By Anthony Kaufman
With the Sundance Film Festival only a few weeks away, now is the time to reflect on what independent film is truly about: party-crashing, Paris Hilton sightings and multi-picture deals. If Sundance once typified the heart of indie film – precious dramas about the plight of Hispanic immigrants or a young awkward teenager coming-of-age – the preeminent winter film festival also exemplifies what's gone wrong with it: $50,000 Celebrity Gift Bags, sponsor CESAR Canine Cuisine, and blackberry-tapping Hollywood agents aglow with blue light during the world premiere of a new film directed by Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth).
It's a little too easy to hate on Sundance. It's not the fest's fault that Hollywood's descended upon it like a vulture to carrion. When the media industry sees what it likes, it can't resist the impulse to suck it up and spit it out, whether Grunge music, kid-lit bestsellers or 1980s TV shows. Indie film is no different.
Let's blame Hollywood, then, for cultivating a culture of commodification and major paydays wherever it reaches its long, slick and slimy tentacles. But that doesn't mean we can't put fault on filmmakers, too.
Take two recent breakout
Sundance and indie-film phenomena: "Hustle and Flow" (2005) and "Little
Miss Sunshine" (2006). If, for the sake of argument, independent film is
independent from Hollywood, then why were two of the most high-profile
films to come out of the festival in recent years so similar to studio
films? With their formulaic underdog plots, charismatic protagonists,
standard filmmaking technique and triumphant conclusions (however tinged
with a bit of irony), "Hustle and Flow" and "Little Miss Sunshine"
reflect the Hollywood-ization of indie film from the inside out. Easily
digestible, these movies make even pimps, whores, and suicidal
depressives the sort of fun-loving people that everyone can enjoy. (For a
classic counterpoint, check out Kenji Mizoguchi's "Life of Oharu" or
for a more contemporary take, there's Eric Steel's recent devastating
documentary about San Francisco bridge suicides "The Bridge." Needless
to say, neither feature rousing musical numbers.)
After all, "Little Miss Sunshine" was originally set up at one of the Hollywood studio divisions anyway, before it ended up back in their laps. A few years before in 2003, Peter Hedge's dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dramedy "Pieces of April" was in the same boat: Though originally conceived as a studio division project, the movie was tossed out on the streets, then made independently, and then acquired at Sundance by the same studio at Sundance in headline-grabbing fashion ("UA Picks Up 'Pieces' for $4+ Mil"). And with overtly sentimental touch-points and a sitcom-like array of racially diverse, quirky supporting characters, it's no wonder. "Pieces of April" is about as "indie" in spirit as a holiday episode of "Will & Grace."
Maybe we should blame "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the most successful independent film of all time (not counting "The Passion of the Christ"). A big-hearted conventional romantic comedy that traffics in every Hollywood cliché in the book, "Greek Wedding" was less a triumph of independent cinema as a victory for long-hackneyed movie and sitcom tropes finding their way into low-budget film, from the conservative overbearing father to the cantankerous grandmother to the love that breaks all borders theme. It's worth noting that "Greek Wedding" director Joel Zwick had a long established career in television, from "Laverne & Shirley" to "Bosom Buddies" to "Full House." We can quibble about the definition of independent film until our tongues go dry, but TV sitcoms, no matter how one spins it, are not the template.
And neither are network TV dramas, Mr. Paul Haggis. The acclaimed writer-director of surprise "indie" Oscar-winner "Crash," Haggis began his career writing for shows like "thirtysomething," "L.A. Law" and "Family Law," and arguable not much has changed about his style and substance since relocating to the world of independent film. Despite the number of audiences and critics who praised "Crash," the film is the kind of simplistic, sentimental agency-packaged star-studded junk that one day should be relegated to the discount DVD video-store bin. Fiercely committed acting aside, "Crash" is filled with forced, shorthand trickery to create hollow statements about race without a shred of humanity at its core, with resolutions coming fast and furious -- sprain your ankle, heal your prejudices, hug your Hispanic maid.
This is what happens when mainstream – that's not independent – choices and modes infests and corrupts the character-driven low-budget movies that once dared to be different from NBC primetime.
In the 1990s, Good Machine, the New York based film company, cultivated the work of visionary American directors (Hal Hartley, Todd Solondz, Ang Lee, Todd Haynes) and produced a handful of indie touchstones ("Simple Men," "Happiness," "The Wedding Banquet," "Safe"). In 2002, the company was co-opted by Hollywood and transformed into Focus Features, a specialty arm of Universal Pictures, where the only director to remain from the Good Machine days is Ang Lee. As a studio unit, Focus has done a laudable job of making some well-crafted mid-budget films, from Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" and Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" to David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and Joe Wright's "Atonement."
But however celebrated, these films lack the edge, excitement and experimental boldness that defines the truly independent film. Except for the occasional scenes (Viggo Mortensen's fully naked bathhouse fight scene in "Promises"; a stunning wartime tracking shot in "Atonement"), the films are conventional mainstream entertainments meant to crossover into as wide an audience as possible. Some say this is a sign of the growth of independent film. But it's also the gravestone that marks its potential demise.