Sunday, April 5, 2009

Group #5: Alex, Daniela, Coral

In “Independent Features: Hopes and Dreams”, Chuck Kleinhans talks about the aspirations of young filmmakers and the positive and negative aspects of independent cinema. How has the industry changed since 1995 (when the essay was written), and how have some of the issues he discussed changed? Do you think getting into independent cinema now is easier than it was then with the growing accessibility of digital equipment and the technological advancement of similar technology? How is the idea of being able to distribute films digitally and bypass (very expensive) film copying of movies? Do you think greater competition in independent cinema will be good or bad? Will it lead to greater experimentation, or perhaps bog down the industry with too many amateur films (possibly making independent cinema and un-navigable sea for studios)?

Are independent films becoming viewed by studios more in terms of their commercial potential (being able to make a lot of money on a small budget) by distributing studios rather than their artistic merit? Was independent cinema in the ealy 90’s/late 80’s more aware of cultural issues (as the four films we watched all are), compared to recent independent successes like Little Miss Sunshine, which is a more straightforward (albeit enjoyable) comedy? With films like this finding their way to Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, how have attitudes changed towards independent cinema?

 In Thursday’s section, we discussed the opening credit sequence to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The sequence is unconventional in that it is tied to the rest of film not so much in terms of plot, but rather in terms of tone and style. In what ways does Lee manifest some the film’s themes/tone/style (one being confrontation) in the sequence, and how does it prepare the audience for the rest of the film? What effect does Lee’s use of a colorful/childish font for the credits have?

In Geoff Andrew’s essay on Todd Haynes and Amy Taubin’s on Gus Van Sant, the issue is brought up of these homosexual directors not wanting to fall into the “ghetto” of homosexual cinema, and not having their worked viewed in relation their sexual orientation. In the films we have seen by them, do they make an effort to objectively separate their films from their sexuality, and if so, how do they do this? To what extent does an audience’s knowledge/reception of a director’s sexual orientation influence their perception of a film (perhaps comparing these films to Brokeback Mountain, a “gay” film made by Ang Lee, a heterosexual director)?

When considering the film “sex, lies and videotapes”, what do you think is more important when categorizing it as an independent film: the industry part of it, since it was made on a low budget and had more freedom in the creative process? Or would you consider certain parts of the cinematography or just film creation in general containing parts of the “independent aesthetic”? Many people consider this aesthetic to be what is “edgy,” so are there parts of this film that fit into this description? sex, lies and videotapes is known for being influential, what do you think is influential about it, and are there movies that seem to be directly influenced by this film?


  1. From the article by Chuck Kleinhans I got the feeling that many young film directors involve in the production of low budget films in hope to produce an impressive movie and thus assure their entrance into the mainstream Hollywood production. This aspect of the independent film production appears controversial to me. On the one hand in this way Hollywood acquires talented and creative young directors, who could potentially enrich the classical film production with new perspectives and shed life on polemic themes in their films. On the other hand because Hollywood operates within the frame of classical conventional principles and traditions, the perspective young film directors are obliged to conform to the Hollywood system repressing their talent. This appears a physical limitation to their talent and it restrains spectators from enjoying alternative filmmaking techniques. So, I am not quite sure if it is a good aspect of independent film production that it serves as a stepping stone for many young directors.

  2. I feel that Sex, Lies, and videotape is really only an independent film due to its industry side, meaning its low budget and lack of a studio connection. It is a rather conventional film in terms of cinematography and linear narrativity. For all intensive purposes, it's sexuality isn't even that radical or provocative which could potentially alienate it from mainstream cinema. Furthermore, it hardly employs any radical angles or shots that would traditionally be deemed as in opposition to the mainstream, hollywood model.

  3. @adam, but everyone really:
    1. is there anything more we can say about the narrative economy of s/l/v that would seem to be tied to its financial economy?
    2. does independent necessarily imply oppositional?

