ReelThoughts: April 30, 2004

"Down and Dirty"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


I briefly considered writing a "formal" review of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, but decided that I didn't want to officially branch out into book criticism. I'd rather be able to read things without thinking about how I'm going to present my opinion in writing. (No matter what anyone says, film critics do view movies slightly differently from everyone else. For one thing, they have to pay closer attention.)

Biskind is probably best known for penning the influential Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which chronicled all things cinema during the 1970s. Not only did the book become a must-read for anyone interested in movies, but it spawned a film. Down and Dirty Pictures is Biskind's follow-up to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and explores the indie movement during the late '80s and '90s. The subtitle pretty much says it all: "Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film."

For about 100 pages, this is compelling reading. Unfortunately, the book continues for 380 pages beyond that point. By the end, Down and Dirty Pictures has become dull and repetitive. Biskind has a single agenda, and he pursues it doggedly: make Harvey Weinstein look like the anti-Christ. Admittedly, Weinstein isn't the most lovabale person alive, and he has made plenty of enemies, but it's hard to imagine a more evil caricature than the one developed by Biskind. Along the way, he takes swipes at just about everyone who has made a name through independent pictures, including (but not limited to) Robert Redford, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith. The body count is pretty high.

One of the problems with Biskind's book is that its varacity has been called into question on more than one occasion, which makes it difficult to accept anything that the author has to say (despite hundreds of citations for quotes). Christine Vachon has flatly denied a statement attributed to her regarding Roger Ebert's reaction to meeting Todd Haynes, and Kevin Smith has told me in e-mail that Biskind distorted some of his statements and did not print a more recent qualifying quote. This establishes a pattern of questionable journalism that makes one wonder about some of Biskind's more sensationalistic claims.

Bottom line: if you're interested, borrow the book from the library; don't spend the $20 Amazon is selling it for. It's impossible to deny that Down and Dirty Pictures contains its share of intriguing material, but, for the most part, it's engrossing in the same way that The National Enquirer is engrossing. And, considering how many people have come out and denied bits and pieces of what appears in the book, it's important to take everything Biskind says with a large grain of salt.


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