What Independent Film?

Film Stills from Funny Ha Ha
Andrew Bujalski, Film Stills from Funny Ha Ha, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m still holding out hope for George Lucas. A number of recent profiles have dubbed him “the most successful independent filmmaker of all time,” and the moniker does seem technically accurate—studio bean counters don’t own his brain. Furthermore, recent statements from the man have firmly announced a desire to go more indie still, to return to his student roots in experimental film, à la his marvelous 1971 dystopia THX-1138. Of course, he’s been saying this stuff since about 1980—but then even Darth Vader could come back from decades of doing the Emperor’s dirty work and throw his oppressor down a well.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder: What’s Lucas waiting for? Presumably he can afford to rent his own billboards and guerrilla marketers if Taco Bell balks at providing his avant-garde film with the sort of tie-ins it did for Star Wars; presumably he can self-distribute if he fears his new work would be too strange for anyone to take on; and if the exhibitors still can’t handle its nonconformity, he can build his own theaters, can’t he? Is it just that he might offend his Star Wars collaborators if he turned his back on blockbusters? Would it be irresponsible of him to go experimental—like the CEO of Ford saying he didn’t feel like making cars anymore and that everyone ought to ride a bike?

Maybe Mel Gibson is our greatest independent filmmaker. He certainly didn’t bother submitting his vision to industry simps, and though his pockets were not so deep as Lucas’s when he set out to make The Passion of the Christ, nor his infrastructure so entrenched, he made exactly the film he wanted. The simps may be kicking themselves now, but they can’t be blamed for thinking that The Passion’s commercial potential was, at least, uncertain, especially when Gibson was proclaiming his intent not to subtitle the Aramaic in the film.

Drawing lines in the sand to determine what makes an “indie” filmmaker is, in other words, pretty futile. The nominating committee for the Independent Spirit Awards, rather than attempt the formidable task of measuring the independence of individual nominees’ spirits, imposes a monetary limit. You’re indie until you hit somewhere between $15 million and $20 million; after that, you’re dependent. Presumably these figures will continue to be adjusted for inflation.


Money is, of course, relevant to the question of “independence.” Because of the demands made by people who’ve given it to you, there tends to be a loose correlation between access to enormous cash and a lack of artistic integrity. But the reverse does not necessarily hold true. Many, many films on the independent festival circuit lack not only the entertainment value but also the aesthetic coherence of, say, Charlie’s Angels (a $92 million film, according to the Internet Movie Database, though the true budgets of such behemoths are not ever really knowable).

The indie film festivals themselves come with varying degrees of indieness. The bigger ones are no longer meant for ordinary moviegoers—Sundance is not designed to bring the finest new films to the culturally ravenous population of Park City, UT—but rather for the roving band of industry folks who travel the festival circuit all year like the doomed dinner guests in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. For these fests, premiere status is the coin of the realm. If you’ve already played in Telluride and Cannes and Park City (or wherever), they’re not going to want you in Toronto. From the industry’s perspective, this makes perfect sense, but for filmmakers who are not guaranteed a wide release—ostensibly the artists that these festivals were designed to showcase in the first place—it can be demoralizing that your film is considered played-out after a handful of screenings.

Then there are the smaller fests genuinely serving regional populations—and, increasingly in the past decade, subpopulations. Boston now has a Jewish Film Fest, an Irish Fest, Science Fiction Fest, Short Film Fest, Human Rights Fest, and Gay & Lesbian Fest, not to mention an Independent Fest and an Underground Fest. Unfortunately, these festivals are usually bound by the same laws as indie films themselves, i.e., starpower equals ticket sales equals survival. Hence a ubiquity of “opening night” and “closing night” galas at fests that tend to feature a film you would not have heard of before and may never hear of again except that it features a performance by a famous person, who, if the fest is lucky, is in attendance.

