Earlier this year I read “Down and Dirty Pictures” a hefty tome by film industry chronicler Peter Biskind that told the story of the rise of independent American cinema from the late 1980s until 2000.
Independent – or indie – films refers to low-budget films made outside the major Hollywood film studio system.
Biskind calls Down and Dirty Pictures “something of a sequel” to his excellent “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the book he wrote about the new wave of European-inspired film making that emerged in America in the 1960s and 1970s that I read a while back, in which film makers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola feature prominently.
“Down and Dirty Pictures” is a highly entertaining and educational account of how struggling film distribution companies like Miramax, founded by brothers Harvey (the now convicted sex felon) and Bob Weinstein, turned low-budget films made by unknown writer-directors into Academy Award winning gold and how Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival provided the platform for these film makers to showcase their work for the first time and connect with the money men who would finance their more mainstream careers.
Biskind calls Sundance and Miramax the “twin towers of the indie movie world”.
The career journeys of directors like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino,David O Russell, and Todd Haynes feature prominently in the book as do actor/writer/directors like Billy Bob Thornton, and emerging stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
While much of “Down and Dirty Pictures” focuses on the deal-making business side of film production and distribution (which may not appeal to everyone) it’s also a fantastic guide to some of the best films that were made during that time.
Rather than write a lengthy review of Biskind’s book – I highly recommend it if it’s your cup of tea – I thought I’d rather provide a run down of some of the films he talks about and which you might like to add to your ‘must watch’ lists:
(I have marked with a *HNS” films which I have not seen myself)
Sex, Lies and Videotape – a tale of sexual repression and perversion, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh who would go on to make films like Erin Brokovich, Traffic and Oceans 11 to name just a few. Made for just $1.2 million, it was bought by Miramax at Sundance and ended up winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With the big spending marketing push of the Weinsteins it went on to gross almost $25 million. The movie starred Andie McDowell, James Spader and Peter Gallagher. (HNS)
My Left Foot – directed by Jim Sheridan, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Irishman Christy Brown who overcame cerebral palsy to become a celebrated writer and artist.
Cinema Paradiso – Miramax helped turned this obscure Italian film by writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore into an award winner and surprise indie hit. IMDB’s synopsis: A filmmaker recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village and forms a deep friendship with the cinema’s projectionist. (It actually came out in 1988, but I am going with the chronology of the book). I watched it a long time ago, but do recall its magical qualities.
Poison – a film by Todd Haynes, one the leading lights of independent cinema and the New Queer Cinema movement, whose later films included the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and the American period drama Far From Heaven (HNS). He also made the brilliant HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. Touching on many taboo themes, IMDB’s synopsis of Poison reads: “A boy shoots his father and flies out the window. A man falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison. A doctor accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wrecking havoc on the community.” (HNS)
Gas Food Lodging written and directed by Allison Anders. I remember seeing this coming-of-age film at the Rosebank Mall arthouse cinemas in Joburg and loving it. Set in New Mexico, it tells the story of a single mother trying to raise her two daughters, one of whom is played by the gorgeous Ione Skye. Sweet and moving.
Reservoir Dogs the stylish gangster movie that heralded the arrival of one of the great movie talents, writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Have seen it countless times, would watch it countless times more. Great soundtrack, cracking dialogue and great performances by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, the late Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.
The Crying Game – written and directed by Neil Jordan, a love story with a sensational twist set against the backdrop of IRA terrorism in London. I saw it years ago. My chief memory is of the American actor Forest Whittaker in cricket whites bowling in awkward fashion. Of course I also remember the famous and shocking ending, which most who saw it kept a secret for others (I won’t tell either). I would love to watch it again. Biskind’s book notes that The Crying Game grossed $62.5m and became the first indie film to earn more than $25m in America and thus become the first indie ‘blockbuster’
Clerks – written and directed by Kevin Smith, this ultra-low budget classic (made for $27,000) tells the story – in grainy black and white- of Dante Hicks’ both mundane and crazy day behind the counter at a convenience store. Truly hilarious (I watched it again recently) and witty and infused with pop culture references, its a must-watch on my list.
Pulp Fiction – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. A masterpiece about gangsters and crooks in Los Angeles that revived the career of John Travolta and turned Samuel L. Jackson into an A-list Hollywood superstar. Filled with so many unforgettable scenes, an amazing soundtrack and long list of incredible cameos. Became the first indie to gross over $100 million and ended up making $222 million around the world on an $8 million budget. The film that made Miramax.
