Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Defining Indie

At last year's Oscars, there were a bunch of articles about the fact that indie films were dominating the Oscars while the studio offerings failed to get many nominations. Concurrent with this was the idea that said indie films were out of touch with the mainstream, and the notion was that the Academy should try to nominate more "mainstream" film.

The major issue I have with this line of thought is the fact that these so called "indie" films are usually far from indie. Looking back at the Academy Awards last year, we had that indie Crash, which featured such obscure arthouse players as Sandra Bullock and Ludacris, or Good Night and Good Luck directed by and starring arguably the largest movie star on the planet. More recently, we've had the indie success of Little Miss Sunshine, starring the hottest comic on TV and star of one of last year's highest grossing comedies, Steve Carrell.

Even if these films are technically made with independent financing, with the talent involved, it's pretty clear that they're going to get some play. When picked up, they're put out by smaller divisions of major corporate studios, like Warner Independent or Fox Searchlight. So, saying that all these indie movies are coming out of nowhere and snatching up the nominations that should have went to major studio films is rather nonsensical. Whether it's Warner Bros. or Warner Independent, the money goes back to the same place. Actual independent films, like Andrew Bujalski's lo-fi stuff, or classics like Linklater's Slacker very rarely get any Academy attention, or viewers for that matter.

Essentially what's happened is that independent has become a synonym for art movie, a film where the quality of the piece more than the actors or effects is the primary draw. The studios were making such blatantly commercial films that they bought up smaller indie distributors to put out films that would get critical respect and award nominations. There's nothing wrong with this, most of the good American movies come out of these specialty divisions, Focus Features in particular has put out a bunch of really great films.

However, my issue with this is that the spectrum of production of shifted. Back in the 70s, a film like Good Night and Good Luck would have been a big studio film, targetted at a mainstream audience. Same for Crash, which is far from an art film. At that time, there were bad blockbuster type films, but in general, the films that were popular were the ones that also had artistic merit. That's the major difference between then and now, big films are sold as multi-media events and become commodities. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest may be a decent movie, but the quality of the film is insignificant compared to the marketing juggernaut around it.

Because the mainstream has become these generally lifeless blockbusters, formerly mainstream films are shifted into the indie world. That raises the question of what happens to true indies? If art house screens are taken up with a film like Little Miss Sunshine, where can foreign and really independent films play? Very few places is the basic answer, with a small amount of exceptions, foreign films get very little play here, same for artier American films.

Look at a film like Altman's 3 Women, this was made at a mainstream studio back in the 70s, today you'd be hard pressed to get any play for it. Even A Prarie Home Companion, a really accessible film with a whole bunch of stars, got limited play. To some extent, critical reaction can help out these smaller films, but in a lot of cases really indie films dont' get the critical support they deserve. Ellie Parker is a really well done indie comedy, but reviews just end up cracking on the digital video look. I saw the same thing in the early reviews for Lynch's Inland Empire, even though IE may look aesthetically worse than the polished film look of a big Hollywood movie, I can guarantee that it's more visually exciting than perfectly lit, but visually dead mainstream films.

So, this massive spectrum shift hurts us all as filmgoers. Mainstream films could be better, we've already seen it in the indie community. And indie films should be more challenging and innovative, not just there to provide something halway decent for a studio's award campaign. Strangely enough, the last three American films that I've loved were all released by major studios, Universal's Miami Vice and New Line's Domino and The New World, all doing more innovative filmmaking than anything in the indie community. So, occasionally a quality film does slip through, and I'm confident there's a bunch of good stuff coming up this fall.

Related Posts
The New Lynch Film and Digital Filmmaking (5/12/2005)
Great Films (12/19/2005)
Seriously, Crash? (3/6/2006)

No comments: