Review: ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’

Peter Biskind has turned his sights on the 1990s and the independent-film movement, and the result, "Down and Dirty Pictures," is like VH1's "Behind the Music": It's a titillating look at showbiz money, infighting and egos, but there's never any sense of artistic achievement, exhilaration or creativity in the biz.

Peter Biskind is turning into the VH1 of Hollywood journalists. His “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” was the literary equivalent of the cabler’s “I Love the ’70s,” an amused-horrified look into a seminal decade. Now Biskind has turned his sights on the 1990s and the independent-film movement, and the result, “Down and Dirty Pictures,” is like VH1’s “Behind the Music”: It’s a titillating look at showbiz money, infighting and egos, but there’s never any sense of artistic achievement, exhilaration or creativity in the biz. “Down and Dirty” may have more depth than those TV shows, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable.

If the book creates any buzz, it will be because he has got people to go on the record and offer details of their finances and feuds — no small feat in the closed-mouth film biz. But by the time the reader gets to the umpteenth anecdote about Robert Redford’s cold treatment of a loyal employee or Harvey Weinstein’s outbursts, they may begin to wonder: What exactly is this book anyway? In truth, it attempts to be three tomes in one: an overview of the indie biz, a history of Sundance and a dissection of Miramax. As a result, all three get shortchanged.

The book begins with a screening of “sex, lies, & videotape” at the U.S. Film Festival in 1989. After that year, the indie movement became less marginalized and more commercial, shifting from the arthouse ghettos and into the multiplexes. Via three threads — writer-director Steven Soderbergh, distrib Miramax and Sundance (“U.S. Fest” was an earlier moniker) — Biskind says he intends to create a portrait of the indie scene.

Somewhere along the way, that intention got waylaid. “Down and Dirty” is both too gossipy and not juicy enough; both too ambitious and too limited in scope. It’s ironic that the criticisms leveled in the book against Redford and Weinstein — lack of organizational skills and interference with the creative process, respectively — are the very things that plague the book. If Biskind had worked with a stricter editor, “Dirty” could have had more focus and been less relentlessly disagreeable. All of his topics would have been richer had he devoted more time to them.

Anecdotes about sex and drugs provided shots of adrenaline in “Easy Riders,” and they’re a lot more fun than the tales of contractual battles here.

Showbiz folk may be interested in some of the tales, though many have been related before (such as in Ken Auletta’s New Yorker profile of Weinstein). But it’s a question mark whether the public is going to be scandalized by the fact that Redford is “passive aggressive” and sneaks out the back door of his office rather than returning phone calls. Oh, the cad!

Doesn’t anyone in the indie biz sleep around?

Biskind says in his intro that the book is a semi-sequel to “Easy Riders,” yet his overview of the indie biz is pretty narrow. There is no acknowledgement that there were indie films before the 1970s; it’s as if Samuel Arkoff and Roger Corman never existed. Slews of key companies and individuals (Sony Pictures Classics, Lions Gate, Newmarket, Goldwyn, IFC Films, Artisan, Bob Berney, Mark Ordesky and Tom Ortenberg, et al.) are either glossed over or ignored altogether. The fascinating and complex relationship of “arthouse units” of the majors — Focus Features, Paramount Classics, UA, Fox Searchlight — and their respective parent companies is barely mentioned.

It’s as if Biskind, his editor and publisher were seduced by sources’ tales of naughty behavior.

Half of the book is devoted to Miramax, specifically Harvey Weinstein — specifically, Weinstein’s temper. As gossip, these anecdotes are interesting for a while, but they quickly wear thin, and one begins to feel sorry for the exec: Even Weinstein’s charitable actions are denigrated.

If Biskind wanted to spend so much energy on Miramax, why not write a book about that company? There are many aspects to Miramax that are not explored: its relationships with foreign-lingo filmmakers, its dealings with Disney, etc. Biskind says many filmmakers refuse to return to Miramax but doesn’t address the question of why some others do (Robert Rodriguez, Anthony Minghella, etc.)

One of Biskind’s main gripes with Weinstein is that Harvey Scissorhands frequently reshapes his films via editing, reshoots and even sound cues. Biskind clearly sympathizes with the filmmakers, though he never addresses the possibilities that their films may have been improved by the editing.

Certainly Weinstein’s proposed happy ending for “Welcome to the Dollhouse” would have been unfortunate (director Todd Solondz took the film to Sony Classics), but many films like “Cinema Paradiso” benefited from the trims. And, as HBO’s “Project Greenlight” has shown, some adamant young filmmakers need to get whipped into shape.

If it’s any consolation to Weinstein and Redford, Amir Malin and Scott Greenstein, who merits much less space, come off even worse in the book. Most others seem sympathetic, including Soderbergh and Bingham Ray and other indie vets who keep popping up, such as Ira Deutchman, Eamonn Bowles, Chris McGurk, Cassian Elwes and Sundance’s Geoff Gilmore. Adding their voices to the chronicle are such names as Bernardo Bertolucci, Scott Rudin, Saul Zaentz, Matt Damon, Spike Lee and James Ivory.

The book has its moments. Biskind offers incidents that bring insight into the film biz: a completion bond exec condescendingly scolding producer Christine Vachon for going slightly over budget on “Far From Heaven”; Quentin Tarantino and then-friend Roger Avary arguing over the screenplay credit for “Pulp Fiction”; and the agonizing tension for everyone when Barry Diller moved to buy October Films.

Funniest bits include Kevin Smith’s story of a woman accosting him after a Sundance screening of “Clerks,” telling him it was a “hateful little film” that confirmed her belief that reincarnated Nazis live in New Jersey — and then optimistically handing him her headshot. And Bingham Ray has some affectionate but hilarious tales about Jeff Lipsky, who once suffered a 20-minute bout of hysterical blindness.Another time, Lipsky suddenly got moody and silent at a crucial business dinner. When Ray later berated him, Lipsky gasped, “I am bleeding to death internally. They put broken glass in my food!” It turned out to be small bits of dried pasta.

In his summation, Biskind argues persuasively that financial considerations have changed the rules for indie filmmakers, that a novice’s failure to deliver boffo numbers leads to an indie world populated by first-timers who won’t get a second chance.

But he doesn’t address the possibility that another revolution is on the way, fueled by new technology — and that the current “indie” scene, whatever that is, will move into other directions.

Many interviewees in the book similarly bemoan the devolution of the indie biz, but last year saw a bunch of “indie” pics, such as “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Whale Rider,” “American Splendor” and “Lost in Translation,” as well as socko docus like “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Fog of War” and “The Weather Underground,” which are arguably better than any indie film from the late 1980s.

Biskind is a dogged reporter, and you have to admire his ambition. In his intro, he states the near-impossibility of his task: to chronicle the film revolution that took place in the ’90s and to get his arms around a business that is, he admits, “vague and hard to define” — everything from “Tadpole” to “Cold Mountain,” from ThinkFilm to Focus Features.

In “Easy Riders,” he and his sources had the benefit of hindsight, giving them the needed perspective about the artistic and economic upheavals. This book will prove useful a few decades down the road for anyone wanting to tackle these subjects, as time will give people more perception and honesty in addressing things.

The book’s shortcomings are particularly frustrating, because it’s clear that inside “Down and Dirty” are several better books fighting to get out.

Down and Dirty Pictures

Simon & Schuster; 550 pages; $26.95


Peter Biskind

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