave and even Americans like Orson Welles (who became, in the 1970s, a patron saint of these men, who loathed how he had been treated by Hollywood) and wanted to make movies in that vein for an American audience. Biskind begins with Bonnie and Clyde, which shattered the perceptions of what a gangster movie could be and made Warren Beatty one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He follows that up with Dennis Hopper's Easy Riders, which made a boatload of money and pointed the way to low-budget movies that connected with the hippie generation. By the end of the 1960s, the New Hollywood was off and running and ready for the 1970s, one of the most creative eras in moviemaking ever.
Biskind tells the story in a sprawling thematic fashion, focusing on certain movies and individual directors, jumping back and forth in time to cover what he sees as the major signpost movies along the way. He covers the ones you'd expect - The Godfathers, Apocalypse Now, The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H - and some you might not expect, such as those of Lucas and Spielberg. The book is really about the directors, as the 1970s were their Golden Age, so he gives us good character sketches of Hopper, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Paul Schrader, Hal Ashby (whose death he sees as the symbolic end of the era), Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Spielberg. He gets into the directors' battles over creative control with the heads of the studios, who had never been challenged before. As their movies made money, the directors were able to gain more and reach higher, and Biskind's prose is thrilling as he discusses this. It's astonishing that he makes the dirty business of making movies (I mean, come on, they're only movies) sound so noble.
Of course, this is a "rise and fall" story, so the directors overreach, as many of them began to believe that they could write and produce, cutting everyone out of the process. As more than a few observers point out, very few of them were true "auteurs," so they couldn't write a good script or produce a good movie, and when they started alienating everyone who could, they turned out horrible movies. It's interesting that one of the few American "auteurs," Woody Allen, gets barely a mention in this book (and that to point out that he was, in fact, an auteur), perhaps because he was able to make the kinds of movies that these complicated directors wanted to make, and therefore wasn't as interesting. One of the weaknesses of the book is that Biskind tends to ignore a lot of movies that were important in the 1970s (A Clockwork Orange comes to mind), but if we recognize that he's not necessarily writing a history of the movies but a history of a group of directors who, to one degree or another, self-destructed like Icarus, it becomes less egregious. As the directors spiral out of control, Biskind does a good job getting all the dirt on them (he notes when people disagree on facts, but it happens surprisingly little) and showing how horrible they really were. Hopper is insane, Coppola is megalomaniacal, Scorsese is paranoid, Bogdanovich is vain, Friedkin is mean, and they're all doing copious amounts of drugs that don't help. It seems that very few of them made great movies after they became powerful, and only when they were brought low could they reinvent themselves. Some, like Bogdanovich (and, to a lesser extent, Coppola), never recovered. Some, like Scorsese, recovered almost in spite of themselves. Biskind writes this as a Greek tragedy, which is fine, but because there are almost no likable characters, it's hard to care all that much. Biskind, along with his subjects, seem to have an elevated idea of what movies mean, and although I love movies, I recognize that there might - just might - be more important things in the world. These directors, it seems, took far too long to figure that out.
Perhaps that's why Spielberg, and to a lesser extent Lucas, come off relatively well in the book. Lucas is, like every other director in the book, a control freak, but he takes it to a new level. Biskind seems to share the other directors' dismissive attitude toward Lucas, but he's the only one who created an independent entity that was able to be profitable and compete with the major studios. Of course, capturing the zeitgeist with Star Wars helped, but it was only with the success of The Empire Strikes Back was Lucas able to strike out totally on his own. But Lucas still comes off a bit like the emperor in the Star Wars saga - hiding out in the shadows, cloaked in mystery, slowly retreating more and more from the world. Spielberg, on the other hand, seems to be the only one who recognizes what movies are, and even though he cheat on Amy Irving, she's so mean to him you almost can't blame him. Spielberg is also held up to scorn by the subjects of the book, but he's also the only one who seemed to escape a major flop (1941) almost unscathed. There's a nice undertone of jealousy throughout the book whenever Lucas and Spielberg come up, both by the author and by the subjects. It makes the book a bit more interesting.
Ultimately, Biskind is a bit too in love with the decade, but at least he wears his heart on his sleeve. Yes, a lot of the movies of the Eighties were soulless corporate products, but perhaps that's because the directors of the Seventies screwed up so badly. They allowed their budgets to bloat so that their movies weren't profitable anymore, and so big-budget directors who could deliver as many dollars as possible came into vogue. The directors became so obsessed with power that they shut down producers, writers, and even actors occasionally, so the studio heads began to see less of those people too and began looking for the big explosion instead of the major star. Biskind never addresses that perhaps it wasn't only Spielberg's genius of reading the audience that changed the movies, but also the the egos of the directors. That's really the tragedy of this book - that talented people were allowed to run riot and destroyed a system without really replacing it with anything. After a decade of rule, the directors ate themselves and the studios just moved back in. Coppola wanted to create an alternative studio, Lucas sort of did, but nobody seemed to have a plan about what to do once they stormed the gates. They looked around, saw all the loot, and just started seizing it for themselves. Biskind's book is a fascinating portrait of this crazy time, and it's worth checking out for all the behind-the-scenes stuff about the movies and the lives of these men, who drank, smoked, and snorted anything they could get their hands on, blithely cheated on women who had supported them, and went a bit nuts when they got the keys to the kingdom. It's a gripping read, and I'd like to check out the other books that Biskind has written about the movie industry.