Indies: Indies Vs. Mainstream Hollywood

The emergence of a new cinematic force or movement is not a coincidence: The arrival of promising directors goes in cycles and Hollywood sets the context in which those cycles occur.

The main reason for the prominence of American indies in the 1990s is that Hollywood has all but abandoned the making of serious, provocative films. The studios are increasingly committed to big “event” movies, which leaves room for small and mid-range indies. Despite big budgets, in terms of artistic quality, the studios are releasing mostly minor films.

The new good indies serve as a reminder of why, by turning its back on the real world, most of Hollywood fare seems tired and tiresome. While the Hollywood studios spend much of their time churning out forgettable fodder, an interesting thing is happening on the fringe: independent filmmakers are enjoying exhilarating years marked by receptive audiences and critical encouragement.

A penchant for risk-taking, after the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), 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 in the late 1960s and early 1970s by making innovative films within the studio system. It’s premature to tell whether the 1990s wave is on a par with that of the 1970s, but there’s no doubt about its visibility and effect.

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. Now the balance has tipped decisively in favor of cinema as an industry, with the great cinema of the 1960s and 1970s thoroughly repudiated. Hollywood economics affects the quality of films in several ways. First, big-budget productions divert resources from other films (about 200 indies could be made for Titanic’s budget). 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 films on a more coercive global scale. Soaring budgets mean that to be profitable films have to generate a lot of money in the first week of their release–a trend favoring blockbusters. Hence, the theatrical release time of movies has become shorter and shorter, with movies lacking time to play and build word-of-mouth.

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

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

Arguably, the best cycle of indies appeared in 1991-1992, 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 super-violently droll Reservoir Dogs, the sharply satirical Bob Roberts, the poetically evocative Daughters of the Dust.

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

Indies take the kinds of risk that would be 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 fortmer Disney chair, Jeffrey Katzenberg. “The process has been corrupted. It is too much about money and not enough about good entertainment.” According to Katzenberg, the gap between filmmaking as “guerrilla warfare, meaning three guys with a camera strapped on their back,” and “megablockbuster Hollywood” has considerably widened.

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 forces the studios to take notice. A parallel forceful visibility of nonfiction fare 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 appears out of nowhere to attract viewers and impress critics, “nowhere” picks up an added cachet. Film festivals, dominated by unexpected hits such as The Waterdance (premiering at Telluride), Welcome to the Dollhouse (Toronto), Go Fish (Sundance), and Bob Roberts (Cannes) have made viewers even more willing to expect the unexpected. For those unattracted to formulaic movies, 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–and life–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 Form showed Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, there was an overwhelming response to her ruminative evocation of a Gullah family in the Carolina Sea Islands. Hollywood produced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which was misdirected by Spielberg, but it could never have produced an idiosyncratic or visionary film like Daughters of the Dust. Hollywood couldn’t be bothered by the box-office receipts of $1 million, which is what Dash’s film grossed.

This is the second in a series of 10 articles about the Forces Shaping the New American Independent Cinema