“Harvey said the film’s disgusting,” said the caller from Miramax’ Acquisition Department.
She was referring to her boss, Harvey Weinstein.
“It probably hits too close to home,” I said with comeback and hung up the phone on her.
This thirty-second phone conversation took place more than twenty-five years ago, and it summarizes my entire relationship with Harvey Weinstein’s film company.
It was 1992. I had produced an independent feature film called Manhattan Confidential, which I based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. It featured a series of nine self-obsessed New Yorkers in the throes of denial who lurch from one awful high-risk sexual encounter to another during the AIDS epidemic. I based it on true stories I had heard. For example, one of the scenes featured a film investor date-raping a filmmaker, which was sure to endear me to film executives. Even though the film doesn’t have a happy ending, it does take place in the best of all possible worlds.
The rejection came at a time when Miramax and few other big indie distributors had already wiped out the forty or so smaller indie film distributors that once thrived in New York City. Miramax and the others retooled for market-based, television-style films. About seventeen or eighteen “genres” were permitted (Romance, Action/Adventure, Fish-Out-of-Water Comedy, etc.). By then, we were well on our way to entertaining ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it.
To compound my dilemma, by the summer of 1992 it became apparent that my fellow Americans no longer regarded me as an American, but as a “Serb,” one of those sinister Slavs who had been cast in the role of the Bad Guys in the new long-running teledrama called The Bosnian War. Manhattan Confidential clearly wasn’t going to find distribution in such a milieu.
Independent film was one of the means available to a society for self-examination. Indie films hurled a rock through the Overton Window, the acceptable parameters of discourse in polite society. Films such as Chan Is Missing, Eraserhead, and Last Exit to Brooklyn represented some of the most thought-provoking cinema produced in the 1980s. But even though fifty thousand people had died of AIDS in New York, no one in Manhattan was willing to discuss the behavior of the individuals who contracted the disease. They had to be treated as innocent victims and not as adults responsible for their actions.
Manhattan Confidential had to wait more than a decade to get a few screenings at the old Pioneer Theater on 3rd Street and Avenue A in Manhattan. The feedback I got was worth the wait. One startled woman paid me a wonderful compliment: “Thank you for making a film about things people never talk about!” Another woman who worked in film distribution in the 1980s told me that she couldn’t understand why the film hadn’t been picked up. It was the kind of film that people talked about for two hours after seeing it, as in the old days.
During the intervening years, Harvey Weinstein questioned why he should continue distributing small independent films, and said something along the lines of: “Why should I work my ass off promoting some little indie picture and make ten million dollars? I can make my own Hollywood movie and work my ass off and make one hundred million!”
Since that time, American films have become vehicles for social engineering, enlightening Americans to the counterintuitive values of neo-liberalism, global markets, and identity politics. Stupid is smart; freedom is slavery; and obedience is cozier than the perils of independence.
Thus, the news of Mr. Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior should come as no surprise. The problem is not sexual acts between consenting adults. Actors, men and women, have been routinely propositioned by sexually aggressive producers and directors since the dawn of motion pictures. On the one hand, it’s easy to decline unwelcome advances; on the other hand, some people cave in to such coercion. One could just say no, which reminds me: it’s a pity that Nancy Reagan isn’t with us to decant her wisdom into the golden bowl of public discourse. She was reputed to have been a legendary Hollywood fellatrix. She could have provided some much needed motherly guidance to Mr. Weinstein’s victims. And her husband, our late President, could also have extended to Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck the firm hand of paternal consolation.
Denial is the problem. Mr. Weinstein’s loathing of a character depicted in my film who resembled him naturally led him to reject it. His denial is aptly representative all the other varieties of denial now at work in America. No, we aren’t encircling Russia with military bases. No, we aren’t provoking North Korea. No, we don’t fight foreign wars for profit. No, we aren’t destroying the middle class by off-shoring jobs. No, a boy can be a girl and a girl can be a boy. No, you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to be entitled to vote. No, no, no, no. No!
Hubris is why Mr. Weinstein never expected to find himself cast in his current starring role as pariah non pareil. Othello didn’t know he was Othello until after he killed Desdemona ― when it was too late. My concern is: What will happen when the rest of my fellow Americans find themselves cast in a role they neither expected nor wanted to play?
But that probably hits too close to home.
Milo Yelesiyevich is the publisher of Unwritten History (www.unwrittenhistory.com), which is dedicated to publishing non-fiction about The Balkan Wars. Its most recent book is The Opening Defense Statement of Dr. Radovan Karadžić before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, a bilingual edition.