Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film
(Peter Biskind; Simon & Schuster; 2004; 544pp)
A biting record of the span from 1989 to the present, Biskind wittily recounts the rise of Miramax and the way the brothers Weinstein (Harvey and Bob) have transformed the indie films. Robert Redford's Sundance is significant, but only as the backdrop. Redford's passive aggressive "lack of people skills" comes in for a critique, but the foreground is invariably Harvey & Bob's passionate aggression. The writing is superbly funny. Introducing the brothers, Biskind says: "Harvey Weinstein, born in 1952, was a paler, doughier version of Bob, who was two years younger. He looked like what he was, the first pancake off the griddle, before it's quite hot enough." p13 I bought this book just before flying off to Sundance this year; I must've seen a dozen people reading it in Park City, although one director, John Curran, who'd just sold his movie that day, told me on the shuttle bus that the book was impossible to find in Park City.
The 2 brothers (who named their company after their parents, Miriam and Max) express love through abuse, and hatred through higher levels of hostility. Unknown to most viewers, the brother Harvey has long earned the nickname "scissorhands" for his tendency to re-cut and shape a director's film to suit his own marketing plan. Amazingly, he managed to promote the utter Scandinavian downer film, "Pelle the Conqueror", as an action film that successfully ran in malls. The story of directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino is enmeshed with Miramax' own story; smaller fry are mentioned too, such as the distribution company October Films, which turns out to brought out some of my favorite films (The Celebration, Breaking the Waves, Happiness).
The paradoxes of "selling out" to promote your art have rarely been so explicitly articulated. It's apparently not atypical that the brothers Weinstein grossed over $200 Million on a film like the English Patient, yet did not pay out a penny beyond the initial $10 Million purchase price. Similar stories are told by Kevin Smith, the writer-director-silent actor behind Clerks and Dogma, as well as by the two jamokes who wrote and acted in Good Will Hunting.
The end of the book seems to anticipate yet another wave in the revolution, since Miramax drive for dominance has caused them to become almost another studio, with revenue goals per picture that undermine risk aversion, and push them toward releasing the same sort of bland features that currently come from large studios.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Orson Welles: A biography
(Barbara Leaming; Penguin; 1985; 700pp -- 24 hours On tape)
Orson Welles' image, like Clinton's, is inseparable from the appetites that brought about his fall. Until I read this book, I knew him as a peddler of wine on TV commercials, who had possibly earned these slots based on his earlier role as director of Citizen Kane. In fact, (according to this quasi-autobiography, based on Leaming's collation of Orson Welles' version of the story) he was a performer whose genius appeared in every forum he touched: upon the stage as an actor, soon thereafter as a theater director, then in radio, and finally in his first film, Citizen Kane. Immediately following high school, he wandered through Ireland, and ended up on the stage in Dublin, where he managed to get rave reviews in his first stage appearance.
At least part of Welles' secret was sparked by a manic need to fight against overwhelming opposition; by multiplying his projects, and juggling razors, his mind was brought to a focus. In 1939, he was TWA's most traveled customer, since he flew weekly between LA and NY, directing Kane while performing on radio and stage. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Kane was finished, his tendency to generate multiple distractions began to work against him. After bringing one film to completion, film per se no longer created sufficient challenges to hold his attention. He ran off to Brazil while his 2nd film, the Magnificent Ambersons, was in the final stages of being cut. The resulting delays damaged his reputation, and eventually so undermined his credibility that he never again was given sufficient free rein to generate the kind of madness necessary for his creative juices to flow. Just read the first 300 pages to learn about the astonishing accomplishments that are buried beneath the mass of Welles' ham-handed drive to re-establish himself. It's not just Citizen Kane, nor the War of the Worlds radio broadcast: he staged a WPA production of Macbeth in the Harlem renaissance that temporarily made him the "king of Harlem," and followed that with an infamous Cradle will Rock production that provoked the government to censor him.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Night Studio: A memoir of Philip Guston
(Musa Mayer; Da Capo Press 1997; 258pp)
An amazing artist, remembered by his daughter, with moving honesty. Guston has recently had a retrospective at SFMOMA, and it's currently showing in NY. When I saw the paintings in SF, I called my friend Steven to see if he could provide a gloss on how to ride along with all the transitional shifts in Guston's career. He recommended reading this book. Guston's earliest paintings in the '30s seem indebted to Picasso; then, he made murals a la Diego Rivera. But he soon became less figurative, and was lumped in with Rothko, de Kooning, and the other tough guys. Then, most significantly, in the mid-60s, he started to make work that is very cartoon-y: ku klux klan hoods in his own self-portraits, big shoes, junk heaps. A NYT art critic famously slammed this movement as "a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum."
