To remedy my ignorance, I first went to Peter Biskind, a well-known chronicler of the American movie business. You might know Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his account of “the New Hollywood,” the nineties indie movement’s direct formal predecessor in the seventies. (I always felt all that burnt-orange revivalism ran deeper than That 70s Show.) The folktale about the New Hollywood goes something like this: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper made Easy Rider for cheap, Easy Rider made pantloads of money, and so the studios started casting around for other artistic young filmmakers in a cargo-cultish attempt to replicate the Easy Rider trick until they realized they couldn’t sustain it. The folktale about the indie boom goes like this: Soderbergh/Tarantino/Smith/Rodriguez made sex, lies, and videotape/Reservoir Dogs/Clerks/El Mariachi for dirt-cheap, sex, lies/Dogs/Clerks/Mariachi made balloon-seat-pantloads of money, studios cast around for other rough-and-ready young filmmakers, etc., etc.
Down and Dirty Pictures tells this folktale in welcome (if near-oppressive) detail. Simon and Schuster gave the book the subtitle “Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film,” which, despite coming in the terribly unpromising “a, b, and the x of y” form, points out a couple entities I’ve never really understood but who, by Biskind’s reasoning, made indie film into Indie Film. Biskind spends more time on the legendarily brutish Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein than any of the scores of other suits he mentions; I quickly lost count of the many “Harvey, the veins in his purple face throbbing with rage, sprayed an arc of spittle across the conference room” and “For reasons known only to himself, Harvey began throttling the intern” moments described.
I actually feel a 280-page Harvey Weinstein biography somewhere in these 484 pages, the rest of which do indeed discuss Sundance, the careers of involved directors, and the ill fates of would-be Miramaxes. Biskind’s Harvey reads like a tragic figure of antiquity, driven by sheer love of film to found Miramax, a company that would acquire and promote the living hell out of adventurous passion projects, to get them on the same turf with and ultimately beat out the prevailing Hollywood pablum. He stuck to the plan up through about Pulp Fiction and the sale of the company to Disney; each taste of money just made him thirstier for more, which forced Miramax to play it safer and safer. The company that once distributed The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover worked its way down to The English Patient, then Shakespeare in Love, then She’s All That.
Sadder still, Harvey appears never to have had the taste he thought he did. Though, in his own mythology, he experienced his awakening during a screening of The 400 Blows, he grew up to become the man who would loose Life is Beautiful on the American public. In apology to one young director he kept browbeating and browbeating to cut down her film — Biskind describes Harvey demanding cuts even more often than he describes him exploding — he sends flowers, a book of Truffaut essays, and a card explaining that, see, I love art films too, y’know? But if he truly considers Truffaut the far “art” end of the spectrum, well, that says everything you need to know.
Biskind has the indie bubble burst around 2000, though Sundance, Miramax, Weinstein, and most of those auteurs soldier separately on. I don’t know how much things have changed. Reporting from Sundance a year or two, The Sound of Young America host (and past Marketplace of Ideas guest) Jesse Thorn asked, “How can these great artists work for such UGG-booted dunderheads?”