  4. I am curious to see just how this whole digital/internet revolution we're still going through will turn out for films and filmmakers. On the one hand, it does definitely allow for much easier and cheaper production and distribition; this is decidedly in favor of the potential artists, and does have a much greater possibility of upsetting the rich in Hollywood, perhaps to even a greater extent than TV did back in the 50's. On the other hand, it has also created a glut on the market; browsing any random page on youtube shows you that anyone can make a film - and most seem to be doing just that. This is making it much harder to get noticed, and i think it's safe to say that most that is out there is not held up to high standards, making it even more elusive to find those talents that are making quality productions. Needless to say, 1995 was an eon ago, and even this post will be out of date in about ten minutes, so there's no telling what's next. With the bulk of Hollywood now obsessed with glitzy, big-money CGI epics more than ever, it seems that the "independent" filmmaker is going to have a tougher job than ever, especially if they do want to accomplish something abhorrent from the mainstream. That said, this is mainly only in America - other countries seem to be flourishing as America is falling to pieces.

  5. And for a quick add-on:
    1. I personally thought s/l/v was fantastic, and felt the material was more provocative than most Hollywood pictures, and that the visual and temporal style did feel fresh and exciting. It's very direct and quick, focusing only on what needs to be focused on, and not worrying too much about anything else. And i felt that it is also an extremely confident picture, which makes its economy shine, instead of trying to be too careful or worried and letting everything fall apart.
    2. There is no definition of "independent" cinema, so any broad generalizations really don't work anyway. But the idea that comes to my mind when i hear "independent" (American) are films that generally do conform to the dominant style and substance. Films that are deemed to be "oppositional" are the ones that are typically tagged with "experimental" and "avant-garde," and ones with a strong and domineering auteur-ness. For example, Godard is never referred to as an "independent" filmmaker, and someone like Soderbergh did/does make films that are a lot more conforming than they are oppositional. But, when you really get down to it, this distinction is only semantic anyhow.

  6. @stephen:
    "It's very direct and quick, focusing only on what needs to be focused on, and not worrying too much about anything else."

    --if anyone would care to elaborate/counter this, with reference to the film's mise-en-scene/editing/cinematography/lighting/acting/dialogue...?

  7. In pseudo-response to the second set of questions, I cannot help but question what constitutes Independent cinema today. In lecture professor Silverman offered a time frame for "Independent" or "New American Cinema", roughly 1989 to 2000. What does that imply about contemporary films that are often labeled as "independent" though they might not necessarily have the same distinctive features that were common to earlier Independent cinema. It seems that often we use "independent" today to connote a certain aesthetic or genre that while obliquely unique from the blockbuster or mainstream, is not aesthetically or politically radical. Furthermore, it is still unclear to me to what extent filmmakers can work outside of the studio system. In brief, I do not think "Independent Cinema" exists today for like many things, it has been co-opted into the studio system and films are now made to fit the "Indie" archetype (an oxymoron seemingly) that appeals to a niche market. Kleinhans says independent must be understood "in relation to the dominant system" (308) and that "independence alone does not confer political, social, or aesthetic value" (322). His argument is definitely a sound one and one that I would agree with. Today perhaps what is needed is a new term for describing truly independent or emergent forms of cinema and that "independent" should be saved for what it is already subconsciously understood as in terms of style. When we speak of and "independent film" made today, we have certain expectations and I think that this illustrates the new limitations that have formed around this term and the limitations it is projecting onto truly new and independent work. (The lack of a term to describe what is emergent is in itself a limitation to my discussion and hopefully not confusing.) I have just noticed Pooja's 2nd question, which is very much related to what I'd like to argue. I'd again agree with Kleinhans that independent can be understood relationally, but that to an extent yes it must be oppositional to the dominant system. For this reason I argue that the term "Independent" does not function anymore to describe truly "Independent Cinema" since it too often describes films that are not in opposition, even relatively so, to the dominant systems.

  8. In response to the comment that sex, lies, and videotape is "very direct and quick, focusing only on what needs to be focused on," I agree with this, in the sense that the focus of the film is not on its technical aspects, but on its content, which I do think is pretty controversial/provocative, even for our time. Because the ideas are what are important in the movie, I think it's appropriate that the style itself is relatively conventional--it doesn't draw attention to itself so that it doesn't detract from the message of the movie. However, I've generally learned that form follows function, and so I'm not sure if this film (conventional form, with the function to provoke) is a deviation from this rule.

