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Almost Famous

Director Cameron Crowe extends his autobiographical homage to 70s rock —Risë Keller (DVD review...)

Patrick Fugit is Almost Famous

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I’ve always told people that 1967 was a great year for cinema. It started as pure and shameless egomania, since I was born that year. But it didn’t hurt that this was the same year that saw The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde, Don’t Look Back, Point Blank, In the Heat of the Night, Two or Three Things I Know about Her, and Quatermass and the Pit (hey, it’s good!).

Cinematic Renaissance

Peter Fonda, then and now
Peter Fonda, then and now

Okay, I confess, anyone can cherry-pick at least a dozen important films from just about any year in the last half-century and come up with winners. But I now have an excellent film to back me up.

Filmmaking styles follow trends, and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a new documentary that just screened at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, illustrates the cinematic renaissance of the late 1960s and mid 1970s.

Based on the book of the same name by Peter Biskind, the film’s hypothesis is simple enough: by the mid-1960’s, studios were languishing; an old guard had lost its touch and lost its audience to television. But this all turned around when a fresh breed of young Turks stormed the gates and brought with them new crowds raised on drive-in fare, gritty, low-budget films and, most importantly, personal vision made possible with new directorial control and freedom. The byline of both the film and book, “How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” also clues you in on what kind of ride it was.

More Than Personalities

Anyone who enjoyed the hagiography of The Kid Stays in The Picture would do well to watch Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It not only features some of the same characters and dramas, but it has a much wider scope.

As we move from one director to another, the one thing that sometimes gets lost is the myriad strengths — beyond the filmmakers’ personalities — that elevated that epoch of filmmaking to something gritty, dangerous, real, spontaneous, improvisational, experimental, and more exciting than what studios now, on the whole, offer us today. I should give credit where credit is due. Some of these aforementioned qualities do get touched on, but Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is already over two hours long and there apparently just wasn’t room for more.

From New Wave to Jaws

In broad strokes, the documentary begins by talking about the influence of European cinema and the French New Wave on many up-and-coming players. With Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde, a film that offended the status quo but was a huge hit with a younger, counter-cultural audience, momentum started to build. It paved the way for Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and a host of other radical films that dared to show youth on its own terms, with people really smoking marijuana onscreen and pushing all other kinds of limits.

But the big picture really comes into view when we see the various careers of young mavericks getting kick-started: Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), Robert Altman (McCabe And Mrs. Miller), Francis Ford Coppola (The Rain People), George Lucas (THX 1138) and many others, including Steven Spielberg (Jaws).

The Blockbuster Imperative

Spielberg’s big splash with Jaws does fit, insofar as it had at its roots a B-movie concept, the likes of which everybody else had cut their teeth on at the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. But it also happened to be the one that made it big. Really big. In essence, the studios, with their money and stars, suddenly realized how to make and market films like Roger Corman had been doing, only “bigger” and “better.”

And when George Lucas eclipsed the success of Jaws with yet another B-movie, sci-fi concept called Star Wars, well… the template was forever changed to what we have now: the mass-roll out of “the popcorn picture” or, what a follow-up documentary also on the Trio channel aptly calls “The Blockbuster Imperative.”

Suddenly, the time when a big studio would bankroll whacked-out young visionaries or release an X-rated picture about lowlifes in the big city (Midnight Cowboy) came to an abrupt end. The studios were back in the money, sequels and franchises kept it coming in, and the pioneering desire to take a walk on the wild side was replaced with new marketing strategies that fused opening weekend grosses with all future productions.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls premieres March 9th at 9pm Eastern, 7pm Mountain, on the popular arts channel TRIO, a digital cable and satellite service channel. Several of the films featured in the documentary will also be shown during the month, uncut and letterboxed. For more information, visit www.triotv.com.