That’s why they are Indie films |

That’s why they are Indie films

L.A. Times and Washington Post News Service
076671.CA.0122.tarnation1.FO -- Portrait of director/ screenwriter Jonathan Caouette (CQ), from the film "Tarnation," at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah. Caouette has been documenting his life since age 11.
Los Angeles Times | Los Angeles Times

PARK CITY, Utah – “Get me out of here.” The words slammed into my head as I slammed close my book. I had just finished reading Peter Biskind’s astonishing claim that Miramax had “killed” the independent film movement of the 1990s “with success.” If that was the case, I wondered, what was I doing at Sundance?

Bunkered in a condo, I was slogging through another Sundance Film Festival where, too embarrassed to be seen carting around Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film,” I would return from my latest screening to read about the frenetic scene I had just escaped. A deal-oriented, personality-driven chronicle of low-budget American filmmaking set primarily during the 1990s, Biskind’s book is, much like his previous expose “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” packed with juicy incidents, bigger-than-life characters, copious author interviews and some questionable historical interpretations.

Couched in starkly Hobbesian terms – “life in the indie world can be nasty, brutish, and short,” Biskind announces on the first page – the new book makes low-budget filmmaking sound like an especially vicious edition of “Survivor,” in which the last man standing, checkbook in meaty hand, is named Harvey Weinstein. If the Miramax co-chairman looms large in Biskind’s account, as a kind of rampaging monster leaving scores of damaged movies and egos in his wake – not to mention an entire film movement – my guess is that it’s largely because distribution and production is pretty dull stuff. It is, after all, easier to sell a book about moguls behaving badly than to define independent filmmaking in the age of conglomerates; certainly it’s easier to sell personalities than to parse how money flows from one pocket to the next.

One problem with Biskind’s take is that it works only if you buy the canard that Miramax was an independent company even after 1993, the year it was bought by Disney, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. (Biskind admits Miramax’s independence was a fiction but nonetheless lavishes much of his attention on the company.) Given how important the independent stamp became to the movie industry during the 1990s – as a marker of quality, as a promise of difference and distinction – it’s no surprise that everyone went along. As the hullabaloo over this week’s Academy Award nominations makes clear, the story of the little indie that could remains irresistible – witness “Lost in Translation,” which was partly financed by Focus International, which in turn is owned by Universal Pictures.

Indeed, Biskind’s glum take on the independent film world only really works if you ignore those independents working without studio patronage – and if you keep your eyes shut. If you keep them open, as I did while watching more than 30 features at Sundance, you discover that independent film is rolling along pretty much the same bumpy way it has for the last decade. This year, along with a smattering of documentaries, the best evidence that reports of independent film’s death were premature included John Curran’s thorny drama about two married couples in their 30s, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” adapted by Larry Gross from a pair of Andre Dubus stories. And Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation,” an exuberantly personal work smeared with lipstick traces from the likes of David Lynch and avant-garde legend Jack Smith that recounts the filmmaker’s life with and without his disturbed mother.

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I’ve written my share of cranky articles about the country’s most important film festival, but either by design or default, Sundance continues to be the leading venue for American independents.

It’s where I caught the world premiere of Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” a thrilling, eerily prescient work about toxic America that put Julianne Moore on the road to stardom. And where I saw Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise,” a heart-soaring film about an underprivileged young woman struggling to find herself (a favorite Sundance trope), and the last great evidence of just how good an actress Ashley Judd can be. It’s also where I have seen tough, aesthetically uncompromising films such as Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet” (which, to its credit, Miramax picked up after Sundance), Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and Martin Bell’s “American Heart.”

