Cinema of Outsiders: Hollywood and the Indie Milieu

On the Best-Seller List of the L.A. Times, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independnet Film, is the most popular film book in the 90-year-history of NYU Press.

The emergence of a new cinematic force is not a coincidence: Promising directors come and go in cycles and Hollywood sets the context in which those cycles occur. Indies' recent prominence is directly related to Hollywood's abandonment of the making of serious, issue-oriented provocative films. Despite big budgets, in terms of artistic quality and originality, the studios release mostly minor films.

Mostly committed to the production of big “event” movies, the studios leave room for small, mid-range indies. The best indies serve as a reminder of why, by turning its back on the real world, most of Hollywood fare seems tired and tiresome. While Hollywood focuses its attention on churning out profitable but forgettable fodder, an interesting thing is happening on the fringe: independent filmmakers are enjoying exhilarating years marked by receptive audiences and critical encouragement.

After the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), the studios' penchant for risk-taking helped nourish an astonishing group of directors that included Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, all of whom revitalized the mainstream. These filmmakers established their reputations by making innovative films within the studio system. It's premature to judge whether the 1990s wave is on a par with that of the 1970s, but there's no doubt that its visibility and impact go beyond the indie world.

There has always been conflict between cinema as an industry and cinema as an art form, cinema as routine and cinema as experiment, but that conflict never precluded the making of personal films within the mainstream. However, at present, the balance has tipped decisively in favor of cinema as an industry, with the great Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s repudiated.

Hollywood economics affects the quality of films in several ways. First, big-budget productions divert resources from other films (how many indies could be made for the $80 million budget of Meet Joe Black or for the $90 million of Starship Troopers). Second, the bigger the budget, the more a picture must hedge its bets by catering to broad audiences, which necessitates compromise, homogeneity, and standardization–in short, less distinctive vision.

The rise in production costs has resulted in the making of products on a coercive global scale, films that are meant to please audiences all over the world. Soaring budgets also mean that films must generate a lot of money in the first week of their release to prove profitable–a trend favoring blockbusters and cutting the theatrical release time of movies that are not potential blockbusters. With rare exceptions, current mainstream movies are not afforded the proper play time to build word-of-mouth.

The prevalent climate in Hollywood encourages the production of routine films for innocuous, often mindless entertainment. Mainstream cinema has settled for a derivative fare that hopes to reproduce past successes (the remake and sequel syndromes). The reduction of Hollywood films to images and sounds that are attention-grabbing but meaningless has resulted in a lightweight cinema that neither challenges the mind nor appeals to the heart.

Indies take the kinds of risk that are out of the question in mainstream Hollywood. “Commerce has overwhelmed art, which is why Hollywood movies aren't as good as they used to be,” observed former Disney chair, Jeffrey Katzenberg. “The process has been corrupted. It is too much about money and not enough about good entertainment.” Katzenberg perceived the gap between filmmaking as “guerrilla warfare, meaning three guys with a camera strapped on their back,” and “megablockbuster Hollywood” as considerably wider.

Indie films are “the opposite of Hollywood, where they try and make pictures that fit a pre-existing audience,” noted filmmaker Kit Carson. “Indie films are from the gut.” Another notable difference concerns the perception of the budget. When an indie executive lies about a budget, he always inflates the figure, whereas studio executives invariably claim their films cost less than what they actually spent.

Arguably, the best cycle of indies in the last decade appeared in 1991-1992, years which saw the release of the provocative Poison, the intimately touching The Waterdance, the emotionally satisfying neo-noir One False Move, the pleasingly feminist Gas Food Lodging, the politically incorrect The Living End, the revisionist Swoon, the hyper-violently droll Reservoir Dogs, the sharply satirical Bob Roberts, the poetically evocative Daughters of the Dust.

Singly and jointly, these films gave Hollywood pause. Made uncompromisingly, often on shoestring budgets, these pictures were as well acted and as entertaining as studio fare. They dispensed, as Janet Maslin noted, with the “something-for-everyone” blandness of big-studio efforts and succeeded in singling out specific (niche) audiences, defined by race, gender, and sexual orientation, introducing new themes and characters on the American screen.

The way for the 1990s directors had been paved by a group of now-established filmmakers whose 1980s work was truly independent: John Sayles, Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee. Critically and often commercially, they have attained the kind of stature that forced the studios to take notice. A forceful parallel evolution of nonfiction fare has had similar effect, focusing attention on the growing commercial viability of such documentaries as Roger and Me, Paris Is Burning, Hoop Dreams, and Crumb.

When Carl Franklin's One False Move appeared out of nowhere, attracting viewers and impressing critics, “nowhere” picked up added cachet. Film festivals, dominated by such unanticipated hits as The Waterdance (premiering at Telluride), Welcome to the Dollhouse (Toronto), Go Fish (Sundance), and Bob Roberts (Cannes) have made viewers more willing to take risks. For those repelled by formulaic fare, expecting the unexpected has become a driving force which encourages the production of free-spirited, try-anything films.

The corporate, market-driven thinking that has drained the art out of Hollywood has had a similarly dulling effect on some foreign industries. When high-gloss violent thrillers, such as Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, become the most prominent French films of the decade, the appeal of small, quirky but substantial movies only grows.

Karen Cooper, programmer of New York's Film Forum, which has consistently shown indies, stresses audience's sophistication, a term once applied to foreign-film audiences. She attributes the popularity of indies to the “particularization of experience,” which is harder to find in Hollywood product. “There are food stores that sell just pasta and clothing stores that sell just black. Films can do that, too, when they aren't just looking for the lowest common denominator.”

When Film Forum showed Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, powerful response greeted her ruminative evocation of a Gullah family in the Carolina Sea Islands. Hollywood produced Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which was misconceived by Spielberg, who took the guts out of the novel by making a clean, neat picture, but it could never have produced an idiosyncratic or visionary film like Daughters of the Dust. Hollywood couldn't be bothered by box-office receipts of $1 million (which is what Dash's film grossed).