Monday, January 23, 2006

Book Review: Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind

I wouldn't have believed a book with such a dodgy title would be a definitive guide to the world of filmmaking in the 1990s.

Down and Dirty Pictures sounds like a little porn theatre on the edge of town, but it's the fascinating story behind the hollywoodisation of independent film, and vice versa.

Main characters are the Weinstein Brothers (founders of Miramax and now out on their own again with The Weinstein Company) and Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance festival and all its accompanying enterprises - some successful, some not.

Biskind is blunt in his portrayal of the personalities here - nobody gets to look too good; after all, this is real life, not the movies. The Weinsteins especially come across as ruthless mercenaries, determined to get their way and throwing their considerable weight around if they don't.

However, they're also occasionally shrewd marketers, who at the height of their career knew when to leave a director alone, and when to intervene - Harvey Weinstein was known as "Scissorhands" - to make a film marketable.

Despite Sundance's place in the book's subtitle ("Miramax, Sundance & The Rise of Independent Film") it's more of a bit player compared with the rising tide of independent producers, studios and distributors in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, Redford still comes under scrutiny as a leader who wants to control everything, but cannot be everywhere at once. Sundance is seen as growing almost despite his efforts, becoming one of the most important parts of the filmmaking year for the growing independent film movement.

This book has very little to say about films themselves, except in passing. Down and Dirty Pictures is about the business - and there is more than enough drama in that!

As someone who would one day like to definitely write, maybe direct, maybe even produce films, this is the kind of book that could scare you into hibernation. It shows an industry where people have no concept of boundaries - of honour, of decency. At least that's the business in its darkest moments - and those moments usually have something to do with the Weinsteins!

However there were times I found myself wondering, 'does this stuff really happen'? Perhaps its my sheltered upbringing, perhaps it's that New Zealanders are less prone to antisocial behaviour than Hollywood types... :) ... or perhaps the stories have all been jazzed up just a little by the film producers recalling them.

Whatever, it brings up the question that every aspiring filmmaker needs to ask: how far am I willing to go from my own personal beliefs and standards, into the standards generally held by the society I want to get into.

In other words, am I prepared to become some ruthless son-of-a-bitch in order to compete against other SOBs? Or do I think my beliefs are strong enough to ensure me victory against said SOBs, as long as I don't violate those principles and beliefs.

It's one of those answers that you can only find out by trying. There doesn't seem to be anyone in this book different enough to tell. But then again, that may just be in how the story is told.


At February 03, 2006 5:15 PM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

I'm very much enjoying these posts, Simon.

I, too, found Biskind's book to be a rather (big!) but interesting portrait on the state of 'indie.'

I think you'd also get a kick out of James B. Stewart's Disney War.


I think you'd also rather enjoy magazines such as FILMMAKER, which is put out by the Independent Film Channel.

These are good. I know you're going to do well at this.

I have one more article I think you're going to enjoy, and it's here.

Let me know what you think. I read when I have a free moment. Stuck into my second book now, but am on top of my other readings. Try not to fall too far behind.

At April 29, 2007 9:56 PM, Blogger spiderspit said...

the part where you mention the compromise that you have to make with your personal beliefs and standards, resonated. i've just been through a dilemma like that and decided to walk out of advertising and follow my passion of filmmaking. i refused to be housetrained in the process discovered that i have a spine. :)

At April 29, 2007 10:49 PM, Blogger Simon said...

Congrats spiderspit! More power to ya.


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