Kids – written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clarke. A disturbing and confronting film (as I recall it) about a group of New York teens drinking and having sex, and in some cases becoming HIV positive.
Welcome to the Dollhouse – written and directed by Todd Solondz. According to IMDB.com’s summary: “An awkward seventh-grader struggles to cope with inattentive parents, snobbish class-mates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister and her own insecurities in suburban New Jersey.” Biskind notes in his book it was originally titled “Faggots and Retards” which he said “perfectly captures the flavour of the movie”. (HNS)
Flirting with Disaster – a comedy written and directed by David O Russell and starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni. About a guy (Stiller) who drags his wife and young baby on a road trip in search of his birth mother. I don’t recall a great deal about the film, apart from laughing a lot. David O Russell went on to make a string of brilliant films including Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
Shine – directed by Scott Hicks, the biopic about the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott played by Geoffrey Rush (for which he won an Oscar) and his battles with mental illness. An uplifting film that I have watched a number of times, plus great classical music.
Fargo – written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Arguably one of the best films of all time, spawned its own TV series that was equally as good. A black comedy set in the ice and snow of North Dakota and its strange Scandinavian-esque accented characters. A movie about a dim witted and crooked car salesman’s (superbly played by William H. Macy) bungled attempt to have his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. Heavily pregnant local cop (played equally brilliantly by Frances McDormand) solves the puzzling case.
Sling Blade – written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. According to IMDB: “The film tells the story of Karl Childers, a simple man hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, who is released to start a new life in a small town.” Biskind’s depiction of Thornton’s deepen southern accent and utter contempt for Harvey Weinstein’s threats are one of the highlights of the book. (HNS)
Citizen Ruth – written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Laura Dern. According to IMDB: “An irresponsible, drug-addicted, recently impregnated woman finds herself in the middle of an abortion debate when both parties attempt to sway her to their respective sides.” (HNS). Alexander Payne has made a lot of great movies since Citizen Ruth including Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents.
Trainspotting – a cult classic for many, based on the cult novel about Edinburgh junkies by Irvine Welsh. Screenplay by John Hodges and directed by Danny Boyle (the duo behind the equally brilliant Shallow Grave). Starring Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller. Amazing performances, brilliant trippy dance soundtrack and astonishing storytelling and imagery. Cost only £1.5m to make, hard to believe it grossed only $17m worldwide.
Copland – written and directed by James Mangold. It’s hard to think of this as an independent film, given it stars Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, but it was distributed by Miramax and made for just $15m. It was also meant to resurrect the career of Stallone as a serious actor in an unusual part, that of a tired, half-deaf, portly, do-good sheriff in a New Jersey town where corrupt New York cops have settled. I watched it recently and thought it excellent. Stallone is very good in it.
Good Will Hunting – written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, starring them and the late Robin Williams and directed by Gus Van Sant. One of the most successful independent films of all time. Made for just $10m and grossed $225m around the world. Distributed by Miramax. The story of a janitor from the wrong side of the tracks who turns out to be a mathematical genius, but with a deeply troubled soul. Turned Damon and Affleck into Hollywood megastars.
Happiness – written and directed by Todd Solondz with an ensemble cast that includes the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best and most disturbing roles. A film that intertwines different stories and plenty of disturbing material (sexual perversion, pederasty to name just two). This film may appall some people, but I thought it brilliant in its depiction of a diverse mix of good, weird and evil characters in a suburban setting. Saw it a long time ago (twice). Would definitely watch it again.
Pi – written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. IMDB’s summary of the black and white psychological thriller: “A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. A true low budget film costing just $120,00 to make and distribute, Pi grossed $3.2 million. Aronofsky went on to make a number of brilliant bigger budget films including Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. (HNS)
Velvet Goldmine – co-written and directed by Todd Haynes and starring Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale and Tony Colette. According to IMDB: “In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.” (HNS)
Memento – the movie that launched the career of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Batman films, Inception) and which many people still consider his best work. it tells the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, who attempts to track down his wife’s murderer. Starring Guy Pearce, a film I would like to watch again.
Independent films continue to be made past the millennium, but as Steven Soderbergh tells it in Down and Dirty Pictures “The independent film movement as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it can’t exist anymore. It’s over.”
Biskind chimes in: “Miramax killed it. With success. Success that was purchased at an enormous cost” by which he means the independent studios were overrun by the major studios who formed their own “indie” divisions and through commercialization.
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