“Independent film” was and is supposed to be an arena in which the laws of commercial Darwinism are, if not suspended, at least a bit less brutal. And to some extent, that is the case. A $10 million film can literally afford to be more adventurous than a $50 million film. But distribution is a harsh mistress who cares neither about your artistic integrity nor your ingenuity in pinching a production penny. Perhaps you can make a breakout feature for $7,000, as was the legendary reported (and much debated) budget of Robert Rodriguez’s terrific El Mariachi, launching yourself into a unique career of autonomously crafted blockbusters (the Spy Kids oeuvre, Sin City) like a less tormented Lucas. Or even thriftier, maybe you can make a name for yourself as Jonathan Caouette did with Tarnation, the press push behind which put the budget at a stunning $218 (that’s only a few days at your temp job!). Crafted from footage accumulated over a lifetime of self-documentation and from other found items, and edited on iMovie software that came with Caouette’s computer, Tarnation stands not only as a paragon of DIY inventiveness but also as a fine make-your-life-into-art template. It is of course a great deal more interesting than the average consumer’s iMovie opus. Still, records were made to be broken, and perhaps you can be the first person to break the two-digit barrier for revolutionizing cinema, why not? But unless in your spare time you’ve developed innovative new modes of distribution, someone is still going to have to spend hundreds of thousands to get your film into theaters. (In the case of Tarnation, hundreds of thousands were necessary before the real work of distribution even began, just to clear the legal rights to the music and film clips employed throughout.) All of which is to say, unless your film is the surprise hit everyone sincerely hopes it will be, or you’ve gotten away with a wildly overoptimistic advance from someone, you still are unlikely to make your $99 back. The economics of distribution are unfriendly to all, but particularly gruesome for the independent.


We’ve all been well educated as to how expensive movies are, and how risky an investment; we all understand that when anything with a semblance of creative spark or deviation from accepted commercial formulas makes it to a screen, the event is roughly equivalent to a prison inmate’s making the dash for freedom without getting taken out by the sharpshooters. And this we accept as normal. Film critics, for example, are by and large very smart people who have chosen to apply their intellect to analysis of the past century’s most formidable new art form—a fine and noble pursuit. But only the most rarefied (and marginalized) of them can devote their full time to discussing only interesting films; the rest, the ones whose names we recognize, spend most of their time analyzing product that, dare I say, does not seem worthy of their scrutiny. Unless we start at a Zen zero point and assert that it is the act of giving our attention to films that is holy and that the object of that attention is irrelevant—well, any less cosmic view would presumably result in very terse reviews. (“This film offers nothing new to the world and there is nothing worth saying about it.”)

With all their brainpower and nowhere to go, the most exciting critics just make up the rich ideas and themes that the filmmakers might (or might not) have had if they hadn’t been responsible for returning millions of dollars’ worth of investment. I love Brian De Palma and I like Mission to Mars; I don’t know that Armond White is necessarily wrong when he asserts that “it can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them. . . . [T]he consensus blindness regarding Mission to Mars indicates a cultural crisis,” but I can’t escape the feeling that White is playing at a higher level—that his criticism is more entertaining and enriching—than the film in question.

The plight of the contemporary critic seems, oddly enough, analogous to the plight of the actor. Both willingly subject themselves to an industry whose economics ensure that they will almost always be asked to work well below the level of their talents. It is among the most perverse of movie-business ironies that most Hollywood stars are, in fact, almost as gifted as their publicists would have us believe; but it has been determined that maximum profitability is to be had by using these gifts as varnish on deliberately mediocre work. Our national acting treasures practice their craft thusly: Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek, Meet the Fockers, Godsend, Analyze That, City by the Sea; Al Pacino in The Recruit, People I Know, Simone, Insomnia; Dustin Hoffman also in Fockers, The Runaway Jury, and lending voice talent to the horse-zebra cartoon, Racing Stripes; Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate, Music of the Heart, One True Thing, The River Wild. Perhaps the titans feel they have nothing left to prove. What about younger lights of the medium? There’s Denzel Washington (The Manchurian Candidate, Man on Fire, Out of Time, John Q); there’s Edward Norton (The Italian Job, Red Dragon, Death to Smoochy, The Score). What if market research one day revealed that Americans preferred to see athletes play below their skills? Can we convince Lance Armstrong to stop doing these interminable Tours de France and maybe compete in some shorter, more easily televised races?

