The SXSW All-Stars: A New Ultra-Indie Movement

by Anthony Kaufman
March 13, 2007 1:31 AM
5 Comments
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Here, at the Austin film fest, now in its waning days, I am on the documentary jury. So it's probably unfair to write about the majority of the films I've seen. Outside of the docs, however, it's clear that SXSW has found its narrative niche: as a launchpad for the new lo-fi truly American indie, embodied by the likes of Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers -- all of whom are represented in one way or another at the fest. They are the hippest filmmaking posse in town.

When Greta Gerwig, the star of Swanberg's latest no-budget slacker romp "Hannah Takes the Stairs" was seen walking up Congress Ave. on Monday with big orange sunglasses, me and my friends gawked as if we had just caught a glimpse of Julia Roberts. She is the next indie princess, star of the Dupass' upcoming "Baghead," and the cute, adorably awkward, emotionally confused core of the likeable "Hannah." Watching the movie is like hanging out with a bunch of your friends -- that is, if your friends are all smart, white self-conscious 20-somethings. Which pretty much seems to define much of the SXSW crowd.

By all accounts, "Hannah" is Swanberg's most mature work, and it's easy to see why. Featuring an ensemble cast made up of Gerwig, who is also a playwright, and filmmakers Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair), Kent Osborne (Dropping Out), Ry Russo-Young (Orphans), and Todd Rohal (The Guatemelan Handshake), the film has a relaxed and intimate atmosphere that evolves naturally out of this likeminded creative group. The gang can also be seen in the wry festival trailers that precede all of SXSW's films -- sharp comic bits that reverberate nicely with "Hannah."

I haven't seen all of the films, but Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland" and "Dance Party USA" director Aaron Katz’s latest "Quiet City" also appear to fit into this new genre of Amer-indie, composed of refreshingly unpretentious portraits of lost young Americans on anti-depressants. Sundance has largely bypassed this movement, one that is far closer to the origins of '70s and '80s American indie cinema than just about anything in Park City's Dramatic Competition. The movies are ragged, honest, and completely unconcerned with commercial viability. It all almost makes you think you're 25 again.

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5 Comments

  • Sujewa | March 30, 2007 4:27 AMReply

    Hey Eric,

    The ultra-indies have already had a long run. Just a couple of days ago I read a recent panel discussion featuring Greg Araki & Jon Moritsugu & they were talking about making $5K 16MM features in the (i believe) late 80's/early 90's. And before them John Waters was making ultra low budget flicks, way outside of Hollywood. And other people were doing same before him. So on back to probably the earliest days of movie making, about 100 years ago.
    & let's not forget the early Af-Am filmmakers - Oscar Micheuax & the like - they had to be ultra indie 'cause Hollywood wouldn't have them. Unless everyone in the country gets massively rich all of a sudden or have quick access to Hollywood & indiewood production & distribution, there is always going to be ultra-indies - as far as I can tell. I am planning my next ultra/real/DIY/whatever :) indie flick right now.

    - Sujewa

  • Eric | March 27, 2007 7:18 AMReply

    Sujewa: You made a couple of real good points. While there are both good and bad Hollywood films, indies and ultra-indies, I tend to be attracted to the "low-tech" stuff, where the images might not be as sharp and the dialog might not be quite so clear. (I tend to like music on the low-fi side as well.) I remember recently reading something about how some people are against the move to Hi-Def video because it looks too clear and sharp, and that because of this clarity the imagination doesn't need to work so hard. (It's funny because I remember a similar argument about people preferring LPs to CDs because they sound too sterile.) This also makes me think of Walter Murch's book In The Blink of An Eye in which he compares film viewing to dreaming. To me a film "looking right" detracts from its dreamlike qualities. Realism is great for something like NFL Films - and even they use slow motion to add emotional texture - but if you want a viewer to feel something real, that must come from within the viewer, from his or her imagination. And in that case, clear sharp images or pristeen sound may actually do the viewer a disservice.
    I also like what you said about the entrepenuerial aspect of ultra-indie filmmaking. Taking the means of production and distribution into your own hands is a very empowering thing. While all filmmakers need to get their money from somewhere, having fewer strings attached to that money and indeed needing less money overall to complete a feature allows artists to be more daring. Granted, not all artisitc experiments will be successful (both aesthetically or monetarily) but when they are I believe the payoff is bigger.
    Here's hoping that the ultra-indies have a long and successful future.

