Easy Riders Raging Bulls Review
It’s become part of the new orthodoxy that the years between Bonnie and Clyde and Raging Bull were the real golden age of American cinema, thanks largely to the emergence of new talent that began with Coppola and peaked with Scorsese. Such statements are now commonplace and, I think, generally accepted. Indeed, I have been part of the increasing fan base of these films that has finally found acceptance. Recently, however, I’ve begun to have certain doubts but I will come to that later. Easy Riders Raging Bulls, based on the book by Peter Biskind, tells the story of these years, from the emergence of Coppola and Arthur Penn through to the release of Raging Bull in 1980. The thesis of the book, broadly speaking, was that sex and drugs were pivotal to the entire era, fuelling the creativity and accelerating the downfall. Cocaine is the main villain of the book, along with Star Wars and studio accountants. But the critical judgements throughout the book are dubious, the style is pure tabloid and the contents are gossipy and often malicious. The film is rather different. The amount of scandal has been toned down, the people involved get their own side of the story across and it’ a reasonably interesting guide to a fascinating period in American film history.
There’s not a great deal to say about the film itself, which is a worthy and slightly plodding documentary that suffers from an obvious lack of comment from the real players. The B-Team are wheeled out – Joan Tewkesbury instead of Altman, Richard Dreyfuss for Spielberg, Jonathan Taplin for Scorsese and so on – and sometimes the Z- Team – Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt. Unsurprisingly, the most compelling interviewees are the remnants of the A-Team who have agreed to cooperate – Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius, Dennis Hopper, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn. All display an impressive level of intelligence but the interviews with Peter Bogdanovich are remarkable for his disarming and genuinely affecting honesty. Most of the anecdotes will be familiar to anyone with even the slightest grasp of film history but they’re amusing and the 110 minutes flies by. Well chosen, if brief, clips and interesting photos make this a classy affair. The main problem is that it’s not long enough to cover all the ground that it intends to. Important films are dismissed - Straw Dogs is called “sexist”, which is at least debatable – and others are totally ignored. Nor, for example, is there any mention of those directors with less sensational lives. Clint Eastwood isn’t mentioned; nor are John Frankenheimer, Alan J.Pakula, Mike Nichols or Terence Malick. The older directors who did some of their best work in the Seventies aren’t referred to either. To pick a random example, John Huston did extraordinary stuff in the decade, from his edgy melodrama Reflections In A Golden Eye to his epic adventure The Man Who Would Be King and his brilliant black comedy Wise Blood. No mention of Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Stanley Kubrick, Norman Jewison or Sidney Lumet. Brian De Palma gets only a passing mention, as does Woody Allen. Important figures like Bob Rafelson are discussed for their private lives but not for their films. Most bizarrely, there’s no reference to The Deer Hunter or, astonishingly, Heaven’s Gate. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it was the latter which persuaded the studios to get a grip of their own affairs and wrest control back from the directors. The reason was not pharmaceutical, it was financial. So for anyone seriously interested in cinema, this is far too insubstantial, but for anyone new to the period, it gives a distorted view of what was really going on.
However, the whole question of this period is a very interesting one. For a long time, critics like Leslie Halliwell created an orthodox position on American cinema; that it peaked during the studio years of the 1930s and 1940s and began to decline during the 1950s due to the influence of television and the breaking down of censorship. During the 1970s, critics such as Pauline Kael in “The New Yorker” were telling the world that the golden age wasn’t in the past, it was now. Unfortunately, most of the best films of the time weren’t widely seen on first release - The Conversation, Badlands, The Parallax View, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Mean Streets - and somehow the period which began so well – art and commerce meeting to perfection in The Godfather - became mixed up with a sense that cinema was becoming ‘dumbed down’, witty and intelligent adventure films like Jaws being conflated with depressingly childish and determinedly unsophisticated films like Star Wars. The huge financial disaster of the often brilliant and always interesting Heaven’s Gate seemed to indicate that the era of the directors was one of excess, incoherence and waste. Yet now, 20 years on, it seems to have become a consensus opinion that this was the great period of American film.
However this has happened – I’m not sure I quite understand the process which has happened, although it may possibly have something to do with the re-emergence of Robert Altman in 1992 with The Player - it is based on some assumptions which I find wrongheaded. The first is that there was something intrinsically wrong with American cinema in the early to mid 1960s. I’m not sure that there was or at least there was nothing wrong which hadn't always been wrong. Certainly, a lot of big, bad films were being churned out by the studios - The Sound of Music was one of the worst – but the same could be said of hundreds of films made during the seventies during the so-called Golden Age. Would anyone really want to mount an artistic defence of Love Story, Airport or The Poseidon Adventure ? In between the blockbusters, interesting films were continually getting through. Back in 1962, for example, quirky and personal films were emerging which are just as ambitious and interesting as anything made ten years later; The Manchurian Candidate, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Two Weeks In Another Town. Indeed, the key film of the time, Bonnie and Clyde, was made and released under the studio system, as were equally revolutionary films of the era such as Seconds and Reflections In A Golden Eye. Mention is made in the documentary of Paint Your Wagon as a relic of the pre-Robert Evans dinosaurs at Paramount – but Evans was in charge when that film was given the go-ahead. The same goes for Darling Lili and The Molly Maguires. Certainly, the Nouvelle Vague films were immensely significant in the development of the younger directors who emerged in the late 1960s but so were American directors such as Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller and John Cassavettes. Write them out of the trail of influences - as this documentary does - and half the picture is missing.
