One of the seductive pleasures of ”Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind’s dishy, teeming, superbly reported 1998 history of the New Hollywood, emerged from an essential irony: In the 1970s, even the most adventurous American filmmakers — Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, et al. — didn’t realize that they were living through the good old days. Only with hindsight did their movement become a myth. There’s a bit of that we-invented-the-wheel-but-didn’t-know-it spirit coursing through Biskind’s dishy, teeming, superbly reported new opus, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.
You feel it, for example, when Steven Soderbergh, a pale, saturnine geek recently recovered from extreme dental surgery, shows up for the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, at that point a yawny oasis of ”granola” movies. He’s hand-carrying his print of ”sex, lies, and videotape,” a title that half the audience at the first screening votes for him to change. You feel it, as well, when in 1992 Harvey Weinstein, the roaring, tyrannical cochairman of Miramax, tries to force Quentin Tarantino into cutting the ear torture scene out of Reservoir Dogs (”Without that scene, I could open this movie in three hundred theaters. As opposed to one!”), or when Tarantino, unlike virtually every filmmaker in the history of Miramax, stands his ground and wins (”I think most directors are p—ies…that moment decided my career for all time”).
That said, ”Down and Dirty Pictures” is a very different book from ”Easy Riders.” Independent films have been the subject of media scrutiny since the early ’90s, and so Biskind, seeking to advance the story, uncovers the movement’s bedrock layers. His focus is less on the filmmakers than on the mini-moguls behind them — the ones who transformed American indies from patchy, no-budget labors of love into a heady business of sexy, intense, narrative-fueled ”specialty” films, a renegade corporate culture as cutthroat as Hollywood’s, and in many ways more so, since there was less money around to grease the wheels.
The book is packed with lively inside anecdotes. It places you backstage at the film-festival bidding wars, which reach a state of door-slamming bedroom-farce insanity when Robert Duvall’s ”The Apostle” is up for grabs in 1997. It shows you the hoops a filmmaker like Todd Solondz had to jump through to get ”Happiness” released, and it redeems the cliché of Tarantino clerking at a video store by practically placing you at the cash register alongside him. For every spirited tale of QT or David O. Russell or the two Todds (Solondz and Haynes), however, there are many, many more that detail Robert Redford’s passive-aggressive micro-mismanagement of Sundance, or the financial head games that tore apart October Films, or the insatiable hunger of Miramax, the beast that remade the indies by marketing them into the multiplexes.
The figure who towers over ”Down and Dirty Pictures” isn’t even a filmmaker. It’s Harvey Weinstein, who comes off as Samuel Goldwyn crossed with John Gotti and Godzilla — a poison-tempered, junk-food-scarfing, radioactive bully who screams and swears, throws furniture at an underling, and, most of all, threatens to trash your future if he doesn’t get his way, which means making your film on his terms, with his cut, for what he’s willing to pay, regardless of the deal he originally made. Harvey, working in tandem with his brother, Bob, is at once the book’s hero and its madly flamboyant villain, a man so consumed by power that he bent the very aesthetic of independent cinema around his will.
”Down and Dirty Pictures” is littered with tales of Weinstein’s atrocious misbehavior and his allegedly dubious accounting. Biskind milks Harvey, the monster who ate Indiewood, for all he’s worth, but he also understands that it’s too easy to demonize Weinstein. His tactics, though excessive, undeniably work, whereas Bingham Ray, the cofounder of October, comes off as his ineffectual opposite, a scrappy idealist who got steamrolled, over and over, by the money men. The book’s one glaring flaw is that Biskind grows so obsessed with Weinstein that he spends too much time dissecting clunkers like ”Mimic” and ”Wide Awake” and not nearly enough giving us the inside story on ”Boogie Nights,” ”I Shot Andy Warhol,” ”Requiem for a Dream,” ”The Blair Witch Project,” and far too many other landmark movies that had no connection to Miramax. In the end, Biskind says, the indie movement got studio-ized, making it harder for true independent films to get off the ground. I’d argue that that’s an overstatement, but if that’s indeed what Biskind believes, then he himself should have paid more attention to those films, so that his juicy and fascinating exposé didn’t feel as if it, too, had been eaten by Harvey.