BOB GARFIELD: What if they made a documentary and nobody came? Well, until recently, that question wasn't merely a philosophical conundrum. It was market reality. Peter Biskind is the author of Down and Dirty: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film. He's here to tell us why that's all changed. Peter welcome to the show.
PETER BISKIND: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: So, documentaries have forever been the poor cousins among American films. You know, the part of the Oscar ceremonies where you run down to the kitchen, see what's in the fridge. Suddenly they're top of mind. What's happened?
PETER BISKIND: Well, partly I think these things just go in cycles. I mean if you look back to the '60s, that was probably the last golden age of documentaries where lots of documentary features would play in theaters, you know, all of the rock concert films, films like Emil De Antonio's Year of the Pig - a lot of the political films, documentaries, got a wide currency, and I think partly that was because of the immediacy of the historical changes that were taking place during that period. You know, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and what was happening every day in reality and what was in front of you on camera was easily as interesting as fiction and what people were making up.
BOB GARFIELD: And there were the Maysles and there was D.A. Pennebaker--
PETER BISKIND: Pennebaker. Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: -- who were famous documentarians, but since then there have been great and gifted filmmakers working in the documentary genre. Is it my imagination or is it only now that Michael Moore has broken out, that documentaries are getting attention and getting their due.
PETER BISKIND: Well, I think Michael Moore deserves a lot of credit. I wouldn't totally attribute it to him. I mean it's true that after the '60s was over, documentaries kind of disappeared. Part of that was the collapse of the NEA and NEH during the Reagan administration where they cut the funds back, and they were no longer giving out money for documentaries, so the money dried up. The other part of - I think this was a sort of aesthetic fatigue without documentaries. In other words, people just got tired of the sort of conventional way that documentaries were made where there's a droning voice essentially narrating the film and telling you what to think. Michael Moore personalized documentaries - you know, he told it in the first person. An important predecessor to Roger and Me was a film called Sherman's March by Ross MacElwee that came out in the mid-'80s. It was told in first person, and I think both Moore and Ross injected entertainment values back into documentaries.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that even if there were no documentary fatigue that had set in after the '60s, that there was such a limited number of places to see a documentary -- but then there was a, an incredible phenomenon in the independent film business in the '80s and that was called Miramax. Now, if I want to go see a smart film, I don't have to go 30 miles to some dingy art house. I can go to my independent film multiplex three miles from my house. Don't documentarians have the explosion of the independent film business to credit for their distribution?
PETER BISKIND: Yes, I think they certainly do, and there's a whole array of companies that contributed to this movement, but certainly Miramax played a major role, and one of the big contributions of Miramax was exactly as you said -- taking art films out of the art film ghetto and getting them into the multiplexes. And the key film, the key moment in this regard was 1989 -- Sex, Lies and Videotape, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Miramax took that film and pushed it to a 25 million dollars gross which everyone thought was like, you know, impossible. And they went on from there.
BOB GARFIELD: We talked about the fatigue with the '60s style documentary and its didactic style, its omniscience -- do you think that we're in danger of heading towards fatigue of the highly personalized kind of wry, funny, confrontational documentary that is Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11?
PETER BISKIND: Yes, and no. I mean I think eventually there'll be a backlash against that kind of documentary -- I mean I think they're already is. But on the other hand, you have to look at the news context in which those documentaries appear. I mean everywhere else you look, you, you have pseudo-objectivity on practically every single network and cable station, and the sort of cult of objectivity where can't say a) unless you dialectically confront it with b). The Moore films and the Moore way of making documentary is still unique and unusual enough that it'll be some time before people actually'll be-- I mean I think it's very refreshing still, and it's already - he's been doing it for like almost a decade.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Peter. Thank you very much.
PETER BISKIND: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Biskind is the author of [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of the Independent Film.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff and Mike Vuolo and editing help from Sharon Ball. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [FUNDING CREDITS]