Saturday, July 2, 2011

Unpacking is Hard blahblahblahloves Peter Biskind

As I've been so incapable of finding time to write reviews or even lists this week due to last week's move I grabbed some time to write a little something about Peter Biskind and more specifically his books on film history.

I never even considered that I would still be half unpacked a week after moving. It's no fun at all trying to fit it all in around work and all those other things that just have to get done, like cooking and sleep. I really should have booked some time off to just get it all done but it didn't even occur to me. Today I put my growing noir collection in chronological order in preparation for the (hopefully) forthcoming noirathon which only leaves me with one packing box filled with DVDs. Progress. But last night we went out for coffee and cake in Mt. Lawley and stopped in at Planet Books, I really wanted the Peter Biskind biography of Warren Beatty, Star, but it was only in hardcover and that's no fun to read on public transport.

Leah asked me why I was so interested in reading it and to be fair to her it's a legitimate question. Warren Beatty is not a name that gets mentioned very often around here, I can't even remember the last time I saw a movie that he was in (Bonnie & Clyde was at least 2 years ago and hopefully I've seen his face since then) but he is a very interesting figure from Hollywood history based on what I've read of him so far. That alone shouldn't really make me choose a Beatty bio over The Encyclopedia of Film Noir for example. The other factor is the focus of this piece, Peter Biskind, a man who has written countless essays and had 6 books on film published.

As a film student we had a lot of reading to get through on film history; essays, books, articles, technical, personal, interesting, tedious, enjoyable to read and pieces on niche aspects of the history of film that only middle-aged lesbian tutors had any interest in. I don't say that to be mean or exclusionary or anything like that but there are some subjects that aren't fit for a general course on genres at bachelor level in which you have to keep 80 students interested and those specialist areas should be saved post graduate work. I would have had the same reaction if we'd been forced to study superhero movies for 3 months and then write 5000 words on it.

But I digress, my point is that some of the things you read on a course like the one I took stay with you for differing reasons, the work of Peter Biskind stayed with me for all the right reasons.

His subject matter is always incredibly interesting, it's film after all and that's why we're here, but it is the way he writes that keeps you turning page after page. His knowledge and research is phenomenal, he adds so many first hand anecdotes and asides that you get the impression that you were living through the time yourself. What at first seems overly detailed and maybe even bloated quickly turns into "why didn't he include more information?" because you're hooked on the story of how Dennis Hopper nearly blew it when editing Easy Rider or absolutely any story of Bob and Harvey Weinstein doing absolutely anything. And he refers to everyone by their first name after they're introduced which lends what is essentially a complex study on a specific piece of modern history a real casual air and increases readability tenfold.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was the first of his books that I read, it was about a period in Hollywood that I didn't have too much interest in at the time, a fresh faced kid who desperately wanted to be a Rebel Without a Crew filling his films with pop culture references, this stuff was old school and about dull old films right? Yeah I really was that person once. It amazes me. And yet it was the power of this book that really made me pay attention to so many more film makers and actors than I'd ever considered. To me Cybill Shepherd was just that brassy old woman from that sitcom and Jack Nicholson was merely The Joker and that rude guy in As Good As It Gets. Spielberg was just a guy that made mostly averagely enjoyable movies and was really famous. But Peter Biskind changed all that.

He paints a vivid picture of Hollywood not having a clue how to make money anymore and jumping on the break out success of Easy Rider by throwing money at a bunch of kids just out of film school filled with ideas on how to make movies that people would actually want to watch, no questions asked. This is how Zach Snyder gets his movies made now, "oh yeah 300 made a ton of money, go away and do something else," except do people really want to see those films? Yeah he's my new pinup boy: Michael Bay, you've been replaced. It was inspiring to read about the collaborations and the ingenuity of these new film makers, the camaraderie and success that came with it. The way Biskind describes things you feel like it was possible to achieve anything and it sparked a little dream inside me, I too can achieve anything!

But as things slowly go sour things get even more interesting, you're in the deep end with Scorsese and De Niro as they fight to get Raging Bulls made, you read in horror as Spielberg invents modern blockbuster movies and Michael Cimino presents United Artists with the straw that breaks the camels back. Everyone loves to read about disasters and failures, check out the latest issue of Heat or whatever it is. But by this point you feel as invested in these careers and movies as the artists were themselves and it hurts to find these things out.

Bullet point the same facts for example and you really wouldn't care but it is the quality of Peter Biskind that makes all the difference. Down and Dirty Pictures is about another generation of young film makers bucking the norm but really it's about Miramax. Again the quality of research and storytelling from Peter Biskind turns what could be a pretty dull book attempting to sell copies off the back of "tell all" anecdotes about two of the most powerful men in Hollywood in to a fascinating behind the scenes read.

I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that Bob and Harvey Weinstein are generally considered to be assholes around Hollywood. There are enough stories and lawsuits to paint that picture but despite their behaviour towards film makers you can't help but like them after reading Biskind's history. He takes you on this journey in a very similar way to the telling of Easy Riders, they are the plucky underdogs fighting against the Hollywood beast and along the way they are somehow corrupted by power. Conversely the story of likable guy Robert Redford and Sundance Festival makes you really dislike him despite his obvious attempts to do the right thing.

Wow I can't stop writing, no time for love Dr Jones, I had better end this now with a rather hurried final paragraph. Peter Biskind has been on the jury at Sundance, he edited Premiere magazine for 9 years, he spent 6 years putting together a biography of Warren Beatty, he made me love much more about film than I had even imagined existed and more importantly his books inspire me. This is not a "go out and buy his books" article (but you should) by the way, just a (intended at least) quick note about a film writer that it's possible you haven't read yet. And maybe a great book about film is even more important than films themselves. Sometimes.

Reading is Believing: How Peter Biskind Made Me Stop Troublemaking and Love Cinema (A list of things learned from reading Peter Biskind)
  • Steven Spielberg comes across as such a little bitch in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The guy I blame for bringing Hollywood to the state it's currently in. Sure he denies it but wouldn't you if you realised how other people see you?
  • Bob and Harvey Weinstein are crazy and love to cut and threaten to cut finished films before distribution.
  • Facts are not always reported accurately in Hollywood stories.
  • Passion comes across so clearly in the interviews with film makers that it's hard to stop day dreaming about what it will be like when you finally make your first film.
  • There are countless films mentioned that I would never have heard of, lost in a vacuum reserved for those films that weren't successful and found only by dedicated movie hunters.
  • A film's success may be down to things like distribution and marketing rather than mere quality or budget. Some pretty poor indie flicks get wide releases and others that are very good get ignored because the producers signed the deal with the wrong company.
  • For every film and fim maker you've heard of there are 10 out there you haven't and even so they are quite succesful.
Any of you readers read Biskind? Are you in the other camp to me, accusing him of tabloid reporting? Anyone actually gonna read his books now? I promise to review a film soon.

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