Miramax: What a moviegoer felt like, back in the summer of '89
Now that Miramax has finally, sadly, been effectively shut down, its offices shuttered, I promise I won’t subject you to any hand-wringing about the end of an era — mostly because I got the hand-wringing out of the way in two previous posts. Last fall, when Disney first downsized Miramax, and it was already clear that the company’s days were numbered, I took a look at what that decision portended for the future of studio specialty divisions, and for the larger world of independent film. A month later, when the company’s New York offices were closed, I talked about the central place that Miramax occupied in the history of New York movie culture. Now, at last, the company really has passed into history. That should be an upsetting and more than slightly ominous thing for anyone who loves movies.
Right now, however, I want to remember Miramax by going back to a moment — the moment, in fact, when Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s company first shook up the movie world (though no one at the time, not even Harvey and Bob, could fully have guessed what was coming). It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in August of 1989, and sex, lies, and videotape had just opened the day before. I lived in Boston at the time, and I was standing in a very long line to see it at the city’s premiere five-screen indie-art multiplex, the Nickelodeon. Like most of the people on line, I knew virtually nothing about the film but its title (I had seen James Spader play more than a few WASP slimeballs in ’80s teen movies). Yet the title was enough. It wasn’t just the lower-case sensational bluntness that hooked you; it was the teasing yet unmistakable implication of home-video porn in the mixing of those two seemingly polar-opposite concepts — sex (who wouldn’t want to see a movie that starts with…sex?) and videotape (a word that seemed, at the time, so technological, even though it now sounds about as advanced as “ham radio”).
What I remember best — and trust me, I am not exaggerating this — was the extraordinary burbling of anticipation that ran up and down that ticket line. The films at the Nickelodeon, from My Dinner with André to Barfly to Au Revoir, Les Enfants, often played to eager sellout crowds. But sex, lies, even before we’d seen it, truly felt like something…different. Something bold, ahead of the curve, with novel hints of sleaze and danger. At that point, even when they were good, independent films — which is to say, films without marquee stars — had an earnestness to them. They meant well; they were out to be interesting and artistic. Whereas sex, lies, and videotape sounded like a serious movie (that would be the “lies” part), yet one that might also offer up a deeper version of the unabashed cheap thrills that were often a part of the pleasure of Hollywood movies.
And, in fact, that’s just what it did. It turned out that the film’s young director, Steven Soderbergh, had beaten the Hollywood players at their own game. sex, lies wasn’t just a “good movie” — it was a new kind of canny, semi-voyeuristic independent sensation. And from that moment on, the company that released it, Miramax, was off and running.
Back in the summer of ’89, though, one other movie ruled as well. Exactly six weeks before the launch of sex, lies, another picture opened that had people waiting to see it in long, eager, excited lines: Tim Burton’s mad comic-book carnival of a gothic blockbuster, Batman. It was a memorable event — yet I confess that I had to see it a second time to fully appreciate its dark spectacular dazzle, because the first time, the thing I remember most is that the movie itself seemed almost a footnote to the juggernaut of marketing that had preceded it. Batman, as much as sex, lies, and videotape, marked the dawn of a new movie era: the corporate age of saturation advertising, when movies would be openly sold as “franchises” (a fast-food term that had yet to penetrate Hollywood), and special-effects fantasy would now conquer all.
So maybe a part of the excitement I still remember from 21 years ago, waiting to see sex, lies, and videotape, is that the newness of it all came along at exactly the right moment — just when the trends toward outsize, action-driven blockbuster entertainment that had been surging through Hollywood in the ’80s had, at last, taken over. Batman, in its way, was a culmination. But sex, lies, and videotape was a revolution. And though I barely even registered the name of the company that was releasing it, Miramax, I knew one thing: As a moviegoer, standing on that line, I felt something bigger than anticipation. I felt hope.