Published on October 22nd, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
Down and Dirty Pictures
I first read Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, a look at the 80s and 90s Indie movie revolution, when it came out in 2004, ten years after I saw Pulp Fiction. I decided to read it again recently, now that some more time has passed, and it really brought me back. I was a young film junkie that worked in a videostore in the 90s when these movies came out, so I remember the fervour behind Pulp Fiction, but also how movies like Citizen Ruth were buried on the new release wall. It was one of the first times that I remember ‘being there’ for the history I was reading about, as opposed to books about other cool and influential periods in film or music history.
Down and Dirty Pictures talks about a lot of the Indie movies and personalities of the day, but it focuses mostly on the rise of Miramax films, which went from sourcing out ‘important’ movies, to trying their hand at being a bona fide movie studio themselves. It also looks at The Sundance Film Festival and founder Robert Redford. Neither the Weinsteins, nor Redford, are viewed too favourably.
While the book is as well researched as the other two Biskind books I’ve read (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Star), it never really seems to get fully inside the Indie films it covers. It has all kinds of salacious gossip, but unfortunately, that seems to be one of the main aims of the book. Sure, with a subject like Miramax head and infamous hot-tempered bully Harvey Weinstein, you’re bound to find some great stories to tell. But I might have liked the book to dig further into the actual making of more of the films it covers. It focuses more on the dirty bidding wars, shell-shocked Miramax interns, and huge egos that populated the scene as indie filmmakers like Soderbergh, Tarantino, or Alexander Payne were ushered into the Hollywood fold, some having better experiences than others.
Down and Dirty Pictures is more a book about Miramax, or to a lesser degree, Sundance, than it is about the rise of Independent film. Still, it’s a mountain of content that he has organized well, and to be fair, it says right in the title that the book is mainly about Miramax and Sundance. But it’s too close to being a really long smear piece about the Weinsteins and Redford. While they may deserve some negativity, it takes over the book and leaves a nasty taste in your mind.
The subject matter was still very fresh when Biskind wrote it, which probably didn’t help. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, some time has passed since the events he writes about occurred, and things are viewed more in 20/20 hindsight, as opposed to the hot under the collar feelings that were still fresh with a lot of Down and Dirty. Even Star, a biography of Warren Beatty, is a more even approach to a controversial figure. It shows that while Beatty could be a real dick, he also had a lot of talent and sometimes did the right thing when people were concerned. Down and Dirty Pictures is a must read for any film nerd, but you won’t learn as much as you’d hoped about that second wave of American independent filmmaking.