Young filmmakers refuse to play it safe

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

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.

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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.

Their heroes appear to be experimental types like Paul Thomas Anderson, of "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" fame, and Quentin Tarantino, whose "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill" epics take wild risks with cinematic time, space, and logic.

"I * Huckabees" is a good example. It has several major characters: a corporate yuppie, a thoughtful firefighter, three "existential detectives," and an environmentalist who's mystified by coincidences involving an African man he keeps running into.

The film weaves them into a story that requires close attention, lest one misunderstand key story points - such as why Dustin Hoffman's face occasionally morphs into a sort of Rubik's Cube floating freely in the air.

With moneymakers like "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings" under his belt, Russell can attract A-list talents like Mr. Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, who play the detectives, and Jude Law, who portrays the yuppie. What's drawn attention to "I * Huckabees" is less its cast, however, than its off-the-wall ideas, many of them more offbeat than most major studios would want to back. Its main American distributor is Fox Searchlight Pictures, a "specialty" outfit.

"Primer" is a fantasy so intricate that it puzzles its own writer, director, and star, as I reported from the Toronto festival, where Carruth admitted his own uncertainties after a screening greeted with both cheering and head-scratching.

Moviegoers may not understand its tale of two time-machine inventors who can't figure out the details of their own gizmo. Carruth is banking on the notion that you'll enjoy the attempt, though - and so is ThinkFilm, the kind of distributor that Miramax used to be, hunting for unusual fare to serve moviegoers who've decided thinking about a movie can be as enjoyable as watching it.

"Tarnation," a sort of glorified home movie by a sort of dysfunctional genius, is an outpouring of Caouette's autobiography as captured in footage of himself, his family, and his friends.

It raises the longstanding ethical question of where to draw the line when revealing private moments - a line that many documentaries, from last year's "Capturing the Friedmans" to the 1975 classic "Grey Gardens," have been accused of transgressing. But cinematically, "Tarnation" is so flat-out unprecedented that even skeptics have been impressed.

One is Internet reviewer Gabriel Shanks, who slammed it as a "bloated ... arthouse version of a reality show," yet called it a "fascinating" movie all the same.

Love it or hate it, you must admit there's nothing else like it, and that puts Caouette squarely in the risk-taking vanguard. "Tarnation" is onscreen thanks to Wellspring, the company that brought us such unprecedented fare as Steven Soderbergh's bizarre "Schizopolis" and the Russian masterpiece "Russian Ark," among many others.

All the movies I've mentioned take more than their share of chances. And there are films just as daring now waiting in the wings: Todd Solondz's controversial "Palindromes," which uses multiple actresses to play the part of a badly confused adolescent, and Lodge Kerrigan's intense "Keane," which dissects the psyche of a grieving father.

These movies don't have distributors yet, but the high reputations of both directors - established by "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Clean, Shaven" respectively - mean they're likely to be in theaters soon.

If so, the adventures of adventurous filmmaking will continue.

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