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Big Shots, Little Shots and Golden Boys : NONFICTION : SPIKE, MIKE, SLACKERS & DYKES: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, By John Pierson (Hyperion/Miramax Books: $22.95; 371 pp.)

February 25, 1996|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer and the author of "The Scorsese Picture."

Ever since "Indecent Exposure," David McClintick's overstimulated account of the fall of studio chief David Begelman, became a surprise bestseller, the bookshelves have been awash with insider accounts about the movie business. Where a previous generation couldn't get enough "dish" about Liz or Lana or Ava, the current one appears hooked on the just as carefully hyped exploits of agents (Michael Ovitz), publicists (Pat Kingsley) and distributors (Harvey Weinstein, Michael Eisner and whoever happens to be running Columbia/TriStar as this review goes to press). What the wheelings and dealings of such industry swells has to do with the actual practice of filmmaking has never been made clear.

With "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes," however, John Pierson seems intent on blowing away most of the cigar smoke from the independent end of the arena--or at least giving the appearance of doing so. It's a relentlessly upbeat report of how Pierson helped the makers of "She's Gotta Have It" ("Spike": Spike Lee), "Roger & Me" ("Mike": Michael Moore), "Slacker" (Richard Linklater) and "Go Fish" ("Dykes": Rose Troche and Guin Turner) and many others get their celluloid piggies to market.

Completion finance is a fairly straightforward affair: Pierson simply provides whatever (generally small) amount of money is needed to get low-budget films finished. He's not shy about supplying facts and figures, and he freely confesses any number of low-budget trade secrets--what he calls "the magic trick of making as many people as possible for as long as possible believe that they are discovering something that almost no one else knows about." He explains how the Sundance Film Festival evolved from a time when "cellular phones were still a dream" to its present state as the most prestigious, yet charmingly craven, sales emporium on the planet.

But Pierson doesn't stop there. For "Spike, Mike, etc." seeks to connect this simple tale of commerce to a grand artistic vision stretching all the way from the Lumiere brothers to what he calls "the tweeners, the last generation to have a keen interest in our worldwide, century-long film history." Carefully selecting from among his most felicitous business associations (Lee; Moore; Errol Morris, maker of"The Thin Blue Line"), Pierson crafts an Identikit figure of the successful independent writer-director: a man or woman filled with boundless energy and ambition, ready to charm the press with a touching story of how, with little money and against incredible odds, they made a film that won the hearts of critics, distribution by a major company and the love of the great unwashed. In other words, it's a sure-fire show-biz saga on the order of those '40s musicals where Bing Crosby single-handedly brought jazz up the river from New Orleans.

Smooth-talker though he is, rough edges protrude from Pierson's all-purpose Horatio Alger schematic. For while he wants to connect his slick operators to John Cassavetes, Sundance would have been anathema to the writer-director of "Shadows," "Faces" and "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." Cassavetes had no patience with commercialism in any form--studio or independent.

Moreover, as a strained analogy Pierson wants to draw between "Slacker" and "Clerks" shows, it's hard to provide the necessary art-commerce links with a resistant subject. In fact Kevin Smith, maker of "Clerks," goes so far as to turn up his nose at the cinematic erudition of Jim Jarmusch, claiming: "I don't feel that I have to go back and view European or other foreign films because I feel like these guys [Jarmusch, et al.] have already done it for me, and I'm getting filtered through them. That ethic works for me."

As a self-styled "art film brat," such cultural casualness should cut Pierson to the quick. After all, Pierson's an NYU film school graduate! But can he truly be annoyed with a man who took his advice and cut the Godard-like sudden-death-of-the-hero ending from "Clerks" to make it more salable? No, Smith is no trouble for Pierson. His real problem is with someone he's never completion-funded: Steve McLean.

"It seems to me," the British writer-director noted in an interview Pierson quotes from Filmmaker magazine, "that part of the success of no-budget filmmaking is also its failure. Why should studios give people money if the films get made so cheaply with no initial financial investment and can be picked up for no money? Huge profits can be made this way. Of course, these profits are never going to go to those people who sweated and toiled over these films."

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