« Variety | Main | Miami Herald: It's a wrap »

February 04, 2005

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Author documents revolutionary filmmakers

BY MICHAEL MACHOSKY | There's an infamous scene in "Pulp Fiction" where an adrenaline-filled needle is plunged through Uma Thurman's heart, to resuscitate her from a drug-induced coma.

For many moviegoers, "Pulp Fiction" itself was that literal shot of adrenaline, jammed into the heart of a complacent, artistically comatose industry. It forced Hollywood to sit bolt upright and deal with the new generation of talent percolating beneath them in the independent film world -- and realize that movies, moviemakers and moviegoers were going to change, with or without them.

Of course, that scene in "Pulp Fiction" was such an intense moment that some people got sick in the aisles and stormed out of theatres. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's brilliant, oddly tangential dialogue, serpentine structure, retro-cool soundtrack and unnerving violence exploded upon a movie business that was busy looking for the next "Dumb and Dumber."

Not everybody got it at first. But Sharon Waxman did.

"I remember almost a moment when a light bulb went off," says Waxman, Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times and author of "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How they Conquered the Studio System." "That film was really kind of a clarion call -- 'Hey, you can make this kind of movie and be successful, and people will get you.'"

More stylish, inventive, uncategorizable new films came barreling out of the gate, like they had been waiting forever for the chance. Waxman's book makes a case for creating a new film canon of this late '90s renaissance. At its heart, she places Paul Thomas Anderson's brash ensemble piece "Boogie Nights," Steven Soderbergh's multi-layered drug-war saga "Traffic," and David Fincher's brutally original, misunderstood "Fight Club."

Also, there's David O. Russell's satirical, character-driven Gulf War bombshell, "Three Kings." And, of course, Spike Jonze's head-scratching comic cornucopia of weirdness, "Being John Malkovich."

They opened the door for films such as "American Beauty," "Lost in Translation" and "Sideways," and even challenging blockbusters such as "The Matrix."

"So much of what we cover in the industry is very formulaic and not very interesting -- basically a marketing campaign hung around a movie star," says Waxman, on the phone from her office in Hollywood. "These movies were so not like that -- very personal statements, so off-the-charts in terms of the kinds of ideas, or having the storyline all mixed up, or using really absurd kinds of humor."

"Rebels" is a quote-heavy, insider-ish account of how these movies were made, laced with lacerating portraits of these driven young directors. It wasn't easy to get them to talk at first. But once it became clear that Waxman was going to write about them anyway, the "rebels" mostly relented. They realized it usually works out better when you give your own side of the story.

Gradually, more three-dimensional portraits of these directors begin to emerge, apart from their media-generated public images.

Tarantino's carefully constructed persona as the ultimate video store clerk -- whose compulsion to make movies took him from white trash to red carpet -- begins to peel away. He emerges as a ruthlessly ambitious striver who discards old friends and family for high rollers and starlets as soon as he has the chance.

Spike Jonze is the most colorful of the lot -- a skateboard magazine and video pioneer whose own originality may be tied to his total ignorance of pre- "Star Wars" film.

David O. Russell, on the other hand, was so obnoxious and tyrannical on the set of "Three Kings" that George Clooney grabbed him by the neck at one point. If there's a list of Hollywood players who were not looking forward to the publication of this book, Russell would have to be at the top.

Like the last great wave of American filmmaking in the '70s -- the heyday of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and the like -- these directors were dragged, with various degrees of kicking and screaming, into the Hollywood establishment.

"Most of those ('70s) directors really became hacks," Waxman says. "They became co-opted by the studio system. Everybody makes bad movies occasionally, but they were not able to hold onto the purity of their artistry. This generation is not tempted, I think, by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that marked the '70s, but the temptations are the same -- the ego-stroking of the media machine corrupts you."

What's amazing is how these directors pushed their often very unmarketable ideas through a studio system that seems designed to shoot down original ideas and sand the edges off challenging films. After multinational corporations started buying movie studios, the bottom line has become even more important.

"Generally, the aversion to risk comes from the folks up top -- the pressure on the studio to produce a profit every year ... and their panic at not knowing exactly how to do that," Waxman says. "Because it's very hard in the movie business -- which is an inherently creative business -- to do anything that guarantees an audience. You have to make something new every single time, but something familiar enough to draw an audience in to see it. That's a really hard needle to thread."