Shill Bill

Andrew Hultkrans on the Weinsteins at MoMA

New York

Left: Harvey Weinstein, Quentin Tarantino, and Bob Weinstein at MoMA. Right: Still from Reservoir Dogs.

Daring to question the Weinstein brothers of Miramax seems the very definition of leading with one’s chin. Little wonder, then, that when the fearsome moguls of American independent film agreed to be interviewed at MoMA last Thursday night, they chose an interlocutor with chin to spare—the prognathous prince of pulp cinema, Quentin Tarantino. The occasion was the studio’s twenty-fifth anniversary, to be celebrated over the coming months with the screening of fifty Miramax films (including Reservoir Dogs, shown after the discussion), fifteen of which will be donated to MoMA’s film archive. The house was packed, though not with starlets: Studio suits and assorted other behind-the-scenes players filled more than a dozen rows of seats reserved by Miramax. The rest of the crowd was typified by the callow NYU film student standing next to me in the entrance line, bereft of ticket but in full possession of a near-religious desire to rub elbows, or perhaps chins, with QT.

Tarantino did not disappoint, rocking a black skully that seemed designed to exaggerate the Jack Palance-esque contours of his face. My companion whispered that he resembled Popeye. I thought a human cannonball was more like it, and as I watched the director launch his rapid-fire questions at the Weinsteins, I waited for strongman Harvey to catch him in the belly and send him ricocheting around the hall. No such luck, for despite Tarantino’s film-geek fact-checking, his irrepressible gesticulations, his habit of punctuating every declarative sentence with a testy “Al-RIGHT?”, he was there as court hagiographer, charged with enabling the Horatio Alger story of two nice boys from Queens who just happened to parlay a Buffalo, New York, rock promotion business into the most influential American movie studio of the past twenty years.

The evening’s rosy agenda was set by a seven-minute introductory trailer that spliced together scenes from well-known Miramax movies—from the middlebrow frouf of Cinema Paradiso and Shakespeare in Love to the severed ears and discipline balls of Tarantino’s oeuvre—while fleetingly acknowledging stillborn piffle like Bad Santa, lest we forget that even the Weinsteins can fall down, too. To avoid any whiff of conflict, past or present, the names Martin Scorsese and Tina Brown were studiously avoided in the ensuing discussion.

But the real elephant in the room was the brothers’ crumbling relationship with Disney, Miramax’s parent company and Fahrenheit 9/11 censor, from which the Weinsteins are attempting to extricate themselves. This bit of Hollywood seismology came up only briefly, at the end of the talk, when Harvey remarked that having an endless supply of billionaire corporate suitors made him feel like a pretty girl for the first time in his life.

A dubious claim, perhaps; but still a good deal more credible than Tarantino’s assertion that when Harvey wants you to change something, he isn’t an ogre about it, but convinces you by being “the coolest guy ever”; or Bob’s claim that the brothers’ lack of directorial vision (they wrote and directed the horror flick The Burning early in their career, then quickly realized they would never be Kurosawa, or even Chris Columbus) made them uniquely empathetic to the needs and whims of their directors.

While Miramax deserves many of the accolades it has received over the years, the truth is the Weinsteins didn’t build an empire out of their affection for the little guy; they rose to the top by not taking no for an answer. And those who were at MoMA received an object lesson in the uncanny power of Weinstein persuasion: When Bob asked his mom to stand up for the crowd, he received a stern, audible no. Still, seconds later, Weinstein mère was up on her feet, preening for all to see. At the end of the talk, Harvey, riffing on home-team lore, referred to Miramax as "the House That Quentin Built.” Fair enough. On this particular evening, though, it was “the House That Quentin Whitewashed.”