Treading much the same ground as Peter Biskind’s weighty assessment of the rise of independent film via Miramax and Robert Redford’s Sundance film fest, “Down and Dirty Pictures,” James Mottram’s similarly epic study focuses on the entirely acceptable notion that the generation of filmmakers who emerged in the wake of Steven Soderbergh’s seminal 1989 triumph at Sundance with “sex, lies & videotape” has since fostered a new Golden Age akin to the early ’70s triumphs of Altman, Coppola, Scorsese et al who made up the so-called “New Hollywood.”
Certainly, Mottram, a London-based film writer, has a wealth of evidence to push his argument: indie helmers like Soderbergh, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, P.T. Anderson, David Fincher and Alexander Payne are producing films with high artistic cachet as well as box office muscle, projects that entice (and occasionally revitalize) mainstream stars and find great favor with auds and critics alike.
Beginning and ending with Soderbergh — perhaps the most accomplished of the new mavericks — Mottram’s coverage, alternately thematic and historic, benefits hugely from the impressive array of original interviews with key players, most notably Soderbergh, whose perspective, as someone who goes back and forth between the mainstream and indie environments, is a vital one. However, Mottram’s formulaic assessments of films, along with a critical style that lacks bite and occasionally, in the case of Tarantino, is somewhat fawning, detracts from what is otherwise a compelling story of challenging, determined filmmaking.
One overarching problem bedevils the book: the perhaps too-bold claim of the subtitle. Have these vigorous talents actually taken Hollywood back? Clearly, Mottram would love this to be so, but his interviewees’ wearied — and obvious — observations that Hollywood’s zealous deification of the almighty dollar and tendency to favor synergistic activity over artistic cachet contradicts that premise. Indeed, by the closing chapter Mottram questions whether the mavericks really did take back Hollywood, or whether it was “more a case of being allowed entrance again after years in the wilderness.”
Re-admitted or forcibly returned, the new mavericks show few signs of losing steam, showing a considerable adeptness at utilizing the Hollywood machine without being crushed by it. Given the production environment in which they have to operate, that is still a mightily impressive achievement.