"We blew it."
The year was 1969 and the movie was "Easy Rider." Spoken by Peter Fonda to Dennis Hopper with such inscrutable cool that audiences debated their meaning long after they'd left the theater, these three words sum up the broken dreams of a couple of bikers after a proverbially long and strange trip. Like their characters, Fonda and Hopper were after a big score. They got it. A smash hit, "Easy Rider" connected with the youth culture and helped pave the way for an extraordinary decade-long run of films -- "Mean Streets," "The Exorcist," "The Last Detail," "Badlands" and "American Graffiti" were all released in 1973 -- the likes of which haven't been seen since.
Or so the legend goes.
In the last 10 years, 1970s cinema has become an unqualified cult. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze make films under its influence; fan-boy Web sites extol its glories. Not long before she died, Pauline Kael wrote that the 1970s were "when the movies seemed to be about things that mattered." Peter Biskind says the same in his 1998 bestseller about New Hollywood, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." In brief, Biskind argues that a group of young cinematic upstarts -- turned on by the era's social turmoil -- sparked a revolution in Hollywood that rejuvenated the moribund industry. As the subtitle of his book puts it: "How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."
Last January, a documentary based on "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. The next day, the rival Sundance Film Festival hosted the premiere of another, similarly reasoned documentary about this halcyon age called "A Decade Under the Influence" directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme. (A longer version of "Decade" airs on IFC beginning Wednesday.) In June, the cult continued with the publication of "It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies," an appreciation written by a British critic who was all of 2 when "Mean Streets" opened.
There's something troubling about the way that 1970s cinema has evolved from mere fandom to become its own genre, especially among younger cinephiles. It's one thing when a director like Wes Anderson, yet another 1970s fan, cops to his love for the era because his films are more than allusions and recycled style. His work transcends his influences, but this isn't the case with the dozens of others waving the personal-vision banner and pining for New Hollywood. Filmmakers like Joe Carnahan, who channeled Sidney Lumet in "Narc," and David Gordon Green, whose jones for Terrence Malick nearly upended "All the Real Girls," demonstrate talent. But strip away their influences and it's hard to see any "there" there.
Undeniably, something was new and different in the Hollywood in the 1970s; it's questionable, however, if new meant better. Filmmakers working in Hollywood then fired off terrific movies. But so did Hollywood filmmakers working in the teens, the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and the much-maligned early 1960s. One crucial distinction between Old and New Hollywood wasn't the level of talent but the self-consciousness of the Young Turks' movie love. Like their counterparts abroad, New Hollywood filmmakers took movies -- old studio slicks and foreign-language films -- seriously as art. Movies didn't have to be sausages, churned out for mass consumption, but could be personal expressions and political statements.
The old studio system wasn't as soul-killing and brain-deadening for everyone as is often tediously claimed. However, by the early 1960s the old studio factory was no more and the studio chiefs hadn't yet mastered the new fiscal realities of their decentralized industry. By the late 1960s, a combination of aesthetic malaise and a financial crisis left the industry open to change -- and so it changed, just like it always had. Hollywood has a long history of brilliant adaptation to crises. Good and great movies were made, but most didn't look all that different from Old Hollywood. The language and the sex were racier, and violence certainly more bloody, but for the most part these were not radical films.
The sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll generation didn't save Hollywood. Hollywood swallowed them whole, absorbed its talent, spat out its dross and a few of its geniuses, and saved itself.
That era's youth market
The great and banal truth of the New Hollywood is that for all the cant, the drama, the love beads, the hot tubs, the jump cuts, the acid and dope, the New wasn't all that different from the Old. It was just Hollywood. Yes, it was reconfigured, rearranged, restaffed and brought up to date; more important, it learned how to sell to the very youth market that now often takes the blame for the industry's aesthetic stagnation and crazy business practices. Undoubtedly there was new energy and vitality. But Hollywood's real revolution -- the one that paved the way for the culture shocks to come -- began in the 1940s when the federal government issued a series of consent decrees that forced the industry to abandon vertical integration and get out of the exhibition business.