There’s nothing inherently evil about cinema as crass entertainment. I’ve never met nor heard of an experimental filmmaker who was not also a big appreciator of Hollywood product. Stan Brakhage, the great experimental filmmaker whose work ran the gamut from abstract to really, really abstract—many of his final films were made by applying paint directly to clear film stock—was an avowed fan of the South Park movie. While nascent auteurs preparing for film school may stroke their chins and try to decide whether to be the next Brakhage or the next Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, The Island), they’re in for a stressful career either way. The big guys cannot laugh off the pressure of managing gigantic corporate investments—Men in Black II director Barry Sonnenfeld once told of being rushed to the emergency room with chest pains during that film’s shoot, and deadpanned that he saw surviving versus dying-and-getting-to-quit-the-production as a win-win situation. The little guys, meanwhile, may not feel pressure from a studio machine, but very often have to become a miniaturized version of a studio machine to get their films seen. I personally came to filmmaking because I was fascinated by the filmmaking parts: writing, directing, editing, performing. Becoming versed in technical minutiae along the way (one can spend a lifetime contemplating the vicissitudes of analog-to-digital-and/or-vice-versa transfer) is of course necessary if not always pleasant. Whether or not the other stuff—learning to be your own accountant, your own lawyer, your own press agent, your own distributor—is useful, is a different question. Some folks compromise their work to get it to a wider audience. Other folks keep the work pure but compromise instead their sanity, or their health, in promoting it. And others still compromise nothing at all and leave their films on a shelf to maybe be uncovered by future archaeologists.


Ok, so what about cassavetes? John Cassavetes, I freely concur, is the best. His films make most everyone else’s look like frivolous garbage. There is not much else I can say about his artistry except to encourage anyone not familiar with his films to check them out—but even that feels a bit unnecessary. His films don’t need anyone to proselytize on their behalf; they are best stumbled upon, by accident, in a dark cavern, where the movies belong.

Of course his critical canonization has occurred only in death; while alive, he had plenty of public detractors, not to mention that most of his films were commercial failures. (And thank goodness for that—it’s hard to imagine that his work would not have suffered had it enjoyed consistent success in the marketplace.) He spared no hustle in trying to get his work seen by the widest possible audience—he cajoled exhibitors in working-class neighborhoods to run his films, optimistically believing that the working-class would better appreciate them than the art-house crowd. The box office, unfortunately, tended not to bear out this hope. But bucking conventional wisdom at the clear and present danger of financial ruin was very much his style, and so independent cinema’s JC, like Mel Gibson’s JC, is easily cast as a martyr, the avenging angel of anti-Hollywood artistry. The Independent Spirit Award named for Cassavetes is the award given to feature films made for under $500,000—well under Hollywood’s radar.

But the majority of Cassavetes’s own movies were made for over $500,000—and that’s not even adjusting for inflation. Of his eleven feature films, six of them were at least partially financed by Hollywood studios. The five that he self-financed wouldn’t have been possible if not for his and his wife Gena Rowlands’s very lucrative Hollywood acting careers. (Cassavetes often turned up in just-for-the-paycheck fare such as Incubus, or, a few steps classier, Brian De Palma’s The Fury—the final potent image of which, wherein his character meets an extravagantly violent demise, has haunted me for years: an exploding Cassavetes is bound to stick in a young filmmaker’s consciousness.) Though he no doubt had contempt for many individuals in Hollywood and for a great deal of their output, it doesn’t jibe that he’d have harbored true malice toward the system in toto. After all, he lived in Hollywood for approximately the last thirty years of his life, and no evidence suggests that he hated the most hateable of US cities. Even George Lucas, who might have been King of Los Angeles, refused to move there—he’s a die-hard Northern Californian. But New York City born and bred JC enjoyed the sunshine, and if he didn’t love the sins he had room in his heart for the sinners. “Anyone who can make a film, I already love,” he once said to an interviewer.