The second assumption which I would challenge is that it was a limited group of people who were responsible for this ‘Golden Age’. The documentary suggests that it’s, broadly, the group who assembled at John Milius’ Malibu beach house in the early seventies and that it was their reliance on drugs that destroyed the ascendancy of the directors. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, it ignores the fact that some of the key directors didn’t use drugs, or at least not to a career-damaging extent – Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Brian De Palma, Arthur Penn – and secondly it ignores the importance of all the other filmmakers who weren’t in the closed circle. It seems incredible to me that anyone could create a history of the era and not mention Dirty Harry, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Klute, Annie Hall or Alien.
Most importantly, I think the third assumption is blatantly wrong. To suggest that the ‘Golden Age’ finished in 1980 and films were never the same again is blatant nonsense. Is anyone seriously trying to suggest that The Right Stuff, Honkytonk Man, The King of Comedy, and Under Fire aren’t fired by exactly the same artistic daring and disregard for commercial considerations as any films from five years earlier ? True, American film is now made up largely of commercially motivated shit but the truth is it always was. Art finds a way and it always will. The battle between art and commerce is forever being fought but occasionally it’s the big hits which really are the great movies. Think of Pulp Fiction, Seven, The Silence of the Lambs and JFK. You’re not telling me that the era of the director is really over when talents such as Wes Anderson can get ample funding for something as blatantly personal as The Royal Tenenbaums or Martin Scorsese can deliver Gangs of New York a year late and over budget without being penalised for doing so. The end credits of the documentary suggest that Scorsese has spent the past two decades struggling to make personal films with studio money but that’s nonsense. He’s had no problem finding the money, he simply had to make a few deals to get it which is exactly what directors have always had to do. In the space of ten years, he managed to find major studio backing for a personal film about Jesus Christ, two deliciously probing and violent films about gangsters, a long, slow and painstakingly directed period romance and a film about the education of the Dali Lama. The only complete concession to commerce was the very poor Cape Fear, a film which he’s been trying to apologise for ever since he made it.
It's nice to think that there was a magical time when great directors were producing masterpiece after masterpiece and no concessions were made to the 12-25 audience. But that's hindsight I'm afraid. If you were a filmgoer in the mid-seventies, you would have been suffering an endless diet of Jaws re-reuns and double bills of hopeless British sex comedies - a case for the trades descriptions act if ever there was one, since none of them was remotely sexy and few were even very comic. Most of the really great movies didn't get much of a release and some important, if flawed, films were abridged for no very good reason - New York New York and Twilight's Last Gleaming for example, rendering both incoherent. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Golden Age really is now. In the past year we've had numerous American films which show just as much creativity, freshness and daring as anything that was around thirty years ago. Mystic River, Kill Bill, Punch Drunk Love, Far From Heaven, About Schmidt, Adaptation, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, The Kid Stays In The Picture, Secretary, Solaris, Gangs of New York, Love Liza, Igby Goes Down, Buffalo Soldiers, Cypher, Intolerable Cruelty - you may like some of these films, you may loathe them. But you're not telling me that this list represents a national cinema at a low ebb or in some kind of crisis. Even a few of the big blockbusters - The Hulk, Pirates of the Caribbean - are showing an unusual degree of intelligence. The past is always nice to look back on with a glow of nostalgia. Let's just make sure that we don't all turn into a collective reincarnation of Leslie Halliwell.
This co-production between Britain and America has been seen a couple of times on BBC4. As you'd expect for such a recent production, it looks pretty damn good and the DVD contains some very valuable extra footage which improves the film somewhat.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. The interspersed film clips are uniformally in 1.85:1 and cropped where necessary. I found this irksome but that might be because I'm too familiar with the films in question. Image quality varies depending on the source. The interviews look fantastic, dark and brooding with rich blacks and strong colour tones. The film clips generally look fine although this does depend on the individual case. I wasn't too impressed with the quality of the clips from Mean Streets or Pat Garrett but Boxcar Bertha and Bonnie and Clyde look just fine. The archive material varies from case to case but it's certainly always at least watchable.
Apart from some very occasional sound effects, the 5.1 and 2.0 mixes sound roughly the same. The surround channels are rarely used, nor is the subwoofer. Music sounds slightly stronger on the 5.1 but there is no major difference. Given that the film is mostly made up of interviews I'd have been quite happy with a good Mono soundtrack to be honest.
But now to the really good news. The DVD contains over 90 minutes of extra interview footage which really does improve the overall experience. These extra interviews play through rather like an extra film and deal in depth with some subjects passed over in the main feature. There are extensive considerations of Bodganovich and Hal Ashby and an unbearably moving tribute to Peckinpah from Kris Kristofferson. The scope of the film isn't broadened here, sadly, but there's a lot in these extra scenes which is worth a look and I think the film would have been better had they been restored to it. All the additional footage is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 and is in excellent condition.
There are 12 chapter stops. The menus are animated and rather annoying after you've sat through the noisy transition for the fourth time.
Easy Riders and Raging Bulls is an engaging documentary and I enjoyed watching it. But it's basically tabloid journalism rather than serious film criticism or analysis and, for me at least, that's not enough. Incidentally, fans of 1960s music will be intrigued to note the number of variations on familiar themes that have been invented in order to avoid buying the rights to the actual songs. Unfortunately, variations on familiar themes is about as original and daring as the documentary ever gets. It's a great subject but this movie comes perilously close to throwing it away.