American independent film is dead. So says Anthony Kaufman in a recent issue of the Village Voice, anyway. But there's something irritating and stale about the argument that begs a counter-argument: Yes, the scene that flourished from the mid-80s to the mid-90s has undergone radical changes, certainly not all of them for the better. In the ongoing realignment of the cinematic stratosphere, though, "Indiewood" thrives -- but only as the second-most interesting stratum.
The top layer, at least in terms of visibility, would, of course, be Hollywood, which itself has evolved so drastically in the era of globalization we might as well throw up air quotes every time we conjure the name. Or call it something else entirely, as Newsweek did when it auditioned a new moniker: Globowood. The blockbusters that are currently churning up the biggest box office summer in history are not only aimed at global audiences, they depend on foreign talent and foreign investment to get made at all.
What's more, the movies themselves primarily serve as both an excuse and an advertisement for the franchise; they're only one product in a long line that includes toys, soundtracks, clothing, the whole loot shaken out of the vertically integrated multinational corporate hydra. Ironically, even as Hollywood contemplates seceding from Los Angeles to become a distinct spot on the map in a way it hasn't been since 1910, the identity of that actual spot is evaporating. As Rana Foroohar writes in that Newsweek article, "None of last year's Academy nominees for best picture was filmed in California, and the majority are likely to make most of their money abroad." But: "[Hollywood's] death as a place has ensured its life as a global institution."
On to level two, the indies. Kaufman's declaration of death falls into that familiar category of similar pronouncements that only seem to revive the supposedly deceased. You know, the death of art, the death of God, all that. Utterly ignored by the likes of net.artists and radical Islamists, for starters. And this one isn't even new, as Kaufman writes himself: "The death of American independent film has been prophesied more than once over the last few years, but..." But Universal Studios' acquisition of indie film company Good Machine in early May is supposed to have hammered that proverbial last nail.
To be fair, Kaufman's argument is loaded with legitimate complaints, though many of them, as he admits, are at least a decade old: Indie filmmakers aren't out to make art anymore, for example. Gone are the good old days when Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and Spike Lee were the new kids on the block, maxing out credit cards on the conviction that a film had to be made for its own sake, not for the sake of a career.
The kids these days, all they care about is getting one "soft and lightweight" feature under their belts so they can go to work for Sony, Vivendi Universal or AOL-Time Warner. To get that feature done, they need to put together a package with at least one well-known face on the wrapping, and that "often pushes budgets past $8 million." Getting that kind of money raised is going to mean trading in more than a little independence. Then, there's the festival circuit, culminating with the inevitable climb up Mt. Sundance, and if the skies clear and the gods smile, the prize: distribution, press (good or bad) and the phone call from LA. Or New York. Or wherever.
The point is, with strict regard to the specific scene that Kaufman has been following and writing about for the Voice, indieWIRE, etc., for years has been coopted, for better and worse. The "worse" part we've covered; getting an "independent" film made and seen has become a drill as relentless and suffocating as anything the old Hollywood studio system of the early 20th century had to offer. The "better" part: Scan the list of Oscar winners and nominees over the past few years, and you find it littered with names and titles from the indie realm. Cooptation or infiltration? It's a glass-half-empty, half-full kind of thing.
Whether you're celebrating or mourning, them's the breaks. Indie film has been kicked upstairs. But that's where the really good news comes in: There's room at the bottom. And just as it's opened up, there's a whole new set of tools making it easier, and most importantly, cheaper than ever to stroll in on the ground floor.
Alexandra Pelosi and the star of her "home movie"
Case in point: Alexandra Pelosi, a TV network reporter who probably never intended to become a filmmaker per se, ended up making one of the most entertaining and talked about flicks of 2001 with a lightweight Sony digital camera and an editing program running on the computer in her apartment. Period. The means of production were so modest, Pelosi insisted at the premiere that Journeys With George is not a "film" but a "home movie". Reviewers, who for the most part have raved, don't care what she calls it.
Granted, Pelosi's luck in terms of location and cast makes her documentary on George W. Bush's campaign for the presidency kind of exceptional, but a lot of films are kind of exceptional, only in different ways. Pelosi is only a part of what Lee Gardner of the Baltimore City Paper calls the New Documentary Boom ignited by digital video.
And it's not just docs. Once an established filmmaker like Mike Figgis became even more established when his film Leaving Las Vegas scored an Oscar and countless other awards, he could have punched the clock next on a comic book movie, or at least a star-studded weepy. Instead, intrigued by possibilities DV offered, he made Timecode, splitting the screen into four frames and challenging his stars, his audience and himself to entertain new thoughts about the medium. (This is another point missing from Kaufman's complaint: Not every hopeful filmmaker is dead set on a one-way stairway to Hollywood heaven.)
Nobodies don't have to go digital to break into filmmaking, either, but it helps. In that same issue of the Voice, Dennis Lim reports on a filmmaker, John Gianvito, who went down an indie path so old and worn there's a sheen of nostalgia about it. "Six years and 13 credit cards in the making," etc. But not every potentially great storyteller is in a position to make that kind of sacrifice. Even Gianvito points out that not having kids granted him the freedom to wade all but hopelessly into debt.
The low cost of DV holds out another hope as well. Kaufman quotes Good Machine co-founder James Schamus quoting himself (again) ten years ago: "Why can't we look at the Scorseses, Coppolas, Demmes, and De Palmas, and understand that these guys made a lot of movies before they became who they were. They didn't have to show up at Sundance and be the next Godard." Because you don't need $8 million to shoot a film on DV, you don't have to be the next Godard on your first, second or third shot at it.
And you don't have to poke around on the Net too far or too deep to stumble on a whole population of unknowns giving their first, second and third shots at Flash animations, digital shorts, parodies, episodic soaps, and yes, home movies. There's a whole generation out there ready to be coopted. Or to infiltrate with a vengeance.