Friday, January 19, 2007

"Independent" Cinema

The dirty little secret about independent films is finally out: they're not so independent. David Bordwell has written at great length (most recently in the wonderful "The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies") about so-called post modernism in cinema, and how much of what we call original or innovative can be traced back to classical Hollywood stylistic techniques and devices. Whether or not today's filmmakers choose to abide by the conventions set forth by classical Hollywood filmmakers is not really the point. Bordwell's argument is that they form their knowledge of film viewing and making based upon such tropes and therefore act in relation to them.

Reflecting on the opening of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Richard Corliss provides an excellent commentary concerning the diminishing originality in Sundance films. The article highlights several reasons for the lack of originality, all of which are fascinating within the context of Bordwell's argument. Here are some noteworthy excerpts:
"The kind of indie film nurtured by Sundance has become the dominant non-Hollywood movie form for smart people. They're the ones who made Little Miss Sunshine a hit, and Ryan Gosling's turn in Half Nelson a must-see. The moguls have taken note too. In terms of product and talent, Sundance has become the crucial farm system for the major studios.

Problem is, indie movies are getting as predictable as Hollywood's. Sundance movies have devolved into a genre. The style is spare and naturalistic. The theme is relationships, beginning in angst and ending in reconciliation. The focus is often on a dysfunctional family (there are no functional ones in indie movies) that strives to reconnect. Within this genre are a few subspecies: the family breakup film (The Squid and the Whale), the finding-your-family-at-school movie (Half Nelson, Brick), the gay drama (Mysterious Skin). Way too frequently, the family goes on a trip. Given the typical Sundance pace, which is leisurely to lethargic, these road movies rarely get in the passing lane.

The predictability of recent Sundance films is a pity, because the fest used to discover original movie minds. The honor roll of those who introduced their early work there includes both the big fish of indie cinema (among them Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Darren Aronofsky) and some of the mainstream's champion swimmers (including Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan).

What most of these directors share is a gift for bending, sometimes gleefully mutilating, film form: taking old narratives styles like the crime movie or musical or horror film and making them fresh, vital, dangerous. The subjects could be familiar--amnesia in Nolan's Memento, obsession in Aronofsky's Pi--but when the story was told in reverse, or turned into a weird thriller, the narrative ingenuity became bracing and delicious. They were different from Hollywood--and different meant better.

You don't find as much originality in Sundance films these days, and for a simple reason. In the beginning, the festival was a home for the homeless, for a rambunctious outlaw take on filmmaking. There was no need to be cautious, since indie films were rarely hits. But as Sundance became the showcase for a form of movie gaining marketplace pull, young directors naturally made films to fit the new mold. Sundance films weren't quirky; they did quirky. Quirky became another genre...

Sure, there are good Sundance movies, with fine actors providing glimpses of behavioral truth. But in general the films are way too cozy. Instead of the high-budget sequels Hollywood deals out, the indie scene offers virtual remakes of earlier, more vibrant films, the rehashing of familiar feelings. Sundance used to be a daring, occasionally dazzling alternative to Hollywood; now, it's just a different sort of same."

Corliss has a wealth of knowledge about film history and trends, and his observations are spot-on. Leonard Maltin (another very knowledgeable film historian) also posted an entry some time ago about the amount of studio backing these so called independent features are receiving. Corliss argues that this is evidenced by the more homogenized storytelling and filmmaking styles employed by many "independent" filmmakers. This leads me to further believe that the Hollywood and Independent filmmaking and viewing ideologies may be merging together. When it's not adapting popular fiction works or producing more sequels to huge hits, Hollywood looks to Sundance and the now trendy "indie" mentality. The similarities have become so prominent in recent years that the difference between them has now become so clouded. And instead of sticking to its rebelious roots, Sundance warmly embraces Hollywood's progressively larger presence in Park City, Utah. All of the sudden, that town isn't so quiet anymore.

1 comment:

Ted Pigeon said...

The topic of Sundance is now being circulated amongst the film blogging community, as David Bordwell and Jim Emerson have both written entries about assessing the Sundance trend, and both have mentioned the article that inspired my initial post on the subject.