written by Peter Biskind
FFC rating: 5/10
by Bill Chambers "Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film," the subtitle of Peter Biskind's latest slipshod industry exposé Down and Dirty Pictures, ought to be reworded "The Rise of the Miramax and Sundance Independent Film." An extremely narrow-focused chronicle of the indie landscape after it was made procreant by Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, the book, in a manner not unlike Soderbergh's Traffic (whose making is touched on therein), alternates passages retracing Miramax's long journey up its own ass, Sundance's peaking, and October Films' head Bingham Ray's consummation of self-fulfilling prophecies. It's a hastily-published tome--you can smell the ink drying in the preface, which brings up the recutting of the Christmas 2003 release Bad Santa--at a loss for an ending, what with Miramax and Sundance proving ultimately unassailable, however much Biskind mourns their metamorphoses into more commercially-minded enterprises. This seems the most efficient way to damn the hyperbole of Biskind's prose, seeing as how Down and Dirty Pictures charts a course for an Apocalypse that fails to materialize, at least with any tragic weight.
You've heard that the book is embarrassingly poorly proofed, I'm sure, and while culpability for this falls squarely on the shoulders of Simon & Schuster, from the horrendous amount of typos (actress Julie Delpy is referred to as "Julie Delpie," screenwriter Melissa Mathison "Melissa Mathiesson") and colloquialisms ("She called her on her cell phone"), it appears the author avoided an editor altogether, perhaps in paranoid response to writing about a man, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, who takes pride in tampering with another person's vision. (If we're to believe Biskind, the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands" is one of the few things that doesn't upset Weinstein.) This wouldn't be so bad if Biskind weren't "[sic]"-happy when excerpting various memos and interoffice exchanges.
Biskind meanwhile honours Billy Bob Thornton's dirt-poor roots by quoting the hyphenate phonetically, making him sound like Goofy's halfwit brother at every turn. ("Ah don't give a sheet. Ah made the movie fo' me, not fo' anyone else, ah've seen and ah've enjoyed it and fuck yuh." It's annoying to read besides, you can imagine.) As no other quotee is disrespected in quite this manner, Biskind succeeds not in belitting Thornton but in betraying his own classist position. (Recreating the day that Mike Nichols deposited Ted Tally's adaptation of All the Pretty Horses on Thornton's lap, our tour guide feels compelled to add that Thornton is "no great reader" and surely would not have been familiar with the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the screenplay was based.) In fact, everybody in the Miramax registrar gets a cursory biography, and yet Biskind will neglect to mention things more immediately relevant to the conversation than what so-and-so's father did for a living, such as Kate & Leopold director James Mangold's marriage to former Miramax exec Cathy Konrad, both of whom are extensively profiled.
Make no mistake, Down and Dirty Pictures is insatiably read (just like Biskind's dubious Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), but that's because the author had unprecedented access to talent, including, in a mini-coup, Harvey W., who is asked to rationalize almost every nugget of incriminating behaviour that Biskind has dredged up. (On the other hand, Biskind flatters himself least of all by bunching anti-Harvey stories together with a fanatical zeal. I found myself thinking of Miramax as Moby Dick and, more importantly, Biskind as Ahab.) One can't help but be amused by Harvey's side of the Wide Awake story, which finds him offering to restore M. Night Shyamalan's much-finessed Rosie O'Donnell vehicle to the director's original and apparently incompetent vision in the aftermath of The 6th Sense's success (Shyamalan, maybe the only person in Hollywood with less humility than the Weinsteins, suddenly stopped beating the "Miramax screwed me" drum), or by David O. Russell's observation that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is about "a guy who likes to fuck girls and say he shoots people in the head," his motive for passing on the project.
That said, Biskind's bourgeois taste in movies (he dismisses the haunting Sling Blade as "bleeding heart" while calling the questionable Boys Don't Cry a "stunning cross-dressing tragedy") can inadvertently hang an interviewee out to dry: Applauding Russell for shoving Three Kings, a film with a so-called indie sensibility that Biskind lauds, through the studio system, he goes on to print Russell's lament against Jonathan Demme for eating up $50M of a tacit artist's reserve on the box-office dud The Truth About Charlie. But Three Kings (which cost $48M, a fact unmentioned) is, as William Goldman opined, Hollywood horseshit through and through, less corrosive than even The Truth About Charlie--what else do you call a film in which four soldiers determine that stealing gold would be redundant, since that's what their hearts are made of? (Curiously, the Coen Brothers are absent from this mavericks dialogue.) As a compendium of quotations, Down and Dirty Pictures gets high--top--marks, but because everything in it requires a pre-digestion of a grain of salt, it's bound to give you high blood pressure. Originally published: February 23, 2004.
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