Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film
by Peter Biskind
The Dirtier the Better
A review by Chris Bolton
Picking up almost exactly where his seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls left off -- at the collapse of the seventies filmmaking revolution and the dawn of the bloated eighties blockbusters -- Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures guides us into the nineties independent-film scene on the backs of Harvey Weinstein and Robert Redford. The connection is a natural one, in hindsight: Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival (mainly to bolster tourism to his struggling ski resort) and Weinstein's Miramax Films was among the first (and certainly became the biggest) independent film companies to profit from it.
Biskind brings in other participants -- many filmmakers are discussed and/or interviewed, along with the heads of other production entities, among them the short-lived October Films, with its own internal power struggles -- but Redford and Weinstein form the through-line for the book. They were both involved in the tremendous success of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, the picture that truly began the stratospheric launch of the "indie" movement, and by the end of the book Biskind seems to find them complacent in that movement's immolation: Redford has allowed Sundance to become a corporate-funded marketplace for wanna-be commercial directors looking for their big payout, while Weinstein has turned Miramax into a mini-studio that can't handle the release of a film that doesn't aim for Oscar glory.
Many of those Biskind interviewed claim to have been misquoted. And at least one participant, producer's rep John Pierson (author of Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes, recently reissued as Spike Mike Reloaded), has lamented that Biskind shows no love for the films of the decade. Whereas Easy Riders balanced gossipy-but-riveting stories of sex, drugs, and overwrought egos with a genuine fondness for the artists' output, in Down and Dirty Biskind seems to have little respect for the product itself. He regards the indie films of the nineties as largely inconsequential and self-indulgent, and worth little artistic consideration beyond the business of the industry.
That's unfortunate, since a lot of great work emerged from the dreck and duplicity, and it's part of the reason Down and Dirty doesn't resonate afterward like Easy Riders did. But there can be no denying that, for film lovers everywhere, this book is pure, unadulterated pleasure: movie-buff crack. Impossible to put down, devoured at breakneck pace, one can't help but get sucked into the behind-the-scenes intrigue, backstabbing, temper tantrums, deal making, deal breaking, ego building, ego destroying, and of course, above all else, the Falstaffian legend that is Harvey Weinstein. Some critics complain that the stories of Harvey's bad behavior (from taking movies away from directors and recutting them to overturning tables and erupting in public screaming fits) have become repetitious, but there is a keen fascination for those of us on the outside of the industry to read the stories that had been hinted at but rarely brought to light. Down and Dirty is compulsive, mandatory reading that's best at its dirtiest.