Sometimes authors bear responsibility for this and sometimes publishers do, but the book occasionally reads like a sleazy tell-all, as in the Tarantino chapters hell-bent on exposing the filmmaker’s poor personal hygiene and embarrassingly higher-than-lower-middle-class background. The sections on Soderbergh fare better, despite compulsively returning to and speculating about his issues with “intimacy.” Still, the more I read about the man, the sadder I get about his limiting “one for them, one for me” mindset, where every actually interesting project — the kind that prompts Waxman and Biskind to whip out their licenses to dismiss — means one more Erin Brockovich or Ocean’s Fifteen.
Spike Jonze I’d never known much about, but I found Being John Malkovich’s story of slipping through the bureaucratic cracks and coming to fruition pretty much undicked-with inspiring. It got me thinking about the year 1999, when we had not only Malkovich, but Magnolia, Fight Club, Three Kings, The Limey, and several more I’m surely forgetting besides. Say what you will about any of these films, but has the spotlight of U.S. cinema fallen across any lineup as interesting since? No wonder I got seriously into movies right then.
I get the feeling that a lot of readers will come away from the Paul Thomas Anderson chapters thinking of him as the ultimate obnoxious, demanding wunderkind, a paragon of arrogance demanding ever-higher budgets, ever-longer runtimes, and ever-finaler cut authority. But if the guy uses his high budgets, long runtimes, and final cuts to pump out pictures like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, does asking for them, no matter how forcefully, really count as arrogance? Waxman writes much about Anderson’s ongoing struggles with one particular executive, a symbol of the whole theme of “imperatives of art v. imperatives of commerce” that keeps coming up in my reading about this period — although nothing has ever totally convinced me of their direct opposition.
But don’t believe me! Listen to Soderbergh, who gives the book’s closing quote: “This is a story that goes back all the way to the beginning of cinema in this country, with the struggle for auteur filmmaking with the American cine-culture. That’s always been the battle. Between the belief that a director should be in creative control of a movie, as opposed to the person financing the film.” Hmm.
The book’s David Fincher seems both as contemptuous of everything that goes on in Hollywood except filmmaking as Anderson and as open about discussing it as Soderbergh. I found within myself a wellspring of respect for him while reading Waxman’s account of the production of Fight Club, of all movies. (Note, however, that I’ve always held a pro-Fight Club position, and not because I think it has serious things to say about “consumerism.” If anything, it makes fun of the unfocused, intellectually bankrupt rage it depicts, and which its dimmer fans declare awesome, necessary, and even awesomely necessary.) Fincher’s quotes indicate one goal on his part and one goal only: to spend as much Hollywood money as possible making as un-Hollywood a picture as possible. In his own words, as he arranged them when he got the studio’s go-ahead, “Those idiots just green-lit a $75 million experimental movie.”
But David O. Russell, as Waxman portrays him, fascinates me more than anyone else. Maybe that happened because of all the stories about him getting into fistfights with producers or forcing George Clooney to do yoga breathing or looking up dresses or getting written off as a “weirdo” or taking his own photos from awards-ceremony stages. I certainly couldn’t drop the book when it got into the famously tormented Three Kings shoot, not just because I quite like that movie — and its DVD, which I need to watch again soonish and which provided an important unit in my self-made film school when back, at age fifteen, I decided I want to make films myself — but because of the obvious all-consuming dedication it required of him. Man had to get in the game, and it shows in the final product.
Alas, the Three Kings stuff also turns out to be the closest Waxman gets to discussing the actual process of making a film. Most of the book treats it as a black box surrounded by a web of time-sensitive financial dealings (both under- and over-handed) and endless personal strife for the artist. It can tell you about Harrison Ford’s waffling about joining the cast of Traffic or Anderson’s locking himself in the editing room and denying studio stooges access or Jonze’s fashioning a half-floor out of an existing office building or Russell’s insistence on shooting on Ektachrome or Fight Club’s apocalyptic test screenings, but the real substance of cinematic creation — the stuff that doesn’t necessarily make for juicy anecdotes — goes missing.
This surprises me in an otherwise crazy-enjoyable book about these particular directors, but certain moments give the game way. Though I do sense sense a genuine admiration for the work of Tarantino, Soderbergh, Anderson, Russell, Jonze, and Fincher, I can’t quite forget the times Waxman lets slip with sentences like, “The glacially paced and icily shot Solaris was a remake of an Andre [sic] Tarkovsky film that made all but the most dedicated art-house movie lovers fall asleep” — sentences which exhibit about five different levels of philistinism at once.