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Book Review: Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind.
by Matthew Bartley

So just what do you do after writing perhaps the finest, most exhaustive history of 70's American cinema? If you're Peter Biskind, the first thing you do is skip the 80's entirely. Instead, his follow up focuses on the rise of independent cinema in the 90's, and pays particular regard to two of the biggest cultural changes to hit American cinema during this period: Sundance and the Weinstein brothers. So is it as good as 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls'? In a word, no. But it is absorbing, eye-opening, hilarious, and at times, just damn scary.

If you've read 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' (and if you haven't, what's wrong with you?), then you know what to expect from Biskind's style. Formatting his book chronologically, he presents the scandal and intrigue of producing films during this era. It's astonishing just how much information Biskind manages to get for his subjects, as each chapter reads like Biskind has had the Miramax offices bugged and has been evesdropping at every major conversation Hollywood has ever had.

This leads to us hearing shocking tales of just how the Weinstein's operate Miramax through fear and intimidation, with Harvey particularly coming off like Tony Soprano. People are picked up, chewed up, spat out and then trampled on, all in the name of a profit. But on the other hand, just think of how many great films have only been heard about because of Miramax's hands - 'Life Is Beautiful', 'sex, lies and videotape' amongst many others. And this is why 'Down and Dirty Pictures' paints just such a scary picture. After reading just how many producers, backers and directors ended up broke and on the edge of a nervous breakdown, you may find that any dreams you have of breaking your debut film at Hollywood will shrink pretty damn quickly.

But it's not just horrific, there are some hilarious tales in here too. There's Matt Damon's cool beatdown to Harvey's jibe at him being a no-one. There's a business dinner which turns into something out of 'The Player' meeting the hypochondriac Martin Short from 'Innerspace'. And the literal chase to acquire the rights for 'The Apostle' may be the funniest thing I've read in years.

But there's still the nagging feeling that this isn't anywhere near as good as 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' and that feeling exists for several reasons. Firstly, the tone of the book occasionally falls into diatribe against the Weinstein's for the sake of it. Sure, reading just how scary Harvey can be in a screaming match is funny/horrifying for the first five times, but by the fifteenth there's a sense of repetition creeping in too.

Secondly, there's not the cast of characters and personalities that 'Easy Riders...' had. While that book was easy to follow with its cast of Dennis Hopper, Scorcese, Coppola, Bludhorn, Robert Evans, Friedkin etc, this book doesn't have that advantage. The sheer number of people and names we're introduced to who we've never heard of before is over-whelming, and can make it particularly difficult following who's in business with whom, and who is being screwed by whom. This also reflects on the films themselves. Because while it was genuinely exhilirating to read about the creation of 'The Godfather' or 'Jaws', it's unfortunately not the same reading about 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' or 'Good Will Hunting'.

And lastly, the book puts itself forward as an analysis of both Miramax and Sundance, but the section on the latter barely warrants a mention. It again feels repetitive, with none of the sauce or scandal of the tales of the Weinsteins. It's ironic that Biskind seems to need to take a lesson from Harvey 'Scissorhands' Weinstein, and brutally cut down the flabby bits from a treasured and cherished piece of work.

'Down and Dirty Pictures' is only a disappointing read in that it clearly falls short of the standard that the previous work reached. But when you consider just how accomplished that work was, then it should be no surprise really. But 'Down and Dirty Pictures' is still a frank, informed and scathing piece of journalism that is continually surprising as to how much Biskind has dug up.

Anyone who is even considering a career making independent films simply has to read it.

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originally posted: 04/29/05 23:07:26
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