Unified Non-Conformity and Original Plagiarism

A year ago I posted a few brief thoughts on the Sundance Film Festival. Now, a year later, I still want to write an article on what makes a film “indie” or not. In some ways, it’s totally arbitrary (what makes a regularly-updated website a “blog?”), especially now that the “indie” label is being used (with some success) to promote films. Take for example Little Miss Sunshine, a winner at last year’s Sundance Festival, and Best Picture nominee at this year’s Oscars.

Sunshine had a reported $8 million budget, a cast of Hollywood A-listers that few studio films could muster, flavor-of-the-month directors, and a WGA screenwriter. It sounds like a studio picture, and it should, because it was green-lit, partially funded, and for much of its production owned by Focus Features, an LA-based distribution/production company that has made almost thirty Hollywood films in the last five years and released over seventy-five.

So, is Sunshine truly independent of the Hollywood machine? Is it independent of Hollywood’s ideals? It certainly fits the modern ideals previously displayed in the edgy-enough-to-be-indie but still establishment-made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Brokeback Mountain, also produced by Focus Features. Is “indie” perhaps a genre now, as opposed to a label for a film without Hollywood ties?

I was doing some half-hearted research on this disheartening subject when I found what is very nearly the article that I was planning to write. David Bordwell has written an excellent piece on the Sundance phenomenon and the indie plague, entitled Visionary Outlaw Mavericks on the Dark Edge, and it should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in moderm film.

Bordwell begins by referencing Time author Richard Corliss, who points out that the indie phenomenon, claiming to eschew cliche and bring fresh new content to the screen, has created a string of movies so predictable that that they are a genre in themselves. Bordwell has brilliantly named this genre Indie Guignol:

The central conceit of Indie Guignol is that to be creative in cinema you have to be dangerous. James Mottram’s book The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood is an informative overview of Indiewood, but too often it equates being a “maverick” and having a “vision” with an adolescent naughtiness… Producer Christine Vachon, who named her company Killer Films, likewise identifies creative energy with edginess.

And so, in an effort to create “dangerous” cinema, groups of people who think that shooting without a tripod is “artistic” began thinking that shock value is some kind of immoral imperative. In a forced effort to be anti-establishment warriors, the Indie Guignol supporters rebel against the “cliched happy ending,” the “formulaic three-act story,” and the “unrealistic moral hero” to churn out thousands of depressing, deliberately structureless movies filled with purposefully unlikable characters.

Very often the predictable nonconformist is just as orthodox as the conformist. Long before the sort of recyclings that Corliss identifies, unconventional moviemaking turned out to have its own conventions–unfulfilling or risky sex, pedophilia, damaged self-images, chancy links among the characters. More surprisingly, the daring indie film often trades on the same clichés that haunt program pictures and prestige items… Dark visions these films may have, but the landscapes and populations they reveal are pretty familiar.

It’s a very insightful article, filled with things that I wish I’d said, but there is one point that it doesn’t fully make: the line between the Hollywood feature and the indie freak-show is blurring. As audiences leave the theatres for their bigscreen tvs, home computers, and video games, the Studios are taking drastic measures to get them back. Buying into the hype about rebellious, dangerous film, Hollywood’s players are taking an oft-copied page from Indie Guignol, and this years Oscar nominees are a good example of that.

So yes, I suppose that Little Miss Sunshine could now be considered an “indie” film, despite it’s many connections to the Hollywood establishment. If a film tries to demonstrate that cynicism is sophistication, that perversion is progress, and that free-thinking originality is proven by copying all the other identical free-thinking original indie films ever made, then yep, I guess it’s an indie, through and through.

In other news, all genuinely independent filmmakers that want to tell actual stories and make real movies outside of Hollywood need a new name for their endeavors.