The Book Club

Miramaxed Out

Dear Tony,

I need to make a few quick, blunt points:

I was a little taken aback with the way in which this discussion was billed earlier today on Slate’s table of contents: It’s proof that movie directors aren’t the only ones who have reason to gripe about the way in which their work is marketed. Neither of us is writing about the “decline of Miramax,” only about Peter Biskind’s interpretation of the company’s impact on the independence of the so-called “independent” film movement. You and I are neither business reporters nor gossip columnists. The book is relevant to critics only insofar as it affects—for better or worse—the films we write about, as well as the synergistic relationship between movies and society that J. Hoberman diagrams in The Dream Life.

Yeah, it’s fun to read about Harvey throwing furniture, but it’s also important to say that my end-of-the-year best lists are swimming with Miramax movies—probably a dozen in 2003 alone. All companies should be in that kind of decline.

I’m glad you’ve come around to agreeing with me that independent cinema is not dead yet. I have also gotten a few e-mails protesting that movie culture is not dead yet—that there are lots of people out there who debate movies and their politics as passionately as ever. But when Hoberman writes about the reactive nature of movies in the counterculture—how the sneering degeneracy of films like Myra Breckinridge (1970) helped to create an audience for vigilante movies like Joe and Coogan’s Bluff (and drive Richard Nixon in to the arms of Patton, which he saw several times and which likely cemented his decision to bomb the hell out of Cambodia)—he’s talking about a different world:

Quintessential movie protagonists were now the very people whom Major Dundee [Sam Peckinpah’s Ahab-esque hero, played by Charlton Heston] might have pursued into Mexico—a doomed assortment of criminals, crazies, draft dodgers, dope dealers, and Indians. Bringing home the Green Berets might not be sufficient. As prophesied by George Walace and Coogan’s Bluff, these new types would soon be opposed by vigilantes and equally extreme representatives of law and order.

In other words, we’re on the threshold of the Nixon counter-counterculture.

And today? A few years back I got drafted to debate Michael Medved on some TV show and had a hard time figuring out what the hell to say. He kept talking about Gladiator embodying solid American militaristic values and Chocolat being the result of a liberal Miramax Clintonesque plot to undermine religion and all I could say was that, whatever my politics, I found both films grotesquely stupid and more alike than unalike: Both were interested primarily in demonizing the bad guys, stripping the good guys of all psychological nuance, and jerking the audience around. It didn’t exactly make for a good TV debate, but what movies do in this climate? About the only studio film to take an in-your-face radical political stand in the last few years was Three Kings, which wouldn’t have been made today (and which was compromised by its ending even in 1999).

In my next post I’ll take up your challenge to look at Hoberman on Eastwood.