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Indie frenzy

It's the best of times and the worst of times for independent film


I hate one thing more than censorship, and that's commercialism. When somebody does something for a buck, I think they're not artists. I just loathe them and I hate them and I think they're cocksuckers.

-- Director John Cassavetes

There's a good chance that if John Cassavetes were alive today, he wouldn't be celebrating the current state of independent film.

Despite the lack of critical and financial rewards, Cassavetes was an independent filmmaker (Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence) before that term was co-opted as a corporate label for every soul-patched kid with a movie camera. Independent filmmaking has since become big business, the province of directors unwilling to mouth off, take artistic risks or make films for the pure pleasure of creation for fear that they might spoil a potential distribution deal.

Even the word "independent" has been expanded outrageously, along with the once-potent term "cutting-edge," to endow any film with a degree of cinematic street cred. What once described movies made outside the Hollywood studio system can now include eight-digit budgets, small films made with major Hollywood stars and any number of other big money permutations. '

Brian Newman is executive director of IMAGE Film & Video Center, one of Atlanta's epicenters of support for independent production and host of the Atlanta Film Festival. For him, the best definition of what indie means these days is an intuitive one. "The old 'I know it when I see it,'" he says.

The problem is, with the proliferation of indie filmmaking, it's increasingly difficult to wade through the slush pile of product to get to the good stuff.

A number of factors have led to this epic growth in the independent cinema. Cable venues like the Independent Film Channel, the Sundance Channel and HBO now bring independent, foreign and documentary features to a far wider audience. Film festivals are plentiful, and their existence encourages more and more filmmakers to create work to fill their schedules.

There has been a profound shift in the perception of film's cultural importance as well. With the acceptance of film as a legitimate form of academic study, both film theory and film production programs now abound. Film has replaced literature in many peoples' minds as the primary expressive form. Where twentysomethings once longed to write the great American novel, now they long to put inspiration to celluloid.

And the actual tools required for making films have never been more readily available. The technology of digital video has put filmmaking within almost anyone's reach. DV cams and editing tools like Final Cut Pro have democratized an aspect of filmmaking that was once exorbitantly expensive. The inspirational example set by the short-lived but philosophically crucial Dogme 95 movement proved an additional inspiration. This loose coterie of filmmakers (including Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg) promised -- in a humorously rigid set of rules designed to achieve a state of pure cinema -- to bring back filmmaking's authenticity and integrity. They provided a convincing argument that provocative films could be made with a minimum of effects. The only thing left out of the Dogme rules was the stipulation that access does not equal talent.

Karen Cooper has been programming independent cinema at the landmark Film Forum theater in Manhattan since 1972, back in the day of Andy Warhol and other underground filmmakers. She once sorted through hundreds of films a year, but after the mid-'80s and the growth in home video and cable, those numbers bloated into the thousands. Unfortunately, an increase in indie film production has not signaled a boom in great or subversive filmmaking.

"It has been used by people who really see independent film as a stepping stone to Hollywood," says Cooper, "and see a low-budget feature as a calling card for a high-gross budget feature. It's a shame."

Newman echoes Cooper's observation, noting that while the indie scene often can seem to be a festival of riches, an entrenched conservatism persists in the kind of films being made. One important caveat persists, says Newman: "If you make anything outside certain parameters, you will still have a hard time getting funding, distribution or recognition."

Call it the Cassavetes effect. Thumb your nose at the industry, make films that ramble, offend and take chances, use words like "cocksucker," and you will not necessarily be invited over to the Weinsteins for dinner.

"When a film like George Washington can get on every top 10 list by major critics and not secure wide distribution, something is still wrong with the world," says Newman. "The indie landscape has changed such that [Jim] Jarmusch's Down By Law or the Coen brothers' Blood Simple would have trouble getting financed or distributed in today's marketplace."

Thankfully, there is an upside to all the indie hype. As indie becomes a hipper and hipper buzzword, more and more audiences become interested in the phenomenon, and more and more theaters may be willing to host festivals, take chances and look beyond the usual multiplex fare.

The indie phenomenon has created a whole new audience of risk-takers, guerrilla filmgoers who favor surprise over predictability. In such a cautious consumer culture, some people want something they haven't already seen a dozen trailers for -- and the unexpected, inspirational thrill of finding a gem amidst the rubble. Because while Hollywood generally offers a consistently identifiable product, the film festival traffics in the unknown. Viewers know what they are going to get when they see Spider-Man or The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. But with a festival film, one never knows. That kind of gambling fuels both the indie filmmakers who continue to make a difference despite corporate incursions, and audiences who would rather venture into the unknown than respond to the Pavlovian bells of focus-group-driven Hollywood releases. And for that brief week when a festival is in full swing, film as an art form and as a community pursuit, seems to matter again.

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