Film…it’s a college class, wow.
Our first assignment was questions about The book Cinema of Outsiders http://www.emanuellevy.com/book/cinema-of-outsidersbrthe-rise-of-american-independent-film-7/
I’m bringin popcorn, hilarity may ensue.
1.)What is an Indie?
Independent Film would have been easy to define in Hollywood’s golden age. When the studios control funding, capital, and distribution any movie made outside that closed system is clearly independent. The term probably meant “independent from the large studios” at one point. From Levy’s discussion it looks like there are several equally nebulous criteria for calling a modern film independent.
a.) The film must have relatively small funding from sources that don’t usually bankroll “mainstream” films.
b.) The film must be creatively controlled by very few people who don’t have profits as their highest priority.
c.) The themes, story, creators, method, and/or actors must represent something other than the currently dominant paradigm. For example, if homosexual eskimos travel through space to find themselves, in a non-comedic context; it is a film that wouldn’t have been made in the currently dominant system and is probably an indie. If a popular star causes crashes in a car chase, kills the bad guy, gets the girl, then walks away from an explosion in slow motion, then you expect a sequel, the film probably isn’t an independent film.
2.) Hollywood and the Indie milieu
Regardless of how we define independent film, it’s relationship to the mainstream is indisputable. If we define it as being outside the mainstream, our definition of the mainstream and opinions of it will shape and define the direction of indie films. Levy talks about indie film being a reaction to the ills of modern hollywood cinema. Hollywood has developed many formulas for how things should be done, and independent film makers have traditionally discarded and avoided these cliches and conventions, even the useful ones. Creativity and interesting work has come from this reactionary tendency. As an example, consider this scenario: If an independent film maker sees modern Hollywood as being loud, showy, colorful, and reliant on expensive effects, He may react against this by making a quiet feeling, understated, black&white film without any expensive special effects. If a great film doesn’t result from his work, there will still be value in it, because the film will show that things can be done in different ways. This is how I feel about Maya Deren and Andy Warhol. I don’t enjoy those expirimental films very much, but I think their influence on filmcraft is vital. An independent film maker is freer to try new things that haven’t been proven profitable at the box office. If film makers aren’t allowed to experiment, explore, and lose money, the artistic aspect of film making will be dead.
Independent film makers are reactionary towards the mainstream, but consumers are as well. At a time when the financial pressures on Hollywood has made them increasingly formulaic and predictable, consumers have looked for alternatives with increasing frequency.
The Babyboomer Generation has a historical tendency to support new and different things, and to search outside their own culture for things of greater value and use. This tendency, together with their large numbers and market influence was very helpful in the development of arthouse cinema, the U.S. markets for foriegn films, and independent film. The proceeding generations typically have similar tendencies, but in a more negative context. Most people my age (born during Vietnam war) take it for granted that anything “mainstream”, slickly packaged, heavily advertised, or well known will lack value. This tendency, along with the increased access and distribution afforded by the explosion of the internet has certainly helped build larger markets for independent films.
I disagree on Levy’s interpretation of what an “outsider” is. His oversimplification presupposes that Jews and homosexuals were not influential in Hollywood’s golden age. This is the period that many conventions of film making come from, and weather a film maker is utilizing those methods or rejecting them, they still have a large influence on the methods of film making in America. Also, I’m not sure that it is accurate to call women an outside group in modern American film. While it’s true that most American film makers are men, I’m not sure that the “outsider” quality of Catherine Hardwick, or even Alison Anders comes from the fact that they are women. If they had been born men, wouldn’t they still be unconventionally creative people? The hard to define mainstream which independent film exists outside of has it’s roots in places that Levy might call “outsider”. German silent film, Asian movie inspired imagery, American Jewish cultural values, Black American culture, homosexual concepts of showmanship and glamour, and creative people from all kinds of backgrounds have come together to make what we now call “mainstream”.
If independent film directors could get large studio backing for projects that have no guarantee of making a profit, most would not remain independent for the sake of hipness alone. I would argue that it is actually the rejection of these film makers by Hollywood and investors that makes them outsiders. The act of rebellion against the mainstream is, in my experience, almost always a result of being rejected from the mainstream. It happens in that order. The maintream is defective in that it has no place or use for a large segment of the population. Most intelligent and creative types fall within this marginalised population segment. This group includes all socially marginalised people. Nerds, intellectuals, and artists of all kinds come from this group, so Levy’s primary premise is an oversimplification. Mainstream Hollywood directors are also “outsiders” in the sense that they are into film. To say that Jim Jarmusch and John Waters are from more socially marginalised origins than Ron Howard or James Cameron is like saying that poor people are good and rich people are bad. Levy uses this irritating assertion as an orginisational capstone to an otherwise interesting discussion of modern American independent films.
4.) David Lynch
Lynch’s most accessable works (possibly Wild at Heart), still defy convention. His more offbeat works (Eraserhead is a good example) are considered vital to the understanding of modern film for many. He sometimes seems like he’s being odd for the sake of being odd, which annoys me, but his style, humor, and confidence compensates for any annoyance his work inspires. Years after Eraserhead achieved a bit of distribution, people were talking about it as a “must see” film. The composition, lighting, and shots in this film show off his creativity and craftsmanship, but most of it was shot in a small space on 16mm film. He often juxtaposes two culture’s worldviews to challenge one or both. In Blue Velvet, the painfully wholesome hero wanders into a violent, sociopathic scenario with insane criminals, and we see that culture through his naive eyes. As in many Lynch films, the effect is intelligent, challenging, funny, and a little hard to follow. The most valuable thing that comes through in his films is his sense of perspective’s relationship to reality. When our expectations of how things work are shaken up, our view of reality, and reality itself are also challenged. Film is the perfect medium for illustrating this idea.
5.) The American Astronaut
Cory McAbee’s 2001 under appreciated film The American Astronaut is one of my all-time favorite movies. The camera work and lighting, while underfunded, is beautiful in a Tarkovskiy-like way. Most shots are set up to get max effect out of moody lighting, and create a complete impression of environment. Getting the feel of the space across is very challenging with low budget sets, but he pulls it off masterfully. The story, pace, and special effects are also very unusual, but so stylishly done that they work well. The mediocre acting doesn’t hurt the story, and a few great acting performances are inserted in seamlessly, and don’t seem out of place at all. Rocco Sisto, as the evil Professor Hess (something like a Dr.Mabuse/Morissey hybrid), acts so superbly that the veiwer can be honestly frightened of him while laughing at him. Tom Aldredge delivers a terrible stand up routine, made funny by fantastic delivery. The audience’s reaction is used to introduce the viewer to the bizarre culture in the movie’s fictional world: “I never understood this joke, but then I’ve never been to Earth.”.
The way in which they tell a story well without decent funding, the fantastic acting blended seamlessly with barely effective acting, the thoughtful pace, and artfull lighting style could only exsist in an independent film. It has grossed nearly $50,000 to date.