Monday, August 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES: MIRAMAX, SUNDANCE, AND THE RISE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

by Peter Biskind, 2004, Simon and Schuster

Late in Biskind's book, the author describes Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York as being overlong, awkwardly structured, overstuffed with bombast and epic battle scenes and riots, and hobbled by a leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to lack the acting chops and physical presence to carry such a brutally violent saga of revenge, corruption, ambition and revolution. However, Biskind concedes, the movie does contain a magnificent villain played by Daniel Day-Lewis who dominates the entire picture. Biskind's book is kind of like his description of Scorsese's film. It purports to cover a range of topics and ideas and revolutions in the world of Indie and Indiewood cinema, and yet it comes to be overwhelmingly dominated by one larger-than-life anti-hero: Harvey Weinstein, the once indisputable boss of Miramax pictures and king of so-called Independent Cinema.

More than a portrait of any one player in the world of Indie Cinema, Biskind's book gives an overall and fairly detailed portrait of an industry in transition, and how the economic and cultural circumstances gave birth to a kind of "Indie Bubble" that was destined to burst, and pave the way for the further corporatization of the film business. Biskind's chronicle ends sometime in 2004 and begs for a sequel. In light of what has happened to Miramax, Harvey, the Sundance Film Festival, and other industry players, along with the ascent of $200 million dollar comic book spectacles and the resurgence of low to medium budgeted horror flicks, I would say that Biskind, or someone, should write a book chronicling what has happened since 2004.

If Harvey is the Daniel Day-Lewis of this saga, then I suppose Robert Redford is the Leonardo DiCaprio. Redford and his Sundance Institute are a part of Biskind's story, and indeed, as the book goes on, Redford becomes more and more of a non-entity, seemingly content to retire from the prevailing currents of late twentieth and early twenty-first century cinema.

Harvey got his start as a take-no-shit concert promoter, and fought his way into distributing concert films to art house cinemas. From there, he moved into acquiring and distributing independent and foreign films to the art house circuit. He developed a reputation for using intimidation and uncontrolled emotional outbursts that alienated many people, but got the ink on the contracts. And yet it was this ruthless side of his personality that drove Miramax's profits and also would drive the company into riskier ventures. At his side was his equally tough but less demonstrative brother Bob, who would one day become head of Dimension Films, Miramax's genre distribution label. Dimension Films racked up massive profits with the Scream and Scary Movie franchises even while the "legit" art house line devolved into Oscar bait bogus uplift flicks masquerading as cutting edge cinema.

Hungry for respect, Harvey also had ambitions as a filmmaker, and even if he couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, as his debut film Playing For Keeps seemed to suggest, then he would achieve this ambition by working as an influential producer, a David O. Selznick for the millenium, who would have hungry young up-and-coming directors from the world of Indie Cinema do all the grunt work of scripting and shooting and then he would exercise his power in the editing room by shaping highly idiosyncratic filmic visions into commercial shape. Harvey would use test screenings in suburban shopping malls to generate test scores which he would use to leverage directors to alter their films, often times eliminating provocative content, or, at the least, mainstreaming it just enough to fit into a largely mythical notion of "commercial." On occasion Harvey would even write new scenes and insist they be filmed regardless of whether or not these new scenes fit with a given director's vision. In a number of cases, the films altered would end up as neither fish nor fowl: not commercial enough to compete with Hollywood melodramas, moron comedies, or action spectacles; too compromised and watered down to play with discriminating art house crowds.

Citizen Ruth, The Hairy Bird, 54, Velvet Goldmine--just a few of the titles to fall victim to Harvey Scissorhands, as many came to derisively nickname Harvey--though seldom to his face.

Harvey bulled his way to the top of the Indiewood distribution game, and eventually sold out to Disney. He implemented an aggressive PR campaign for his prestige pictures to garner Academy Award nominations and wins. He even bought his way into New York intelligentsia circles by starting a publishing division with the magazine Talk! and the Miramax Books imprint, and began hobnobbing with Democratic political figures, most notably Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Al Gore.

With Disney's financial backing, if not always with the consent of its corporate leadership, Harvey led Miramax pictures into the realms of full-on production, something he had long flirted with when doing re-edits and re-shoots of acquisitions. This production over reach ended up giving a boost to other indie distributors such as the Independent Film Channel, while increasing the overhead costs and reducing profits for Miramax. The subsequent fate of Miramax since the times chronicled in Biskind's book seems to suggest that Harvey was indeed overreaching.

Subsequent lawsuits over ancillary profits and points on gross arrangements also point up the continuing acrimony over Miramax's accounting practices. Interestingly, Biskind was able to sit down and interview Harvey. When asked about the many allegations of screwy accounting practices and unpaid revenues, Harvey asserts over and over again that everyone was paid "everything that was owed to them." Marketing and distribution costs are often cited as cutting into future profits for the artists, although many of the filmmakers dispute these numbers.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, a number of the filmmakers interviewed by Biskind, even some who felt they got the bum's rush, still respect Harvey. The overall sentiment seems to be that Harvey had to play hardball to get over on the industry, and that the state of cinema in America was greatly improved and diversified by the efforts of Miramax. Miramax is often described as paving the way for other independent distributors and for the mainstreaming of more provocative content in films in general.

And what of Mr. Redford and his Sundance Institute? In Biskind's telling, Redford comes off as an obsessive micro-manager and egotist. A man who only wants to back films that he can somehow take credit for, often times going so far as to usurp scripts from other directors at the Institute just because he can. And yet, strangely, Redford seems to want to sit on projects and do nothing, paralyzed by inner doubts that only he can know. Redford all but disappears from Biskind's narrative by the last couple of chapters. Early on, Biskind describes how the Sundance Film Festival served as a kind of cultural mecca for regional cinema, which Biskind dismisses as granola and boring. Despite the author's snark, he makes a valid point: the Sundance model of delivering indie cinema in the 1970s and 1980s was going the way of the dodo. In contrast, Miramax developed aggressive marketing strategies to get unusual films into the cineplex and onto the Oscar radar. Redford is portrayed as distrustful of the media, much too provincial and elitist to compete in the coming media saturated world of the 1990s and beyond.

Biskind's book is an entertaining read. It is a sort of follow-up to his earlier book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, which chronicled the New Hollywood of the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, and others. In addition to Harvey and Redford, he also gives thoroughgoing accounts of the career breakthroughs of such directors as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Todd Haynes. As I said above, it begs for a follow-up, maybe even one written by Biskind himself.



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