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January 2, 2006

Where is Independent Cinema?

Reading Andrew O'Hehir's "Top Ten Indies" article for Salon, I wish I could revise my own Top Ten list that I dashed together yesterday in a post-MLA convention, post-New Years hangover. I'd almost certainly replace one film from my list with Jia Zhangke's 2004 film, Shijie (The World), which would actually screen quite nicely in a double-feature with Jem Cohen's Chain. O'Hehir's list also mentions three or four films that I wish I'd had a chance to see, most notably Ingmar Bergman's Saraband, which hit theaters in DC while I was out of town and disappeared from theaters before I had a chance to see it.

But I didn't write this entry merely to criticize my own list-making or implicit canon formation. Instead, I was intrigued by O'Hehir's discussion of the precarious status of indie cinema (or maybe a certain brand of indie cinephilia) today. O'Hehir points out the difficult marketplace for independent films today, observing that few indie films are given the opportunity to develop an audience gradually by playing for several weeks in order to garner favorable reviews (one high-profile exception here might be Michael Tucker's Gunner Palace, which was screened for art-house and military audiences for several weeks before screening widely).

O'Hehir points to one of the major problems confronting indie today, the fact that films come and go so quickly, in part because of the large number of films competing for a small number of screens. But I also detect some nostalgia creeping in when he discusses the lack of a "cultural imperative" to see films by certain filmmakers ("Who knew what Fellini and Truffaut were earning at the box office? Nobody knew, and nobody cared"). The implication is that the competitive market stifles the cinematic auteur, while films with a hook (the penguin movie, the gay cowboy movie) get the hype and the audiences. And to suggest that "nobody cared" whether Godard and Truffaut's movies made money isn't entirely fair. After all, somebody had to pay the bills. But I'm also suspicious of the idea that seeing a Godard or Truffaut film (or a Bergman or Fellini film, for that matter) was a "cultural imperative." For what audiences were these films "cultural imperatives?" I ask this question not out of a cinematic populism, but instead wonder how widely these films were seen and who might be included in defining a "cultural imerative" film. In this regard, what's happening with indie might be understood in terms of a continued decline in a certain mode of cinephilia.

In this regard, today's indie culture in which more people have access to more choices seems a bit more inclusive. And it might be worth considering what it means that people are choosing to see films based on "buzz" rather than on a filmmaker's signature (it can't be entirely negative that one of the most discussed films of the year is that "gay cowboy" movie). And, of course, it's worth noting that the role of reviewers and academics in cultural taste-making will continue via ten-best lists and introduction to film courses. While scholars such as Andrew Sarris (to name one example) were instrumental in cultivating an audience for European filmmakers and filnding value in Hollywood auteurs, film bloggers and film professors continue that work, even if our approach is no longer guided by the aura of the director.

These comments didn't really take the direction that I expected. O'Hehir's analysis of the precarious state of indie does point out the degree to which the existence of indie depends so heavily on "industrial" factors.

Thanks to Ann for the link to O'Hehir's article.

Posted by chuck at January 2, 2006 10:29 AM

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