Other pressures, including television, further decentralized the industry so that by the early 1960s Hollywood no longer seemed the vibrant dream factory once run by the likes of Twentieth Century Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck, a crisis in creativity that was later exacerbated by pricey flops like "Star!" In the early 1970s, at the urging of industry leaders, the Nixon administration signed into law a series of tax breaks, including tax shelters, that amounted to a government subsidy for the movie business. In 1974, the president of Columbia Pictures -- the studio that, incidentally, made "Shampoo," one of the sharper attacks on the Nixon era -- said "the availability of this kind of financing is the single most important occurrence in the recent history of the industry."
Buoyed by new money and supported by a boomer audience that was digging the same new Truffaut comedies they were, the young directors who came knocking at the industry's door were in the right time at the right place. Foreign-language films were a galvanizing influence; with their formal innovations and adult themes, these were films that seemed plugged into the world as it was and not as it was being invented on the "Doctor Dolittle" backlot. And like their French peers, the filmmakers of New Hollywood saw themselves as "auteurs," which, in turn, made them acceptable to the reading classes that made movies "matter" as much as high culture. You no longer just went to the movies; you ruminated about them endlessly at cocktail parties.
The filmmakers of New Hollywood were primed for success and in some cases achieved it, spectacularly. As Biskind makes depressingly clear, though, it didn't take long for the movement to implode. There were all sorts of reasons for the fall; among the most painful are the unchecked ego and rampant greed of many of the best and the brightest -- just like in Old Hollywood. As Jack Nicholson's character says in "Easy Rider," "it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace." You can't ignite a revolution while sitting in a gilded cage.
"Today's young people hide behind their youth," John Cassavetes said in the early 1970s. "Film is as much a business for the young as for the old. They're criticizing older people because they're wanting it and they're not getting it -- the haves and the have-nots.... We're all the Establishment."
It's worth noting that LaGravenese and Demme's documentary is named after Cassavetes' most commercially successful film, 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence," which he had to self-distribute because no one in the "new" Hollywood would. Despite his radical independence, Cassavetes doesn't figure prominently in most New Hollywood histories -- or maybe the problem was his radical independence. Cassavetes wasn't part of the overlapping circles of friends and lovers at the center of Biskind's book. His father wasn't a Hollywood legend like Fonda's, and he didn't marry into Hollywood royalty like Hopper, who had wed actress Margaret Sullavan's daughter. And unlike Bert Schneider -- who co-ran the legendary company Raybert (later BBS) -- Cassavetes' father didn't run a big studio. Schneider's did. He ran Columbia Pictures, which is where Raybert had its office when it greenlighted "Easy Rider."
Hollywood welcomes rebels, not revolutionaries, which is why the most significant directors of the New Hollywood -- Coppola and Scorsese -- have had a far rougher ride than Spielberg and Lucas, who are often blamed for helping to bring an end to the movement. The received wisdom about 1970s cinema is that when "Jaws" and "Star Wars" smashed box-office records, they effectively ushered in the blockbuster age that destroyed the New Hollywood and defined the decade to come. But Hollywood always had something of a blockbuster mentality (think of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance"), and, really, the 1980s weren't all that terrible. Neither were the 1990s, when another generation emerged -- this time in the indie film movement -- and helped change Hollywood once again.
Marx said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In Hollywood, the land of franchises and sequels, history never stops repeating itself -- it just endlessly oscillates from tragedy and farce. Just like in the 1970s, some great movies have been made in the last 15 years; and just like before, some of the most talented filmmakers -- Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, among them -- work for studios. Meanwhile, some of the most visionary, like Jim Jarmusch, have faded from view because their work is too independent for even most independent companies. This, too, is the American movie business as usual.
Despite easy access to the studio tradition on video and DVD, young filmmakers are not deeply immersed in the Hollywood that nurtured the likes of Scorsese, and they evince little interest in the foreign-language cinema that was so important to their 1970s heroes. As too many American independent films underscore, it isn't good for the state of the art when one generation feeds almost exclusively on an earlier generation. It may be too early to write the history of this latest generation to breach the Hollywood citadel, but Biskind may have already. His new book "Down and Dirty Pictures: Robert Redford, Miramax, and the Improbable Rise of Independent Film" hits the zeitgeist in January -- just in time for Sundance.