Friday, January 05, 2007

Useless Film Snob Book Report - Rebels on the Backlot

Rebels On the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System - Sharon Waxman, 2005

In an effort to diversify this site and make it a little better, we're starting a new feature called Useless Film Snob Book Reports, where I'll try to give my opinions on what I've been reading as inarticulately as possible. First up is New York Times Hollywood reporter (not a great first description) Sharon Waxman's account of how Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh invaded the studio system and against all odds, somehow managed to make credible, artistic movies in the vacuous, money-grubbing world that are the major studios. At least that's what Waxman wants you to believe. Actually, it's a little more nuanced than that. Let's be honest here; these filmmakers aren't exactly breaking the mold that much. While these films they made may be good, some great, some had major stars in them, made a sizable profit, or were prestige pictures made for awards. There is some truth that these weren't exactly "safe" pictures but the glaring failure of Waxman's book is she is trying to equate these directors and their work in the studio system to what was going on in the late 60's and 70's. What the current directors lack is the cultural significance and widespread appeal that people like Coppola, Friedkin, Altman, Scorsese, and others had in the 70's. So problem number one is Waxman overreaches here a bit. Pulp Fiction may have been a zeitgeist film, but the others covered in the book didn't become cultural benchmarks.

Another problem Waxman has is that she clearly read Peter Biskind's two fantastic books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about the 70's period and his Sundance/Miramax book, Down and Dirty Pictures, and cribs heavily from them, especially the latter. She lifts entire sections dealing with Tarantino from Biskind's book and plops right into her story. While Biskind's book had its fair share of gossip and innuendo, everything is told in such a fair and entertaining matter. Waxman seems to have a pre-occupation with showing every director's personality flaws that she practically forgets about the films themselves, which is especially the case with Anderson and Tarantino. This makes Waxman seem more like the shallow Hollywood reporter more concerned with gossip and celebrities' personal lives than a true author really getting into the art of filmmaking, which Biskind does a lot better.

All this leads to the more glaring weakness of the book, the number of factual errors in the book, which are astounding seeing this was published through a major company. All the examples have been discussed other places but two of the ones I can't get out of my mind is that she states that Rushmore was Wes Anderson's first film and that Julia Stiles played Michael Douglas's daughter in Traffic. It seems Waxman and her editor(s) haven't actually seen the films of the directors she's writing about, which would explain the lack of any credible analysis of the work besides Fight Club is violent and Magnolia is long. A book with glaring errors like this makes it hard for me to take it as a serious work by an author who knows what she's talking about. I bought this book because I happen to like the films that these directors made and wanted to know more about the process of how they got made. But Waxman does such a slipshod job of making her argument in the book that I came away thoroughly disappointed.

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