The book is superb on showing the great charisma of the artist, as well as the intimate sensibility that drove him to live a life isolated from most of the art world; he cared about others' feelings in a way that seems to have compelled him to cultivate a deliberative egotism. It's inspiring to read his commitment to hammer away: "Frustration is one of the greatest things in art," my father wrote, "satisfaction is nothing." p102
Hilarious anecdotes pepper the memoir: "After they had visited one another's studios, Rothko once said to my father, 'Philip, you are the best storyteller around, and I am the best organ player.' Two years before his death, my father was still puzzling over this comment. 'That was in 1957,' Philip said, 'and I still wonder what he meant.'"p67
His daughter's recollections clearly document what her father sacrificed on the altar of his art. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that he ended up addicted to alcohol, self-medicating an ulcer by drinking vodka and milk in such quantities that he experienced DT's when he went into the hospital after a heart attack. The partnership with his wife would be inconceivable today, unless it were sex-reversed. "Musa [his wife] was a support system the likes of which most people never have." p113 This book expresses the charisma of Guston, and helps explain the awe of all of those who came into contact with his personality. Although it's an end-run toward appreciating his paintings, I found myself able to connect on a deeper level after seeing the seriousness that he poured into his life's work.

Monday, January 05, 2004

What should I do with my life (Po Bronson, on CD, abridged, read by the author):
This was the first bot I read in 2004, and it suits the reflective, big-picture questions that come up around New Year's. I'd been intrigued by the title, and have been a fan of Bronson's after reading both of his novels, Bombardiers & the First $20 Million is the Hardest.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the (abridged) book is how much it deals with what Po Bronson's thought about what to do with Po's life. He recently became a father, and describes the choices that enabled him to research this book while maximizing the time spent with his wife and new-born son. That, in itself, is a really inspirational story.
Additional life stories: The book starts with someone who was personally chosen by the Dalai Lama as a very-important-reincarnation. The guy holds a letter that told him and his family about his super-significance. Since many people aspire to achieve such high status, it's interesting to reflect on how little impact this appears to have had on the current choices made by this person, who now lives in Arizona, and appears to run a non-profit on the side, while just soaking up rays and chatting with his buddy Po.
An uber-consultant from BCG switched lives to devote himself to managing a cat-fish pond in the Mississippi delta; another person left law behind to be a truck driver with more time for his family.
The stories, while interesting enough, did not seem to sharpen how to approach what seem to be the main questions:
1- If your current work is killing you, what process will take you through the reflective stages to find a more balanced life-work arrangement?
2- How do you know when to follow your bliss, if the money doesn't follow?
The best parts of the book are Po's own autobiography. I think he wrote in the foreword to the First $20MM that he had turned down a job making $300K a year, because he saw it wasn't interesting enough. There's more detail on this, and on earlier jobs that drove him to desperate rebellious acts. I'd rate this book as less compelling than either What color is my parachute or Barbara Sher's Wishcraft. But if you've read those, and you still need more stories to jumpstart you out of a bourgeois bubble, then this is worth a scan.
[Note: I scanned the book 'on paper', unabridged, and it contains considerably more life stories than are recounted in the 5-CD abridgement. But my general rule for abridgements is: If the short version isn't amazing, then I'll wait till I've finished reading all the uncountably many compelling books before giving the unabridged version a shot.]