  • Eric | March 21, 2007 9:12 AMReply

    I hear and understand Ed and Joel's "yawns" as well as Sujewa's passionate response to them. I think part of the misunderstanding is that Bujalski, Katz, the Duplass Brothers and Swanberg are just a small part of something much bigger that's developing. They get the bulk of the attention because they are easy to group together. They are young, talented and often have their friends act in their films. So, they make an interesting story from a journalistic prespective.
    But there's more going on than just that. There are other very talented, young, ultra-indie (I'm not a fan of that whole Mumblecore label) filmmakers like Frank V. Ross (Quietly On By), Aaron and Adam Nee (The Last Romantic), and of course Susan Buice and Arin Crumbly (Four-Eyed Monster). And there are filmmakers that are no longer in their 20s that I'd also group in the ultra-indie movement such as Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Caveh Zahedi (I am a Sex Addict). If you look beyond what gets most of the press attention, there is something much bigger developing, and it's not just about white males in their 20s.
    I am excited about the ultra-indie movement for two reasons: 1) These films offer an intimacy that is generally nowhere to be found in today's Sundance-style indies; and 2) Out of necessity, these filmmakers are forming a network that I believe will develop into a new avenue for distribution of films that otherwise would not reach the general public. So, although I understand Ed and Joel's skepticism, I'm just as excited as Sujewa about what's happening.
    And the appeal of the films of Bujalski, Swanberg, and co. goes beyond their 20-something peers. I'm 41 and I love 'em.

  • Sujewa | March 17, 2007 10:00 AMReply

    And Joel, what exactly does this mean?

    "But viewers have a responsibility to question the assumptions they are unconsciously making in their viewing habits, the political impact of those habits, and the politics involved in supporting so and so films and so and so filmmakers."

    How can viewers question something/a decision that they are unconciously making? They are not concious of it right?
    So who is to say that another person is doing something unconciously - something that requires making choices like watching a movie? And how would an observer know that a certain audience member chose something unconciously?

    People are not lacking in intelligence & awareness as they may often appear. They know what they are watching and why they are watching it, for the most part. And the power of movies to warp minds is often exaggerated (sp?).

    What exactly is a significant negative political impact of watching a movie like Mutual Appreciation? The resolution to not get a crush on your friend's girlfriend or maybe to do so? Not very much in the political sphere in that movie or for that matter most of the "mumblecore" (let's just say MC for short :) movies that i've seen or heard about.

    As far as I can see there are no significant politics involved in supporting no-budget indie comedies by new filmmakers where nothing much except small relationship moments happen. Certainly big stuff for the characters in the movies, but without much commentary or advocacy re: any wide social or political situations.

    remember, we are not talking about Iraq In Fragments or An Inconvienient Truth, we are talking about no budget amerindie comedies, entertainment, certainly art, but largely harmless to the progress of the world/good things.

    Or, watching "slacker" movies by "white" kids or any other kids is probably not a bad thing for most people. Might be dull for some at times, but hardly harmful in any deep & relevant sense.

    On the bright side, supporting ultra-low budget real indie films is supporting the notion that individuals can practice the making of movies/something mostly reserved for large/wealthy companies. individual expression (specially by relatively young & non-millionaire individuals/people who are relatively ordinary financially, as far as i know) through the most popular medium of entertainment of our time is, i think, a good thing to support. Indie films, real indie films, protect an important kind of or a valuable kind of speech - or maybe I should say that they are a tool for free speech. Indie films are devices related to the idea of freedom of speech & expression. If real indie films exist as an avenue of speech & are paid attention to in some manner by the media, that avenue can be used, at times, for facilitating very important, socially relevant, politically relevant discussions. So even if the MC movies so far are politically light, the fact that they exist & get press is a very hopeful & positive thing, as far as I can see. Just because they haven't done it yet, that does not mean the MC filmmaker dudes will not do it/will never use their medium to discuss ideas that are deemed significant by politically inclined people. It can definitely happen.

    Better stop now, before Anthony starts collecting rent from me for hanging out here a lot & going on & on about this topic :)

    - Sujewa

  • Ed | March 13, 2007 3:18 AMReply

    Yeah but they're also primarily about white kids secure enough to have a slacker life, aren't they? How "honest" is a movement--or its fans--that is so insular but is thought of so highly? Sure with unpretentiousness and unself-consciousness you can always say "Oh, they're not meant to be great art, we're just doing our thing." But come on now.

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