Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Vacation reading review! Spent my so-called free time on break reading Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film". A decade or so back, Biskind also wrote "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," a study of the late '60s/early 1970s Hollywood film scene as bloated blockbusters like "Sound of Music" gave way to experimental, youthful film in a time many still regard as Hollywood's finest era, which birthed to everything from "The Godfather" to "Annie Hall" to "Star Wars." This semi-sequel isn't quite as good as "Easy Riders," but it's still a fun, gossip-packed book that gives an inside look at the Hollywood process. Independent film really broke through in the 1990s, and Biskind takes us behind the scenes of such influential flicks as "Pulp Fiction," "The Piano," "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and many others.

The book could be subtitled, "Harvey Weinstein is a Big Fat Jerk!" I don't doubt the truthfulness of Biskind's heavily annotated reporting, where Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein comes off as a grade-A asshole, but I do feel he rubs it in a bit thick. Harvey throws a tantrum, Harvey throws another tantrum. Harvey threatens to beat up this director, Harvey puts a reporter in a headlock. Biskind's antipathy for Harvey's style is understandable, but it blurs his objectivity. The book would have you believe it's a study of Miramax and Sundance, but Robert Redford and his Utah film festival get far less ink and while Redford comes off as a dreamy, manipulative flake, he doesn't seem like the spawn of Satan Weinstein nearly turns into. The focus seems narrowed compared to "Easy Riders," where the whole panorama of 1970s filmmakers from Coppola to Beatty to Lucas came under Biskind's analytical, thoughtful microscope. It was an even-handed book, judgmental but not preachy. I heard Biskind's voice a lot more in this book; perhaps because the period of time he's covering is more recent, but it's ultimately a flaw.

To be fair, Miramax did dominate the world of independent film in the 1980s -- one could argue that indies would never have "broken through" without Weinstein's unique mix of bullying, begging and bragging. So perhaps it's only proper Harvey and his less visible brother, Bob, dominate "Down and Dirty Pictures." They're outsize personalities for an outsize business. It says something about your subjects when they overshadow a talkative film geek like Quentin Tarantino. Biskind still has an eye for killer anecdotes -- you won't believe the chapter where he details the frantic race by studios to acquire Robert Duvall's "The Apostle," as agents and studio heads literally chase each other down hotel halls to "get the flick." As a lover of 1990s film, I really dug the detail and insight Biskind pulled forth from folks like Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Steven Soderbergh and more. Ultimately "Down and Dirty Pictures" takes a pretty sober view of the "indie revolution," showing how Miramax went from the studio that did "Pulp Fiction" and “Clerks” went to more mainstream epics like “Chicago” and “Cold Mountain.” Miramax forged a path for indie film, but left that path as soon as it could in search of higher prestige and Oscar bait.

For anyone interested in the world of film in the last decade, “Down and Dirty Pictures” will grab you hard. It’ll leave you thinking more about the movies you see on the big screen and how they ended up there in the first place.

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