Raiders of the Lost Art

Has the artsyplex boom housebroken the independent film? A partisan's manifesto.

It's a cold Friday night in the Twin Cities. Another long, tough week has finally come to an end. You feel like going out to a movie, just to quench your thirst for that thick brew of story, sound, and image. You want one of those magical screenings--a roomful of strangers, a beam of light, a swirl of collective energy.

Skimming the "Movie Guide" listings in the Star Tribune's Weekend section, you notice that a lot of theaters under the heading "General Cinema" seem to be playing Starship Troopers, some of them on two or more screens. This triggers a memory of loud TV commercials with these huge bugs squashing everything in their path--including some moist-looking teenagers with lily-white faces and big white teeth. A full-color photo of one of the slimy bugs peers out from the paper in front of you. You recall reading about the director, Paul Verhoeven, and how he's hoping this risky, $100-million blockbuster will make up for his cheap and awful Showgirls. Hmmm.

Then you spy an ad for The Full Monty, playing at more than a half-dozen locations across town, including General Cinema's Centennial Lakes 8 and Uptown's Lagoon Cinema, the five-screen arthouse owned by the national Landmark chain. Same goes for Eve's Bayou: It's at Lagoon and at GC's 14-plex in the megamall. How odd. You thought Lagoon only played exclusive runs of specialty films like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control--which starts there tonight at 7:45.

Barbara S. Pollak

You pick up the phone to call your date--the die-hard cineaste who knows everything about movies--when you stumble upon a very long, very odd film title under the heading "Independents": something called My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into an Argument. Just as you're mulling over how well the title resonates, your date picks up the phone on the first ring, pissed that you haven't called until now. By way of appeasement you suggest My Sex Life--which, had it been his suggestion, would have led, like the title, to an argument. He's thrilled, of course, and offers to pick you up on the way to the Seventh Place Cinema in downtown St. Paul. You didn't know there was a theater in downtown St. Paul that played those kinds of films.

So you get there and discover that the movie is French, subtitled, and three hours long. Ugh. But the first scene is intriguing: A rumpled, 29-year-old grad student in philosophy (who looks a lot like your date) is asleep at his desk atop a pile of papers. A narrator explains that this guy can't finish his dissertation and can't break up with his girlfriend of 10 years. To resolve either of these issues would mean that he has become a grown man, and he's not ready for that, in part because he's secretly in love with his best friend's girlfriend. About halfway through the film, there's a bizarre and hilarious scene in which the chair of the philosophy department enlists the guy's help in rescuing a scared, violent monkey who's stuck behind a boiling radiator. Meanwhile, the protagonist can't get the other monkeys off his back.

The next day you're still thinking about this screwball romantic comedy that left you exhilarated and exhausted--appropriately, it seems, to the experience of surviving your 20s. You can't remember the last time you saw a film whose plot was based around chronic indecision, provoking more than it resolves and causing you to wonder whether it's time to give your date his walking papers. You also can't believe how close you came to not seeing this weird, amazing movie.

It was less than a year ago that the Oscar nominations for Shine, Fargo, Secrets & Lies, and The English Patient got tongues wagging about the death of the old studio system at the hands of the grubby "indies." Since then, everyone from The New York Times Magazine to Premiere and Entertainment Weekly has been busy measuring the vast gulf between "the two Hollywoods": There's the big-budget nest that hatched the $100-million Starship Troopers, and the low-budget, "independent" sector that scooped up the sleeper Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Never mind that the proceeds from both films flow in the same direction--to the Sony corporation. And never mind that the meager likes of My Sex Life get no play in this argument whatsoever.

The split-personality profiles claim to be blowing the lid off a new phenomenon, and perhaps even a "revolution" (per the New York Times). But in fact, it was obvious to any moviegoer who paid attention to the 1994 ruckus around the "independent" Pulp Fiction--which grew consecutively from a cult must-see into a critical fetish object, a vehicle for John Travolta's second coming, and a $250-million worldwide smash--that the once-monolithic film industry had become a two-party system. In '94, Quentin Tarantino played the "rock & roll president" Bill Clinton to Forrest Gump's Bob Dole--or something like that.

But not for long. After all, why would the major studios and their mega-conglomerate parents tolerate outside competition? Most mini-major "indie" companies have either been acquired or spawned by the big studios, while those studios' even larger parent corporations continue trading media marbles at a pace that makes it hard to keep track of (or care about) who really owns what.

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