Peter Biskind authored two of the most talked about and read books of the last decade—Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-'n'-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood and its bestselling sequel Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. Gods and Monsters chronicles the cause and courses of Hollywood over the last three decades—the super freaks, lowlifes, charlatans and occasional geniuses who have left their bite mark on American culture, as refracted through the trajectory of Peter Biskind's career. The ghosts of McCarthyism and the blacklist haunt Gods and Monsters as do the casualties of the counterculture and the New Hollywood—the story of Sue Menges, the '70s "super-agent" whose career went mysteriously south, is extraordinarily poignant, as is the example of Terence Malick, whose light shone so brightly in the same period but then disappeared until 1997's The Thin Red Line. But at the heart of the book are the likes of Warren Beatty, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford and Quentin Tarantino and uber-producers Don Simpson and Harvey Weinstein and their excess lifestyles, all of whom Biskind portrays in great Dickensian detail, charting how they have had a simultaneously strangulating and liberating effect on the industry.
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Best known for his popular book on 1970’s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind has strung together a compendium of his magazine articles, dating from his tenure as editor-in-chief at American Film up to his current post as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. While Biskind at his best provides uniquely bracing film critique, far too much of this volume is of little merit to today’s readers. The strongest pieces are Biskind’s profiles of master agent Sue Mengers, "a female Billy Wilder," and Charlie Feldman, an unknown figure today who in his time combined his talents to be both a legendary Hollywood producer and agent. It’s hard to reconcile these humane, illuminating profiles with Biskind’s review of an old Clint Eastwood film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which appears to be obsessed with the film’s latent homosexuality. There’s also a dated analysis of George Lucas’s Star Wars films that not only does not consider the latest additions to the series but includes such overblown analysis as "The Jabba episode culminates in an explicit vagina dentata fantasy as Luke and his pals have to walk a phallic gangplank..." Because Biskind is, as billed, an incisive writer, readers will wish he bothered to update such statements as, "Vietnam was the first television war, and ... it may be the last." Here’s hoping next time around, Biskind will give his loyal readers something new to chew on.
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Of late the author of books on the movie industry, Biskind began his career in the 1960s, writing about the intersection of politics and cinema for small leftist journals. Hollywood's move away from substance in the 1980s and, presumably, the need to make a living led him to profiling celebrities for glossies like Vanity Fair and premiere. His early work is represented in this collection by thoughtful essays on topics including anticommunism in director Elia Kazan's work, the espousal of anti-individualism in '50s sf movies, and the portrayal of blue-collar America in '70s films. Later entries, sketching such powerful Hollywood figures as directors Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, producer Don Simpson, and agents Charlie Feldman and Sue Mengers, are less distinctive but highly engaging. If these pieces collectively lack the impact of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) and Down and Dirty Pictures (2004), which many consider definitive on '70s New American Cinema and '90s indie powerhouse Miramax, respectively, they constitute a less straightforward depiction of the now three-decades-long decline of American cinema. Gordon Flagg
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