Raiders of the Lost Art

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

To wit: Just before releasing Pulp Fiction and the no-budget Clerks in the fall of '94, Disney bought the art-film boutique Miramax to work the other side of the street from its live-action and animation departments. Gramercy Pictures (Bean) is half-financed by MCA/Universal, which has also owned October Films (Career Girls) since earlier this year. 20th Century Fox begat Fox Searchlight (The Full Monty); Sony Pictures Classics (The Myth of Fingerprints) sits on the same lot as both Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures; and New Line Cinema (Boogie Nights) and its offshoot, Fine Line Features (Shine), were absorbed in 1993 into the Turner empire, which was itself recently absorbed into the Time Warner empire. Disney's Miramax gave birth in '94 to a "genre" division called Dimension Films, whose Scream last year grossed over $100 million--roughly the same amount as Uncle Walt's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo, meet your new best friend, the teenage psycho killer.

I know what you're thinking: So what? Are these corporate indies automatically devoid of artistic value? No, they aren't. But neither are they indies--at least not as defined by films that exist outside the studio system. And yet, because they're widely perceived as independent films, they occupy that sacred spot in the minds of audiences and critics--and on the screens of chain-owned arthouses--as the only alternative to the big-studio productions that play in the malls. Where once the distinction was made between big Hollywood and non-Hollywood, now it's between big Hollywood and little Hollywood, with the rest going largely unreported.

To put it another way: Despite what we read in publications owned by companies that own studios in both arenas, the struggle in movies today isn't between the old and new Hollywoods, but between everything non-Hollywood and one increasingly powerful system--the latter made to seem like two distinct entities in order to retain the illusion of choice. Ain't democracy grand?

Barbara S. Pollak

Meanwhile, the low-end range of noncorporate cinema stands in constant danger of falling off the map. This includes the new work of English-speaking iconoclasts like Abel Ferrara (The Blackout), Gregg Araki (Nowhere), and Steven Soderbergh (Schizopolis); the new New Wave of vital French cinema in films like A Single Girl; the old New Wave tradition of the still-prolific but rarely screened Jean-Luc Godard (For Ever Mozart); the modern classics of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees); the Japanese policiers of Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine); and the post-Chungking Express work of Hong Kong hipster Wong Kar-Wai (Fallen Angels and Happy Together).

If you haven't seen many (or any) of the above, I'm not surprised: Only four have earned one-time-only screenings at U Film Society's Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival or (in the case of Sonatine) at Asian Media Access's "Cinema With Passion" program at the Riverview. For now, take my word that any one of them would be enough to preserve your faith in the medium.

One reason these good and great films remain largely invisible is because they compete with a highly publicized, nationally reviewed roster of "independents" released by the big-studio offshoots--films that enjoy privileged access to chain-owned arthouses and, not coincidentally, resemble their high-budget Hollywood counterparts in being premised around fashionably marketable packages of stars, genres, and proven formulas. Ghastly as it sounds, Noah Wyle and Parker Posey have become the poor studio's Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Accordingly, films like Sony Pictures Classics' The Myth of Fingerprints and Miramax's The House of Yes benefit further from "PA tours" in which actors and directors are flown from city to city at the studios' expense, meeting journalists at each stop and generating a flurry of fluff just before the films open. By contrast, small companies like Strand Releasing (The Delta), Kino International (Fallen Angels), Zeitgeist Films (Taste of Cherry), and New Yorker Films (Underground) have only their great movies, which isn't always enough to attract attention or secure a screen.

The supremacy of the bottom line is hardly surprising given that film is the most expensive medium around; but it is depressing that, even after nonstandard fare has proven its ability to attract an audience, there's still so much missing. For all practical purposes, films that screen in out-of-the-way places without the benefit of much publicity or critical coverage (if they screen at all) simply don't exist. And what's really frustrating is that most people, critics included, don't really know what they're missing and don't really care to know either--not when support for Shine registers as an easily placed vote for alternative film.

You might say Shine is a great movie, and maybe it is--but it's also one whose reputation was made for reasons that had very little to do with its merits as filmmaking. Shine sparked a multimillion-dollar bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival because of its earning potential as an uplifting biopic. It benefited from an avalanche of publicity because of the distributor's need to protect its inevitably big investment; and it earned prominently placed and overwhelmingly positive reviews because any "independent" movie with that much mainstream hype must be important. For the record, I like Shine. But if quality were the primary cause of its success, there would be a long line of films from smaller distributors comfortably awaiting their own mainstream accolades and artsyplex grosses.

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