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Young filmmakers refuse to play it safe

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2004


"Ray" and "Shark Tale" have a lot of differences. But in one crucial way they're as similar as can be: They tap into conventional patterns of Hollywood screen storytelling.

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Every plot twist, character trait, and line of dialogue comes straight from the Screenwriting 101 playbook. So do their basic themes, from sibling problems to the power of celebrity.

If you and I ran a major Hollywood studio, we'd probably play it just as safe, sticking with modest variations of time-tested formulas.

But independent filmmaking has become an important force, allowing for human-scaled productions with no moguls or bosses calling the shots. A number of these debuted at the Toronto Film Festival earlier in the fall.

With occasional exceptions, such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ," even the most profitable of these pictures fall far short of the grosses earned by full-fledged studio productions. As the trade paper Variety reports, the DreamWorks animation "Shark Tale" pulled in almost $182 million in its first three weeks. By contrast, the Utah-made teenpic "Napoleon Dynamite" earned around $40 million in more than 19 weeks.

Without those little pictures, though, there would be no real alternative to Hollywood fare. So it's encouraging as well as important that a growing number of mostly young mavericks are keeping the indie scene alive - not only making movies, but pushing and promoting them until they actually arrive in theaters.

Once there, the films may not flourish. "If anything," says Harvey Karten, director of the New York Film Critics Online association, "the moviegoing public seeks films of lesser challenge than ever before, with oddball pics like 'Primer' and 'Tarnation' shown only in a few sophisticated urban centers." This contrasts with earlier periods of cinema history, Dr. Karten adds. "German Expressionism of the 1920s embraced a bigger break from traditional fare."

"Think of the 1920 masterwork 'The Golem,' from which less challenging features like dumbed-down 'Frankenstein' evolved," he says.

Still, it's worth noting the healthy number of unconventional features now playing. Examples include David Gordon Green's dark "Undertow," about a Southern man on the run from a murderous relative; Jonathan Caouette's documentary "Tarnation," a confessional account of the filmmaker's life; Shane Carruth's fantasy "Primer," a prizewinner at the Sundance Film Festival last winter; David O. Russell's philosophical "I * Huckabees," about "existential detectives" and their clients; and Alexander Payne's happy-sad "Sideways," a superbly acted comedy-drama that cements Mr. Payne's reputation as a skyrocketing directorial star.

A big asset of individualistic filmmakers like these is newfangled technology, which allows them to sidestep cookie-cutter effects without raising their budgets too high.

"I * Huckabees" has visual moments as dreamlike as anything in a "Matrix" movie, but you rarely get the sense that Mr. Russell is relying on exotic (and expensive) images for their own sake.

The amount Mr. Carruth spent on "Primer" was $7,000 or so, less than pocket money for the average Hollywood production. And that's untold riches compared with "Tarnation," which Mr. Caouette reportedly made for an absurdly low $218.32, using the iMovie computer program to organize film and video snippets he'd been saving since he was 11.

What makes directors like these not just clever but audacious is their willingness to "monkey with structure," as film essayist Phillip Lopate puts it.