American films may be embarking on their most adventurous period in ages.
Consider the unconventional films that showed up as Oscar nominees last month, such as best screenplay and film editing candidate "Memento," a fragmented story told backwards by an amnesiac hero; and screenplay nominee "Ghost World," about three people who don't feel at home in everyday life.
Also on Oscar ballots for its screenplay was "The Royal Tenenbaums," with its whimsical illustrations and subtly skewed portrait of a New York City where ubiquitous gypsy cabs take you to streets that never existed.
Yes, they were nominated for lesser awards. But even top-line categories found room for eccentric films. "Moulin Rouge," a contender for best picture, is closer to a music-video fever dream than to an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. And incorrigible maverick David Lynch found himself in the best-director race for "Mulholland Drive," a mind-spinning hallucination if ever there was one.
In bygone years, movies this unusual rarely found their way to neighborhood theaters, much less the Academy Award sweepstakes. Mr. Lynch's legendary "Eraserhead" reached its audience exclusively through big-city midnight shows, for instance.
When offbeat films did cross into the mainstream, they usually came from art-minded European and Asian directors concerned more with aesthetics than with ticket sales. Some see a new breed of American directors and screenwriters, giving a boost to unconventional filmmaking and changing the course of mainstream moviegoing.
More evidence comes from the surprisingly high profile of American movies such as "Waking Life," a philosophical fantasy made with innovative animation techniques, and Best Cinematography nominee "The Man Who Wasn't There," which defies the conventional Hollywood wisdom that shooting in black-and-white is box-office poison.
A recent poll of movie critics by New York's influential Village Voice newspaper, naming the best achievements of 2001, confirms the trend. The list included a remarkably high number of unorthodox American pictures alongside the international art films that cinephiles like these normally gravitate toward. Among them were "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a postmodern musical, and "L.I.E.," about a sinister child molester.
None of this means that standard-issue Hollywood productions are going out of style. Multiplex marquees and studio-advertising blitzes are still dominated by big-budget entertainments, and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. A look at this year's Oscar winners shows movies based on time-tested formulas, from the crooked-cop exploits of "Training Day" to the fantasy adventures of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." "A Beautiful Mind," though comparatively adventurous, blends standard biopic conventions with plot devices that proved their mettle and popularity in "The Sixth Sense" three years ago.
Even an unconventional Hollywood thriller like the currently screening "Panic Room" bends few of the film industry's time-honored rules. It does have a single setting and a small five-character cast, but at heart it's no more daring than innumerable suspense pictures of the past. That's because major stars and glossy photography don't come cheap, and studios rarely take chances when real money is at stake.
Independents work on a smaller scale, though, and this appears to be encouraging a higher degree of experimentation. Film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate traces the recent crop of innovative films to hits like "Pulp Fiction," "The Matrix," and "The Usual Suspects," which attracted vast audiences despite unconventional styles.
He likens the best current American filmmaking to the 1960s in France, when New Wave directors revolutionized the cinematic rule book and had a huge impact on Hollywood with edgy stories and jagged editing techniques.
He also says the trend is here to stay, noting that the future filmmakers in the college screenwriting classes he teaches at Hofstra University in Heapstead, N.Y., are fascinated with novel approaches especially ones that twist stories into unconventional shapes and combinations.
"They all want to monkey with structure," he says.
One reason is that young people often bring similar mindsets to movies and pop music.
They're happy to watch a film in a multiplex and then experience it in a different, less linear way with their VCR or DVD player, enjoying its overall look and atmosphere more than its moment-to-moment logic.
Another factor is the love of irony and parody that pervades today's youth culture, puncturing the pomposity of self-important Hollywood productions.
"A movie like 'A Beautiful Mind' has a large, noble story to tell," Mr. Lopate explains. By contrast, Todd Solondz's recently released "Storytelling" has "two mean, ridiculous stories to tell," and "The Usual Suspects" has "a story to tell that's a pack of lies." Movies like these have stronger appeal to young people the movie world's most coveted demographic and may represent the wave of the future.
Of course, not everyone agrees that risk-taking American movies are having a renaissance. Screenwriter Tom Topor, who has Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning drama "The Accused" among his credits, finds many independent movies stuck in predictable grooves, reflecting a "Hollywood in miniature" mentality. "They're either about growing up on the mean streets or having romantic catastrophes," Mr. Topor says, "just as they've always been."
What has become a new factor is the "growing opportunity to make movies with a new set of tools," he says.
The increasing use of digital video "is letting more and more people get into the game. You may not be able to raise half a million dollars to make a movie, but you can probably raise $20,000." (See above story on unknowns who make movies on the cheap.)
This affects mainstream productions, as well. "They're making [the A&E Network drama] '100 Centre Street' on digital video," Topor points out, "at a fifth of the regular network costs and it's a terrific TV show."
Savvy observers know that the line between Hollywood and independent filmmaking is far from solid. "The Royal Tenenbaums" comes from Walt Disney Pictures, after all, and Lynch originally made "Mulholland Drive" as the pilot for an ABC miniseries in the "Twin Peaks" vein. But the network "hated it," as Lynch told me at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. It would have died on the vine if French sources hadn't stepped in with money to shoot additional scenes and morph it into a theatrical feature.
Film festivals have become a key launching pad for movies that don't fit snugly into mainstream pigeonholes, generating the buzz and anticipation that Hollywood pictures build through huge promotional campaigns.
Richard Peña, program director of the closely watched New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, sees growing enthusiasm for offbeat American movies like "Waking Life," "Storytelling," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Mulholland Drive," all of which played in his festival's selective lineup.
"In the past few years," he asserts, "there has clearly been greater acceptance on the part of American audiences for works that are challenging [in structure] as well as in subject matter. "Audiences hopefully are tiring of the tried-and-true ways of making films," Mr. Peña says, "and rediscovering the many possibilities for expression the medium has always had to offer."