The 'indie' label as a catchall
'Independent films," or just "indies," have become a major talking point for reviewers and a powerful selling point for moviegoers - as the Sundance Film Festival, unfurling this week, reminds us each January with its focus on pictures made outside the Hollywood studios.Skip to next paragraph
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But what does "indie" really mean - assuming it means anything at all in this age of globalized mass media? Opinions are varied, as are the movies grouped in its ever larger tent.
"It certainly doesn't have much to do with budget any longer," says Peter Brunette, the Reynolds professor of film studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "Personal, idiosyncratic films can cost more than $50 million these days," he continues, "and a company like Miramax has been so successful in mainstream America that you can no longer [automatically] say what they put out is an 'independent' film. Independent of what?"
None of which means there's no such thing as indie cinema, Dr. Brunette adds. "You know it when you see it. Look at 'Garden State' and 'Tarnation' and 'You Can Count on Me,' to name a few. Independent cinema is alive and well. It only appears [otherwise] when an excellent but modest film gets overhyped at Sundance and has trouble competing financially with mall movies!"
Ray Carney, a Boston University professor who manages the Independent Film Pages at www.Cassavetes.com, has another take. "Like an Academy Award nomination," he says, "being called 'independent' has become a way to sell your movie - to make it seem more exciting, more out there, more original. It's been co-opted by the culture of salesmanship," he says.
Dr. Carney still sees the independent spirit at work, though, naming Su Friedrich, Mark Rappaport, Charles Burnett, and Todd Haynes among today's best exemplars. "Never heard of them?" he asks. "That's because part of working outside the system means being cut loose from the advertising and promotion that make other, unimportant filmmakers household names."
Independent filmmakers have their own views of what indie means.
"Cinema of Outsiders," a book by Emmanuel Levy, collects an assortment of opinions. "Independent film contains a populist rhetoric, against the system, against the grain," says James Mangold, who directed the offbeat "Heavy."
"I used to think it [meant] where the money comes from," says Nancy Savoca, director of "Household Saints," "but now it's about having a vision and a point of view."
Adds director Kevin Smith, of "Clerks" and "Dogma" fame, "What defines independent film is the question: Could this movie ever be made in a studio? If you say no, then that's an independent film."
Blurring this scenario is the fact that Hollywood studios now have "specialty" branches designed to find and distribute independently made features - which arrive in theaters decked with logos from studios that didn't actually produce them.