The Book Club

Vanity, Waste, and the Anomaly of the Filmmaker-as-Artist

Dear David,

I think the Biskind book requires a bit of perspective. First of all, there have always been pushy, narcissistic, bullying producers and studio bosses—all those Cohns and Zanucks and Warners and Mayers of yore. Harvey Weinstein seems to have the type of personality that the movie industry attracts and rewards, and his worst traits don’t seem separable from the drive and chutzpah that have underwritten his more admirable accomplishments. Making The Crying Game into a multiplex hit in 1992 was no small feat, and—however sentimental and quintessentially “Miramaxy” the picture may look in hindsight—its success was an important indicator of a shift both in movie taste and in cultural attitudes.

Let’s not forget, as well, that the roster of filmmakers treated cruelly by Hollywood—Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, etc.—stretches back long before the advent of Harvey, and that in the ‘60s and ‘70s foreign films were routinely chopped for American distribution, with the result that masterpieces like Metropolis, Le Cercle Rouge, Quai des Orfèvres and Au Hasard Balthazar have only become available to audiences here in their original form very recently—30, 40, and 50 or more years after they were made. None of this is meant to excuse anything that Harvey Weinstein has done, but the idea of the filmmaker as an artist whose vision must be nurtured and whose wishes should be respected is, sadly, an anomaly in the history of the American movie industry, one that flourished only in the 1970s, at least according to Biskind’s earlier book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

And what happened then looks curiously like what happens in Down and Dirty Pictures: The great promise of an era is squandered in vanity and waste, as the American auteurs are undone by the twin forces of resurgent blockbusterism (your “age of Lucas and Stallone”) and their own profligate ambitions (e.g., Heaven’s Gate.) In fact, the similarity of the story arcs in Biskind’s books—that old dialectic—is what makes me, on second thought, suspicious of the narrative in Down and Dirty Pictures. According to Biskind, the huge, monstrous personality of Harvey Weinstein obscures the much richer and more complicated story of a moviemaking renaissance that, as you say, has made our lives richer over the past 20 years. And this transformation hasn’t been all about Miramax—or Sony Classics or Sundance or the whole overhyped and conceptually dubious notion of “indies”—but rather about a worldwide creative explosion that has occurred in less than optimal conditions. Last week the Village Voice had a little article about Palm and Wellspring Pictures, two small and scrappy distributors that have devoted themselves to acquiring and distributing movies whose artistic interest is often in inverse ratio to their commercial appeal. There is an audience—not a huge one, perhaps, but often a larger one than jaded insiders would suspect—for movies like Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and Russian Ark and the “Cremaster” cycle. The Voice piece, in any case, offered something of a corrective to Biskind’s breathless and sweeping pessimism.

And Hoberman’s The Dream Life, I think, offers another—a cogent reminder that movies are not only—not even primarily—generators of box office revenue, but also repositories and generators of meaning. (I’m sure that The Magic Hour is another, and I’ll pick up a copy today, but dammit you can’t assign more books in the middle of the club! Especially during the week of Oscar nominations, when I’m spending all my waking hours dealing with couturiers begging me to wear their stuff on the red carpet.)

So I would like, in what remains of this post and in my next one, to delve a little more deeply into that dense and thrilling narrative, to look at it not only as movie history but as cultural and political history. The timeliness of our discussion of Hoberman’s book seems determined less by the Oscar noms than by the New Hampshire primary. I love the way Hoberman interweaves the production and release schedules of movies with the political calendar. His book is structured according to a rigorous dream logic (which is also the cinematic logic of montage), cutting from the content of movies (the “antibourgeois” vigilante nihilism of High Plains Drifter) to the conditions of their making (the “Cowboy degeneracy” on the set of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) to the spectacle of political crisis (the Ervin Committee’s Watergate hearings) to some absurd convergence of them all: Mark Frechette, who played a hippie outlaw in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, tries to rob a bank, saying, “We just wanted to hold up Nixon.”

David, I’m younger than both you and Jim Hoberman, so my memory of the ‘60s is entirely a memory of their aftermath; I first became conscious of movies and politics in the years between Shampoo (not that I was allowed to see it at the time, or would have understood it) and the 1980 elections. And I spent a lot of my adolescence (a period I’m not sure has ended) grappling with the mythology of “The Sixties”—trying to figure out what the hell the big deal was, why it mattered, what it all had to do with the world as I knew it. Mostly what I read (and listened to and watched) were documents of the time—Norman Mailer, whose extraordinary convention and protest reportage Hoberman rehabilitates; Bob Dylan; Medium Cool. What seems to me so valuable about The Dream Life is Hoberman’s combination of passionate fascination and wry detachment. Yesterday you admired the thoroughness of his reading of Blow-Out in spite of his evident “visceral dislike” of the movie. He has a similar—if anything more intense—feeling about John Wayne and a deep ideological suspicion of Clint Eastwood, but these two nonetheless emerge as captivating and complex figures, and nowhere do we find the outraged scolding that characterizes, say, Garry Wills on Wayne or Pauline Kael on Eastwood.

I wonder if we might look a bit at the characters in this dream world. Hoberman’s book is much less concerned with personality than Biskind’s—it’s more Marxist, or at least left-Hegelian, than Emersonian—but there are nonetheless people, in and out of the movies, who seem in his account to be at once gnarled and strange individuals and vessels of the zeitgeist: Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and of course Richard Nixon, for whom Hoberman seems to have a perverse and genuine affection.

Until soon,