Peter Biskind: Down And Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, And The Rise Of Independent Film

Peter Biskind: Down And Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, And The Rise Of Independent Film

Anyone who even casually follows the movie business has probably heard plenty about Harvey Weinstein, the famously temperamental head of Miramax, a company that made its name on 1989's sex, lies, and videotape and forever changed the way independent films were made and marketed. A self-styled studio mogul of the old school, Weinstein involves himself heavily in the creative process, markets his favored films with spectacular aggression, and employs an informal stable of what might be called "contract players": Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Anthony Minghella, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino. Through the years, reports have poured in about Weinstein's abuses: tantrums, assaults, shelving and re-cutting of films, underhanded Oscar campaigns, backdoor acquisitions, disappearing net points, and so on. But to see them all collected in Peter Biskind's irresistible gossip history Down And Dirty Pictures, complete with testimonials from friends and foes alike, is like hearing the findings of a war-crimes tribunal. Time and again, Biskind turns over rocks, discovering new horrors under each production, even the ones that Miramax rode to its greatest successes. For all the money spent on gift baskets (for men) and flowers (for women) after one of his infamous tirades, Weinstein probably could have bankrolled his recent pick-up The Station Agent. Starting at Sundance Film Festival in 1989, when sex, lies became "the Big Bang" of the current independent movement, Biskind structures the book around two pillars: Robert Redford, the reclusive founder of the festival and the Sundance Institute, and Weinstein, the toothiest piranha in its annual feeding frenzy. In the early sections, Biskind takes pains to establish Redford as a passive-aggressive control freak whose middlebrow sensibilities have steered Sundance away from edgier material and turned it into the Hollywood hive that it is today. But Biskind quickly starts hunting Weinstein like a white whale, and who can blame him? Though the Miramax flagship is decorated with dark and controversial items like Kids, Clerks, Pulp Fiction, and The Crying Game, Weinstein's sentimental taste makes him seem like a Redford in sheep's clothing, especially now that the company has moved away from acquisitions and launched more in-house productions. Though Biskind displays a sharp critical acumen at times, he approaches the independent movement like a bloodless auditor, always with an eye on the bottom line. Lest he be accused of cutting down giants for sport, as he did with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (his tale of the New Hollywood excesses of the '70s), Biskind finds just the right tone for dissecting the indies, which were guilty of selling themselves down the river, especially once Miramax created a market outside urban centers. (As a counter-narrative, Biskind offers the sad case of Bingham Ray and Jeff Lipsky's October Films, which backed a remarkable slate of films such as Life Is Sweet, Breaking The Waves, and Secrets & Lies, but was inevitably absorbed by a studio.) Using gossip like rocket fuel, Down And Dirty Pictures finds dozens of people willing to talk about Weinstein's reign of terror, offering a blow-by-blow of shoving matches, stars and directors reduced to tears, and movies butchered by the post-production tinkering that earned Weinstein the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands." With its up-to-the-minute anecdotes, the book reads more like a galley than a finished product; it's riddled with an alarming number of minor factual, grammatical, and spelling errors. And Biskind doesn't bother addressing the micro-independents—the Wellsprings, New Yorkers, Zeitgeists, and Kinos that carry the flag in Miramax's shadow. Yet in spite of (and sometimes because of) its flaws and omissions, Down And Dirty Pictures makes for an essential conversation starter.

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