The lineage of American cinema is as broad as it is historic. So often Hollywood’s thunder and flash draws the focus, and increasing ire, of the audience inhabited world beyond studio system walls and A-lister trailers. Yet, despite such a rich and iconic pedigree resonating throughout the last hundred years of filmmaking, big budget blockbuster spectacles no longer stand alone, teetering atop the silver screen mountain.
The perilous nature of Hollywood’s expensive balancing act – roughly $100 million to make the movie, another $100 million to market the movie – and the unavoidable flops that accompany the highly profitable successes, are largely responsible for the proliferation and diversification of filmmaking and once obscure filmic genres – genres and styles which typically fall under the banner of ‘indie’. Today, positive factors in enabling this new age of independent, creative inclusivity include the availability of digital filmmaking and editing equipment. However, as with the music industry and the multi-billion dollar plummet off a cliff it took thanks to illegal downloads, the ability to repeatedly pump out bank-busting feature films just isn’t feasible anymore.
Those aforementioned technologies and their availability have allowed the stylistic elements of indie and Hollywood to draw ever closer to one another; today, tech savvy directors can make beautiful, beguiling things in their bedrooms. The success stories of directors who went it alone, without the financial cushioning and overbearing coddling of major studios, piqued the attention of executives and producers; resulting in the divide between Hollywood and the indies growing smaller than ever before. Yet, regardless of the positives and negatives, artistic merits or lack thereof, of today’s indie scene, the movement is alive, well and more ingrained within cinema than ever before.
Indie could be identified through its fondness for disturbing surrealism, extreme violence, and erudite social commentary delivered with the force of a baseball bat to the face.
Tarantino’s undeniably stylish throwback noir took a classical heist premise and repurposed it with his now trademark fast-talking dialogue and hyper-violence. The picture possessed a brutality and ambition that would not only set tongues wagging and ears bloodily flopping to the floor in 1992, but influence cinema to this day; a distinctly indie success story that was penned by the eccentric auteur in two weeks whilst under the influence of the malaise of a dead-end job. However Tarantino’s debut tour-de-force also marked the beginning of the end for a specific style of indie filmmaking.
Many indie directors came before Tarantino and his contemporaries, directly influencing their output: Romero, Lynch, Raimi, and Lee to name but a few. The indie flicks of the late-eighties and early-nineties focused their narratives upon sex, lies, and the b-movie videotape collection which rested on the basement shelving unit or behind the black curtain in the local video store. Indie could be identified through its fondness for disturbing surrealism, extreme violence, and erudite social commentary delivered with the force of a baseball bat to the face.
As we sped toward the new millennium with hope in our hearts and great, unknown tragedies upon the distorted horizon, the rise of directors such as the Coens, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant highlighted a step away from this extremeness. Postmodern lyricism, and, especially in the case of the Coens’ rugged body of work and Wes Anderson’s vivid nu-new wave, a surreal kookiness would begin to shape American independents. Van Sant’s, My Own Private Idaho, had already cast a cult spotlight upon Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix.
American independent is a landscape without borders, limitations, and also the home of thousands of unique voices.
As cattle sheds crashed to the floor and River succumbed to a Viper Room speedball, American independent began to play with minor chords and wounded melodies, both onscreen and off. Van Sant later crystallised America’s fear and confusion in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings with, Elephant; a troubling and enigmatic film influenced by video games and English director Alan Clarke’s cold and calculating imagery.
21st century indie continued to soften and concentrate upon establishing a far more understated form of visual storytelling indebted to filmmakers such as Terrence Malick – the poignant cinema of David Gordon Green proving a key example. Perhaps the violent imagery of a heavily mediated ‘reality’ that surrounds us daily has not only desensitised audiences to such scenes but produced a fatigue that could only be remedied with delicacy and moments of emotional intensity and romantic melancholia.
Fleeting movements such as Mumblecore, categorised by its low production values and emphasis of youthful romance, naturalism and improvised dialogue, encapsulated the awkward longing of a generation – only to have its stars and sentiments consumed by Hollywood’s gravitational pull. Mumblecore undoubtedly influenced today’s intellectual rom-com indie. Noah Baumbach’s, Frances Ha, situating the movement’s finest export, Greta Gerwig, at the forefront of his contemporary Brooklyn fairy-tale.
The United States of America is a country built upon a vibrant groundwork of immigration; this same sense of diversity pulsates throughout its independent cinema as the European and its art-house temperament infiltrated the affections of American filmmakers and audiences in the same manner that Americana now courses through the neon, gas-guzzling arteries of European filmmakers such as Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive).
American independent is far too vast, too big, bad, and beautiful to quantify within a single feature. From the hardboiled Hong Kong cinema that proved so influential upon Tarantino – so much so that he directly lifted imagery from films such as Ringo Lam’s, City on Fire – to the home-grown, heartbroken hipsters of NYC, American independent is a landscape without borders, limitations, and also the home of thousands of unique voices – all possessing a myriad of influences, while inspiring a new generation of filmmakers and movie lovers.
I was asked to chart American independent cinema, I tried, but ultimately failed. There’s no beginning, and no end, just one great, ceaseless journey.