Last Christmas, there was one book that every LA movie executive wanted in his Gucci stocking; journalist Peter Biskind's exposé of the US independents. The time was right to remove the screening room curtain and reveal that the saviours of American film were threadbare manipulators who had trampled art into the mud. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind described how a handful of young counter-culture film-makers, influenced by the anti-war movement, European cinema and copious amounts of chemical refreshment, revitalised an increasingly moribund industry by putting it back in touch with its grass-roots audience. Down and Dirty Pictures purports to be a sequel of sorts, but acts as a grim mirror image to the first book, describing at inordinate length how the same spirit of independence was eventually crushed by micromanagement and panicking suits.
Biskind has singled out Miramax and Sundance for particular opprobrium, painting their respective heads, Harvey Weinstein and Robert Redford, as the Scylla and Charybdis between which great film-makers are trapped and crushed. The only other independent represented in depth is October Films, a kinder, gentler Miramax who failed, it is implied, with greater honour. Harvey and Bob are the dominant stars, not least because everyone has an ugly anecdote about them.
As a book about personalities, Down and Dirty Pictures is astonishingly insulting; Redford, the once-idealistic founder of Utah's snowbound Sundance festival, is painted as a passive-aggressive wraith who vanishes when he's most needed, who is oblivious to the chaos he creates around him, a control freak when neophyte film-makers seek guidance and a commitment-phobe when the cheques need to be signed. He's partnered against an extremely butch Cassidy, Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, presented here as a junk-food scoffing, lapel-grabbing bully, a porcine, terrorising bottom feeder whose brother Bob is some "gnome-like" form of moral sludge kept away from human contact. How much of this can be taken at face value when Biskind has a barely hidden agenda at work? He was denied access to Redford back in 1991, after his feature on Sundance's mismanagement earned him the star's lasting enmity. As a result, the author protests so much that one starts to harbour a grudge against him and root for the Weinsteins. Is Biskind naive enough to believe that hungry independents should have no desire to become major players?
The kick-off for this catalogue of clashing egos is the film sex, lies and videotape. When the 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh's Gen-X talkfest won the Sundance Audience Prize, it created a contagion of bidding that put the director, the distributor and the festival on the map. Bob and Harvey Weinstein were heading into distribution with Amnesty International's The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Cutting a deal with them was "like the most intense sex I ever had in my life", says that picture's producer. "It felt horrible and pleasurable at the same time." Harvey chopped two films together after intuiting that a combination of art and sex would prove crowd-pleasing, and the film became his template for what was to follow.
Biskind's comparison between Miramax and Britain's own Palace Pictures doesn't hold; Palace's likeable owners, Nik Powell and Steve Woolley, are self-effacing cinephiles who filled the Odeon Leicester Square for a fortnight with an art film, The Company of Wolves, without ever resorting to the recuts and marketing tricks of the Weinsteins. What Biskind seems to be protesting about is the matter of class: Harvey has no manners. Loud, fat and relentlessly vulgar, he has lost sight of his aim to bring culture to the multiplex. Yet for anyone who saw Harvey presenting a sensitive and erudite film response to the 9/11 outrage at the British Independent Film Awards, Biskind's portrait is simplistic and somewhat inaccurate.
The charge that Miramax repeatedly hacked up films to suit American tastes is more damning. Footage was routinely revoiced to reduce British accents, and re-ordered with happier endings. Harvey felt that a film was lost if it failed to communicate, but Biskind argues with justification that the "otherness" of foreign films is reduced by making them more user-friendly. Then there's the naked seduction of Oscar voters, a practice that has grown to backfiring proportions in recent years.
There's no denying that Miramax took chances. The movies they looked for were ones that provoked a volatile reaction. They knew how to outrage audiences and make them come back for more. Then speed-rapping ultrageek Quentin Tarantino arrived at Sundance to turn everyone's world upside down. He wandered through the frozen mountain resort in a T-shirt, explaining Top Gun's gay subtext to anyone who would listen. Reservoir Dogs forced more walkouts. "There go the women," complained Harvey, but they returned a few minutes later because they wanted to see how the story turned out. Tarantino comes off badly, morphing from video-bore to anti-artist with a monstrous ego, poor hygiene and magpie tendencies. His ex-friends found their swiped stories reappearing in his films.
Ironically, it was Tarantino who sowed seeds of destruction for the rest of the indie scene; few low-rent companies could compete with the bargaining power of Pulp Fiction. Miramax now obeyed the laws of test-screenings and focus groups, and the result was a series of quaint period-set Europuddings like Captain Corelli's Mandolin that pleased many without exciting anyone. Biskind's catalogue of fits, firings and fights over everything from casting to premiere seating arrangements rolls on with such relentlessness that even industry pros might find themselves throwing in the towel.
If Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was about dreamers and pioneers, Down and Dirty Pictures focuses on spirit-crushers and number-crunchers. Perhaps if Harvey had been given the manuscript, he'd have cut it into more audience-friendly shape and added a happier ending.Reuse content