Born to be wild

David Flusfeder celebrates the "outlaw" cinema of Seventies Hollywood.

The photograph on this page was taken at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. Four men gaze towards the camera with varying degrees of certainty and poise. They look like rock stars, a group that combines musicianship with an unborrowed cool. The clean-shaven figure on the left might be the singer, the kind of frontman who is a little embarrassed at attention offstage, but who gives and loses himself in performance. The man on the right is probably not in the band; with his blazer and top-pocket handkerchief, he's more likely to be the manager or the accountant, who's modishly grown his hair to fit in with the counterculture. And the two in the middle, with their beards and confidence, Afghan and beads, they'll be the rhythm section. These are the guys, the picture says; they take prodigious amounts of drugs, they have more sex than can possibly be good for them (or at least is good for their partners).

André Breton once wrote that "the work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future". And these four men aren't looking at the camera at all, or at the photographer, and, in fact, they're not musicians: they are four film directors gazing into a future that has been appointed as theirs.

The man on the left is Donald Cammell, who has recently made Performance, that mix of gangster thriller and existential sex-drugs chic which starred James Fox and Mick Jagger. Standing beside him is Dennis Hopper, a C-list method actor of the Fifties with anger-management issues who is still cruising after his directorial debut, Easy Rider. Next to him is Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose El Topo is a wild, mystical reworking of the western. And the man in the blazer is Kenneth Anger, director of such underground short films as Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos, whose Lucifer Rising, in production at the time of the picture, will feature Marianne Faithfull, Jimmy Page and Jagger's brother Chris.

This was the beginning of the second golden age of American cinema, "outlaw Hollywood". The astonishing success of Easy Rider had taught the studios that music and drugs and radicalism made for good box office. There was an audience appetite for a cinema of anxiety and meaning - or, if not actual meaning, then at least a search for it, with a rock'n'roll soundtrack.

There could be others in the photograph: for example, Robert Altman; Hal Ashby would soon be making Harold and Maude and The Last Detail; Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who, as well as creating some of the most thoughtful films coming out of America (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens), had executive-produced Easy Rider and were also sponsoring the likes of Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show). Rafelson and Schneider had both worked on the Monkees' television series. This was the alchemy of the modern moment: bubblegum pop had turned psychedelic, and a vehicle of youth culture exploit­ation had earned its makers the keys to the ­machinery of Hollywood.

The new directors had learned the lessons of the French New Wave, remaking what seemed like tired genres on lowish budgets. Cammell and later Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) with the thriller, Jodorowsky with the western. Hopper's road movie was a reinvention of a western trope: Billy and Captain America on their Harley-Davidsons in Easy Rider were descendants of the men on horseback escorting the wagon train looking for a better life. In fact, many of the best films which came out of that era were road-movie variations on the western: Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow, in which Gene Hackman and Al Pacino hitchhike across America in the forlorn hope of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh; Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop; Ashby's The Last Detail. And the emblematic actor of that era, Jack Nicholson, who had been in Easy Rider (and starred in Rafelson's first feature films, as well as The Last Detail), would direct his own road movie, Drive, He Said.

Coppola was the first of the first generation of American film-school graduates to come to the party. He was soon joined by others who again were reworking old genres for a knowing audience: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese. And if Spielberg's Duel seemed rather slight, Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha too indebted to Bonnie and Clyde and Lucas's THX 1138 a little cold, still there was extraordinary promise here.

But things seldom turn out quite as they promise. Hopper, who after the success of Easy Rider could do no wrong, did very wrong indeed with The Last Movie, the western he was promoting in 1971. Universal Pictures threw money at him. He spent most of it on drugs and flying his friends to Peru. The result was an addled shambles. Cammell made only two more films before committing suicide in 1996 (the story goes that after shooting himself, he asked for a mirror so he could watch himself die). Jodorowsky struggled to make a career; he had the misfortune to fall in and then out with Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones and Beatles manager who bought the rights to El Topo and The Holy Mountain (1973) but then prevented Jodorowsky from showing both films. And Anger, whose Lucifer Rising star Bobby Beausoleil was jailed for his part in the Manson murders, went back underground; homosexual fetishism and occult practices were not the recipe for commercial success they might have appeared to be in 1971.

The contradictions had been there in Easy Rider. Its star Peter Fonda, with his aristocratic Hollywood lineage, was hardly the outlaw outsider he gestured towards being. And the trans-continental search for meaning and freedom was financed by the cocaine we see his character and Hopper's selling to Phil Spector's at the beginning of the film. Cocaine ruined minds and lives, as well as the bottom line. The studio bosses snatched back the keys to the kingdom when they realised that more money was going out than coming in.

We all know what happened next. Those nice film-school graduates took over Hollywood. Lucas and Spielberg proved with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark that spectacle made for better box office than the search for meaning or freedom. And that brief charmed period, when such small masterpieces as Scarecrow or Five Easy Pieces could be made, was over.

David Flusfeder's latest novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger