DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES
By Peter Biskind
Harvey Weinstein is an egomaniacal, overbearing, greedy son-of-a-bitch, and Robert Redford is a vain, self-obsessed flake, at least according to author Peter Biskind in his bitchy new book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. These views are not held by Biskind alone, however, as he marshals the testimony of assistants, co-workers, actors, and filmmakers to support his seemingly airtight case. Biskind’s gossipy, wholly readable account is trash, but high-minded trash at that, and full of insider dirt and dish that will please anyone who loves American movies. Biskind weaves a fascinating tale and despite its 484-page length, it moves briskly and with great flair. Following his equally insightful Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (which deals with the late-1960s/early-1970s generation of filmmakers), Down and Dirty Pictures is a tale of how Hollywood happily met the challenge being posed by the upstart independent film scene, but it ends on a tone of sadness, as it is clear that Miramax, once the champion of little pictures, is no longer as concerned with revolutionary or experimental works.
In some ways, Harvey Weinstein has never been concerned about the movies, as his constant meddling — thus earning him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands” — proved to be the source of many a headache throughout the indie scene. Harvey roared and fought for cuts (he almost always blasted films that ran over two hours) and insisted that bleak endings be altered for more commercial considerations. Weinstein took risks to be sure, but he treated directors like dirt and never believed they knew what was best for their own work. More than that, Weinstein practiced dubious accounting, insisting that films were rarely profitable (even when they topped $50 million in grosses for $2 million productions), which served to deny participants their fair percentage. And if filmmakers ever saw fit to fight back, they were attacked (verbally as well as physically), humiliated, and essentially blackballed. The plight of Steven Soderbergh is a case in point; a man who was the toast of the indie world after a Palme D’Or for sex, lies, and videotape, who then fell out of favor after attempting several more personal works that did not meet with Weinstein’s approval. It would be poetic justice when Soderbergh later came back into prominence with another studio. [Ed Note: Too bad he had to whore himself out to do so.]
But at one point, Miramax was the only game in town (coupled with Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films, which boomed after Scream and other low-cost, high-profit teen flicks) and Biskind’s book is there for the creation and eventual decline. Some argue that the fall came after the high-profile releases of both Kids and Priest, which brought controversy to the company and made Harvey extremely gun-shy. Weinstein, in addition to running Miramax like an even more sinister version of Louis B. Mayer, had political “aspirations” in that he was so desperate for approval that he needed to run with Bill Clinton and other “stars” of the Beltway. Weinstein kept his snout in many Democratic causes, but I have to wonder how much of a committed liberal Mr. Weinstein was or is. Being a Hollywood mogul is certainly different than running IBM or General Motors, but as Biskind points out, Harvey didn’t have the best taste regarding cinema, and often fell on the side of sentimentality and convention. Few would consider Weinstein a film historian, and even fewer would believe that he put art above commerce, even when taking what could be perceived as gutsy moves on behalf of small productions. Above all, it seems, Harvey is a creature of publicity, so obsessed with the bottom line that he seemed little concerned for the corpses and shattered lives left in his wake.
Redford and his Sundance vision are discussed from time to time, but overall, this is Harvey’s show. Whenever Redford does show up, he seems petty and aloof, bestowing praise on filmmakers, only to sneak away when his help is truly needed. Redford also seems to shy away from genuine controversy, coming off as an old-fashioned father figure rather than an artistic maverick. But it’s all here — the earth-shaking impact of 1994’s Pulp Fiction, the unexpected success of Matt and Ben, the Gangs of New York debacle, the crass Oscar campaigns, and the betrayal of Todd Solondz. We are taken through the triumphant first steps of The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs, and Clerks, while also witnessing the crashing and burning of Four Rooms, Talk Magazine, Velvet Goldmine, and 54. We hear from Tarantino (who is portrayed as little more than a fame-obsessed jerk), Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Smith, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Billy Bob Thornton (which leads to a puzzling dismissal of Sling Blade by Biskind). We watch runaway productions, escalating budgets, artistic compromises, and notice the distinct smell of selling out. We painfully observe the transformation of the once proud Sundance Film Festival into a literal whorehouse of round-the-clock deal making and the rise of increasing confusion regarding what actually constitutes “independence.”
It is clear to even the most jaded observer that the film world is a better place because of Miramax (there are some great films from that renaissance period), but the degradation of the label has been just as tragic. While by no means the sole responsibility of Harvey Weinstein (shifting tastes and political pressures are just as prominent), he is the center of the storm — a bloated bastard of a man who has treated numerous folks with a vile contempt that they certainly did not deserve. In all, Down and Dirty Pictures is a joyful, entertaining ride through the 80s and 90s film scene, bringing back wonderful memories and reliving cultural milestones. Miramax may have lost its soul when it joined Disney’s ranks, but it managed to get us talking once again about alternatives to mainstream, blockbuster fare, especially at a time when it appeared that such voices were destined to remain in the past.