(17/04/08) – The question as to what ‘independent cinema’ means at this day and age is the starting point for D. K. Holm’s illuminating guide to the label, simply called Independent Cinema and out on Kamera Books. The question is pertinent because what we call ‘independent cinema’ can, in theory, include George Lucas’ Star Wars series as well as Lonelygirl15 on YouTube. In both cases, the films were independently produced from big studios, therefore worth of the indie label.
First, some history: the phrase indepedent cinema as we use it these days got into the film world’s vocabulary around 1977 to refer to movies made outside the ‘confines of traditional financing’ as Holm says, and ‘distributed by companies that were not aligned to the big Hollywood studios’. It was Harvey and Bob Weinstein, formerly from Miramax, that started to employ the word ‘independent’ as a marketing tool.
It is a patchy historiography indeed, especially when you take into account the screen efforts of cross-over artists such as Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith and Maya Deren, who perhaps belong more firmly in the ‘art’ world, but who made their biggest artistic marks using the camera as their tool. The fact is, independent cinema is probably a broader universe than Hollywood itself, which Kohm wisely defines as both a place and a state of mind.
Perhaps what independent cinema means to contemporary audiences is a type of narrative film; films from the art world, often non-narrative, now are called ‘artist’s films’ while the arthouse label has become more vague over the last few years. Some argue that aeathetics is what defines this type of narrative cinema: the way a story is told, the themes it contains, how these are dealt with and the emphasis on character rather than plot, etc. In short, the willingness to reinvent the rules of story-telling. This is the view of Jill Sprecher (director of Clockwatchers, 1999 and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, 2003), whose interview is one of the highlights in the book as it is rich with witty remarks and laid-back humour.
Sprecher, who works with her sister Karen, says: "For me, the distinction [between independent and studio films] is not simply financial; it’s more about form and content. If a movie breaks some rules, or focuses on subject matter that might not seem obvious, or features characters that have been marginalised… that is the hallmark of independence". Precher surely put these precepts into practice with her charming and ingeniously cobbled together, a ‘web of life’ type of movie that gradually reveals the silent connections between the characters, and the effects that those connections had on them. It runs counter all that Hollywood preaches in terms of narrative rules but most importantly, it’s a film that glows with humanity and compassion.
Other interviewees include the Canadian Guy Maddin (director of The Saddest Music in the World, a unique case of fierce aesthetic independence) and Bilge Ebiri, director of New Guy, who doubles as movie critic. These interviews give the book a conversational tone that makes for lighter read; it’s always instigating to hear the people we admire to theorise about their own work and the industry they’re in.
And any writing on independent cinema wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the efforts of those behind the scenes, who create opportunities for films to be screened while also educating the public about alternatives to the mainstream. The book includes a DVD documentary about Amos Vogel, an Austrian expatriate who relocated to New York after the war and founded one of the most influential film societies in America, Cinema 16.
Independent Cinema is out now on Kamera Books. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.