Coolness and savviness, rather than the charismatic insanity of Cassavetes and his contemporaries (Peckinpah roughing up producers, Herzog jumping into a cactus, et cetera) is the new path to indie legendhood. Marrying your vision to the market’s desires has become the standard of successful “independence.” Gus Van Sant, after disappearing into the commercial world with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, has now put out a trilogy of idiosyncratic, contemplative films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days). This is a great comfort to those of us who feared that the recently popular “one for them, one for me” career model (see also the recent paths of Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater) was going to end with “them” getting a lot more films than “me.”

And there still exist people who work entirely outside either maxi- or mini-Hollywood models. In various travels with my first film, Funny Ha Ha, I had the good fortune to briefly cross paths with great experimental guys like James Benning (his most recent works have been composed entirely of 2.5-minute takes of landscapes), Peter Hutton (his films are lush silent documents, landscapes and cityscapes; Hutton prefers to operate his own projector when he travels with the work), the Kuchar brothers (too accomplished and sharp to be considered “outsider artists” but whose campy and disarming narratives—little melodramas, or diaries, or homages to a favorite dog—continue to convey wonderment at the filmmaking process), Jon Jost (whose idiosyncratic personal narratives are now all being shot on video; he considers it borderline criminal to continue teaching students how to shoot film in a now-digital universe)—very prolific people whose specific aesthetics are unique and fluid, but who share the common bond of having staked out extremely independent niches after coming up during the heyday of U.S. “underground” cinema. (Mike Kuchar was actually able to quit his day job for several years from income generated by Sins of the Fleshapoids’ long New York run, quite unthinkable these days for a film devoid of niceties like, for example, synchronized sound recording—and not even full-feature length!—in a city glutted by new releases.) None of these people in the present day can make a living from their films; nearly all of them teach, as did Stan Brakhage in his last decades. At any given moment, like kids in bands forty years their junior, these filmmakers may not have health insurance. When Brakhage died, he left significant medical expenses behind him; Sonic Youth and others performed benefits to aid his family.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the cinematic art form that the dismantlement of capitalism wouldn’t fix. Until that time, miracles will continue to occur; being miracles, they will be defined by their scarcity. Though perhaps they will not all be divinely inspired. The most useful lesson I ever picked up on the process of independent filmmaking came from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the first scene, Kirstie Alley, as Lieutenant Saavik, participates in a simulated battle exercise called the Kobayashi-Maru. (I liked that; in a Trek universe filled with fake-sounding alien names, “Kobayashi-Maru” sounded unmistakably Japanese-Earthling, as if to further insist that this story had useful applications on our own planet.) The K-M is a no-win scenario designed to test potential officers’ mettle under stress; only Captain Kirk has ever avoided simulated death-by-Klingons in the exercise. Saavik, after her own nerve-rattling defeat, asks Kirk how he did it, and he admits: He cheated. He hacked the computer before the test and reprogrammed the parameters to make it beatable.

This sounds a lot like independent filmmaking. The system, wherein thousands upon thousands of aspiring auteurs compete against each other desperately for limited resources, is not designed to accommodate the triumph of an individual vision—yours or anyone’s. So like Kirk, you have to pull a cheat, a hack. The easiest and best hack is to have unfettered access to extreme wealth. Failing that, more creativity and elbow grease are required, not to mention endless favors from friends and new friends. The good news is that the system can indeed be circumvented. The bad news is that, like Captain Kirk, you’ve still never really taken the test. You’ve gotten away with something once, and in doing so, may have opened a door or two in the film industry. But you still don’t know if you can survive once you step inside—and unless your hack is somehow self-replenishing or limitless, you can only avoid that step for so long. Behind the door lie beasts far worse, and more wrathful, than Khan.

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