The term "independent film" refers to a mode of filmmaking as old as the cinema, its meaningful use going back at least to the founding of United Artists. Inextricably intertwined with the larger history of the medium, its product has ranged from the quirkily artistic to the crassly commercial, and spanned the full range of genres and styles. The independent film boom that began in the 1980s was propelled by the work of Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, whose 1989 hit Sex, Lies and Videotape established the market as we know it.
Nonetheless, for me the words conjure a very particular body of work by a very particular group of '90s-era filmmakers, directors like Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and Kevin Smith (Clerks), Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) and Doug Liman (Swingers), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) and Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men). I suppose this is because, in my totally subjective, unscientific impression of the field, they set the pattern for most of the product that was to follow. They have also had a greater effect than any of their colleagues on the style and content of studio releases than any of their cohorts--directly through their own, later studio-made films, and indirectly through the big studio filmmakers they influence in ways large and small--so that a great many studio releases also seem "independent" in this sense.1
The most characteristic products of this stream are movies about loser-slackers and frustrated creative types and dimwitted criminals, living at the bottom of the service sector (working in a video rental, perhaps), or the bottom of the media-entertainment complex (especially its film and publishing divisions), or the bottom of the underworld's hierarchy (running errands for small-time gangsters), with the plot typically having them navigating offbeat romances (no Harlequin protagonists, they), artistic endeavors (like trying to make a movie) and neo-noir intrigues (like fake kidnappings)--possibly all at the same time. All this is usually served up by writers and directors clearly eager to impress us with their worldliness and tough-mindedness; shock us with their outrageousness; stun us with their technical virtuosity.
Alas, it all translates to a lot of movies telling a very small number of stories, with the audience subjected to the same scenes over and over and over again (like the hero getting thrown out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend after the inevitable fight over his aimlessness), peppered with not-very-interesting "big thinks," especially about the subject of capital "R" relationships ("You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude . . ."); "quirky" dialogue-for-its-own-sake (What do they call a quarter-pounder-with-cheese in Belgium?); and ostentatious but pointless displays of cinematic technique typically on the wrong side of the thin line between rip-off and homage, and pop culture references as fast and furious as they are easy, and lazy exercises in metafiction (Swingers delivering all three in its evocations of Reservoir Dogs).
Needless to say, the attempt at worldliness merely demonstrates the narrowness of their concern and vision (reflected in the small range of their subject matter and attitude), the tough-mindedness is all posing, the shock mere tastelessness, the technical displays derivative and pretentious.2 And so instead of smart and cool and edgy, the filmmakers come off as alienated-but-not-very-bright adolescents wallowing in the cynicism and nihilism that come so easily to a would-be artistic type at that age, and frat boy pranksters at their meanest and grossest, and wimps talking big and hoping that will be enough to keep anyone from challenging them to a fight, while in their propensity to affirm the conventional wisdom by story's end despite all that, they also prove themselves awfully superficial and, well, conventional.
In fairness, this does reflect the fact that many of the filmmakers are young people making movies about characters not dissimilar from themselves (frustrated moviemakers making movies about frustrated moviemakers, etc.), and drawing on inspiration from work that speaks to them.3 However, it also suggests that far too many of them are not even trying to transcend their limitations, instead taking the path of least resistance, and so producing a great deal of material which is not merely mediocre, but lazy and stereotyped in exactly the way that independent film is not supposed to be, given the indie movement's raison d'etre of offering an alternative to commercial studio fare.
1. I cite as examples of the tendency toward this particular range of subject matter and sensibility such films as Gary Fleder's Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995), John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Quinton Peeple's Joyride (1996), Neil Mandt's Hijacking Hollywood (1997), Peter O'Fallon's Suicide Kings (1997), Robert Meyer Burnett's Free Enterprise (1998), Peter Berg's Very Bad Things (1998) and Valerie Breiman's Love & Sex (1999); Francois Velle's New Suit (2002), Danny Camden's Sol Goode (2003), David Rosenthal's See This Movie (2004), Rob McKittrick's Waiting . . . (2005), Peter Spears' Careless (2006), Paul Soter's Watching the Detectives (2007) and Marianna Palka's Good Dick (2008); and last year's hits Chronicle and Project X.
Where studio fare is concerned, one can find it in Martin Brest's Gigli (2003), in "Bucket Brigade" comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Superbad (2007), in the "spoofs" of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and the prevailing comedic sensibility more generally. Alex Hopper in Battleship (2012), prior to becoming a standard save-the-day action hero, is a standard indie slacker anti-hero, especially in his chicken burrito adventure.
Is this a memorable collection of films? Of course not. But then that's exactly the point, and I hardly seem to be alone in this assessment, as making lists of Pulp Fiction rip-offs, at any rate, seems to be something of a pastime among film critics.
2. The 2006 Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode "Weeping Willow" is a veritable encyclopedia of the clichés of this body of work, complete with obnoxious film students, a crime staged by idiots that predictably goes wrong (in this case, the tried and true fake kidnapping), gratuitous references to Quentin Tarantino, and big thinks on media and fame long past their sell-by date.
3. The continued currency of Quentin Tarantino with college-aged youth (who were not yet born when Reservoir Dogs came out) astonishes me. Of all the filmmakers they could study, this is what they pick? It all puts me in mind of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People's Vincent Lepak.
NOTE: This piece originated as an enlargement of my October 2011's post, "A Fragment on Indie Film," which you can read here.
My Posts on Toby Young
A Fragment on Indie Film