Peter Biskind – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls


The most exciting period of US cinema history is between 1965 and 1975, when the bosses of the old studios realised that they had no clue what audiences wanted any more and the old censorship regime, the Hayes Code, was finally abandoned. They’d spent absurd amounts on what they thought would be sure-fire smashes (especially overblown musicals – someone seriously thought that Thoroughly Modern Millie would be what Variety used to call a socko-boffo). Meanwhile smaller producers, run by writers, directors or even actors seemed to be delivering the goods with micro-budget oddities. For a while it looked as if intelligent, heartfelt films from the margins were going to change everything and make film as personal an art-form as the novel. But by 1975 the studios were back in control, spawning a new form of blockbuster by co-opting those very outsiders. It wasn’t so much that the money-men were able to find ways to force the arty-hippy-low-budget film-makers out, more that the latter camp imploded through their own egos, quixotic gambles and what Frank Zappa called ‘cocaine decisions’. As Captain America said at the end of Easy Rider, “we blew it”.

But as another of that generation’s spokesmen put it, it was a long, strange trip. This book is one I tried to read a bit at a time and landed up skipping sleep to finish. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to see films you’d not heard of and revisit the sorts of films they used to show late on Sunday nights on BBC2. I know one person who subscribed to Netflicks just to get to see some of the projects mentioned here. Back when Leytonstone Library had DVDs I looked at some of the ones I haven’t got to see if the trouble these mavericks had getting them to the screen shows in the finished product. It’s a mesmeric story and the incidents along the way could each be made into a film in and of themselves.

Next time you’re at the multiplex wondering why you blew a tenner or more to spend two hours watching a 3D CGI toy-advert, or why Adam Sandler is allowed, just ponder that within my lifetime it was possible for someone with a story to tell and a few friends who wanted it told could get something like Harold and Maude or Five Easy Pieces made and that audiences were hungry for them. Then consider how unlikely it would be now for an actor such as Elliott Gould to be a major draw, to the extent that the Robert Altman The Long Goodbye could be greenlit by Universal just on his box-office appeal. If, as I fervently hope, the advent of digital cameras and home editing means that we are about to get back to a situation like Hollywood circa 1971 then let’s hope the lessons from this book are noted. Afterwards, for a sidelight on the same subject from one of the key players, we also have in stock The Kid Stays In The Picture, Robert Evans’ self-mythologising memoir (which had to be toned down to make a believable movie).

By Tat Wood