  9. I think the question of what has happened to independent cinema today can easily be related to the Paul Willimen essay. In it he writes that the terms 'cross-cultural' and 'multicultural' imprison ethnic art within 'a restrictive and fossilised notion of culture' (207). One result of this is that the cultural separateness of the work becomes fetishized. I believe the term 'independent' in reference to cinema functions in very much the same way, in that the inherent cultural separateness of independent cinema has allowed it to be fetishized. Furthermore Willimen writes 'nationalism is the shadow side of imperialism: it is an ideology generated by imperialism as its own counter-body, and it is in some ways even more repressively homogenising than that of the empire it seeks to undo.' (210). This situation is perfectly analogous to that of independent cinema and hollywood, with independent cinema forming the counter-body to hollywood. Independent movies today have absolutely become the victims of this repressive homogenization. They have in fact become homogenized and fetishized to the extent that they are finally palpable to the masses.

    Personally I find the idea of a movie like "Little Miss Sunshine" being considered independent completely absurd. Not to rail on it too hard but anything provocative about it at all (i.e. grandpas heroin overdose, steve carrell's homosexuality and attempted suicide) is so entirely fetishized that it's really lost any value it might have had. I'd also like to add that the movie was made for 6 million dollars.

    I think it's become abundantly clear at this point that independent or counter-cinemas can only exist in relation to hegemonic structures, i.e. hollywood. But if hollywood begins to absorb them they must find new ways of being distinct, rather than becoming increasingly homogenized and entrenched in old methods of being provocative. Not to say that new independent films should strive to outdo those of earlier times in terms of shocking content etc. Perhaps shocking content is no longer even the way to go about being distinct. But something needs to change.

  10. In response to the first questions, I believe that independent filmmaking has been inherently influenced by the ease of creation and distribution for amateur filmmakers. With the invention of YouTube, for example, literally millions of amateur filmmakers are given a wide carnivorous audience. Additionally, more and more student and independent film festivals have been popping up around the world in recent years. Because of the the innate ability of film to communicate information in one of the most dense ways possible, it is quickly becoming the medium of choice for art, communication, training, features, etc. Although with the ease of digital film making (almost anyone can pick up their parent's or a cheap videocamera and shoot a DV movie), many incredible independent works are swallowed up by the sea of amateur films and the associated label. Although this may seem negative, this creates a highly competitive environment for filmmakers while "training" spectators to be able to recognize amateur work with high quality. With such a large pool of artists, the responsibility to recognize quality is placed on the audience. However, although the pool of films is increasing exponentially, the audience for independent work has shown vast growth. Especially with so many online venues, there is an almost instantaneous large international audience created by the internet. Although this may seem good, I see certain specific negatives. One of the main problems I have observed is that films are increasingly relying on spectacular or familiar names, tags, and screen shots to entice audiences. There has been a surge, for example, on YouTube of filmmakers who have included vulgar tags on videos that have nothing to do with pornography for the strict purpose of getting more viewers by having the movie pop up more on search engines.

    The introduction of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing creates an interesting mood/style that continues throughout the film. The film begins with an aggressive dance, full of orange and other warm light, in the middle of urban settings. In response to the childish/colorful font question, I think there are two answers that make sense to me. First of all, font follows the general pattern of color/style of the time period. Secondly, the font roughly parallels the style and choices of the people in the movie. Many of the characters interact in childish ways, choosing honor and wild emotions over rational mature decision making. Many of the characters are volatile and they are often playing like children (fire hydrant), acting immature (spraying the guy with water, yelling and screaming), and colorful (the clothes are somewhat ridiculous from our 21st century standpoint: colorful and very tight). The font is just another element of the opening sequence that sets the mood and prepares the audience for the movie's stylistic decisions. Although the opening is quite unconventional, it is very effective in establishing a mood that is prevalent throughout the rest of the film.