None of this makes Sundance any more pleasurable. Good movie year or not – and this was a middling year – the festival invariably features an overabundance of mediocre work. Too many films hew to familiar Sundance templates – the family dysfunction confab, the “I’m on hiatus, get me an indie” flick, the premature-coming-of-age drama – that hit all the usual story notes and, for some ungodly reason, feature a lot of sensitive guitar strumming. Movies that, to paraphrase one friend, are Hollywood films without the glamour, art movies without the art. That’s brutal, but Sundance’s core problem is that there aren’t enough good homegrown films produced in a given year to support a festival of this size. Which is why the festival’s smartest move has been to dramatically increase its number of foreign-language selections.

But Sundance isn’t the sum of American independent film any more than Miramax is. Rather, they’re two pieces in the larger puzzle that is the contemporary movie industry. If the industry can be difficult to grasp these days, it’s because our movies – once built on the factory floor from the ground up, much like granddad’s Chrysler – are now created in a radically decentralized system. So while most of the major studios are part of enormous global conglomerates, filmmaking has become bewilderingly piecemeal, especially when it comes to financing. As Biskind’s repeated horror stories about Weinstein drive home, so-called independent producers can be as meddlesome and dumb as studio bean counters.

The indie film label may (still) signify freedom, innovation and even a smidgen of radicalism to many consumers and a large swathe of the media that should know better. But filmmakers tend to tell a different tale. Independent or not, making movies means that a very few become very rich, often at the expense of the less ruthless.

There were independent filmmakers before Miramax and there are still independent filmmakers, though not all are equally independent. But some myths die hard. That’s particularly true in the media that gladly exploit the scrappy underdog angle – partly to snare younger consumers – and in the sub-industry that has sprung up around indie film. Nowhere is that sub-industry more visible than at Sundance, where an alphabet soup of corporate logos adorns the festival and fleets of support staff – lawyers who try to sell rights to distributors, publicists who try to bait media types like yours truly – accompany each entrant. At center stage, of course, are the all-important executives such as Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice, who are in attendance to support their company’s coming releases, while scouting the next “Thirteen,” which Rice snapped up at last year’s festival.

Last year at Sundance, five of the most-talked-about films were “Thirteen,” “American Splendor,” “The Station Agent,” “All the Real Girls” and “Capturing the Friedmans,” all of which were well received by critics and bought by studio specialty divisions and independent distributors. As of my deadline, these five films have grossed a combined $19,232,948 at the American box office. By contrast, Warner Bros.’ putative comedy “Kangaroo Jack,” which hit theaters the day after the 2003 Sundance opened, earned $21,895,483 in just its opening weekend. Far more people saw “Kangaroo Jack” than last year’s big Sundance movies, although you wouldn’t know that from the attention these films racked up in taste-making outlets such as The New York Times, which published a whopping 10 articles on “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Despite the delirium that now characterizes the Sundance experience, most independent films – whether we’re talking studio indies or real indies – exert a greater symbolic impact on the culture than an economic one. True, “Pulp Fiction” grossed more than $100 million in the United States. But it’s likely that the film benefited Disney – which in 1994 became, with Quentin Tarantino’s help, the first studio to gross a billion dollars at the U.S. box office – more than it did independent cinema. By contrast, movies such as “The Station Agent” and “All the Real Girls,” which provide character-based, nominally offbeat (i.e., nongenre) stories to a limited number of filmgoers, can hope to do only a fraction of that business. Some independent film watchers might see such meager returns as proof that the movement is indeed dead, but I wonder if we’re not looking at this through the wrong end of the glass.

In the end, the great fraud perpetuated during the independent film movement of the 1990s wasn’t the work of either Miramax or Sundance alone. It was the work of everyone who tried to transform independent cinema into a brand called indie film, thereby insisting that even the most rarefied movie could – and, worse, should – have the audience appeal, the Academy Award-capacity and the box-office muscle of Hollywood.

Thinking like that doesn’t just sell short some of our best filmmakers, including those like Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson and “Donnie Darko’s” Richard Kelly, some of whom have enjoyed studio patronage but may never find mainstream success. It sells short the idea that movies are more than commodities and have the capacity to be a beautiful dream, a transporting experience – a place where art takes hold, ready or not.

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