Consumer Target Group "Independant"
Pauline Kael titled her first collection , and no one needed to ask what "It" was. The love of the cinema has from the first been highly sexualized. And few movie lovers know betrayal and heartbreak so well as the partisans of the independent cinema, because the object of their affections is so delicate and rare. Andre Gide's notion that a false society deserves to paid in a false currency applies equally to the cultural realm. What is the currency that the public for independent narrative film demands to be paid in? This question has its corollaries. What is it to be independent? And, at what point does a filmmaker sacrifice independence for access to the apparatus of filmmaking?
The independent movement of which I speak here follows the trajectory that begins with Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, 1943), continued through films like Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963), and that split off to offer narratives (as opposed to structural or lyrical films) with features like John Cassavetes' Shadows (1960) and Jon Jost's Chameleon (1978) and still pops up in features like The Man Who Envied Women (Yvonne Rainer, 1986) and The Bloody Child (Nina Menkes, 1996). These films were predicated on the development of an aesthetic and political definition of "independence": independent from strictures on content, independent from conventional narrative structures, and above all, independent from the Hollywood film industry. So, what of the cinema of the 1990s?
From the late 1960s, there has been a competing vision of independence within the American cinema. Since the mammoth box-office of Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), there has been a sense that an "independent" cinema could be marketed to audiences grown bored with most Hollywood fare. Yet, by the mid-1980s this marketing of "Different as a Genre," to use Ethan Morden's turn of phrase, had lost its appeal. It was the discovery of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 and its subsequent commercial success that re-energized "independence" as a marketing tool. Now, the film press (or what's left of it) and the popular media scout this Utah-based festival for its once yearly roundup of the state of independent cinema. But the press and virtually the entire critical, distribution, and festival circuits are not looking for the kind of "independence" that Cassavetes, Jost, Rainer and Menkes offered.
Instead, they search through the work of a new generation of directors who create a faux-independent cinema of calling card films -- tools to attract Hollywood investment. This is not properly an independent cinema, it is instead a low budget one in search of moneyed backers. Take Edward Burns, for example. The Brothers McMullen (1995) won the Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance and Deauville, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. He followed this up with She's the One (1996) a film indistinguishable from a mid-level television situation comedy (down to the starring cast). But Burns, at least, is contentedly mild, staking no claims to edge or depth.
The paradigmatic figure for the newest generation to claim the label of edgy independence is Martin Scorsese, whose inestimable talent and attraction to violent themes has translated from the smaller scale of early work like Mean Streets (1973) to big budget studio films like GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995). A new generation of young filmmakers has taken Scorsese as their model, and without Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (1976) it is literally impossible to imagine recent films like Nick Gomez's Laws of Gravity (1991), Dominic Sena's Kalifornia (1993), and Salvatore Stabile's Gravesend (1997).
These young directors are not to be faulted for their desire to make ever larger budgeted productions -- the American cinema has relied on such conscious careerism for much of its vitality for almost a century. But to do so at the expense of the history of the independent cinema is to degrade an entire arena of art making practice. And, as Anthony Grafton has pointed out, "a culture that tolerates forgery will debase its own intellectual currency, sometimes past redemption." In the 1990s, the great debaser of the cinema's independent movement has been Quentin Tarantino, a director who used the marketing label of independence to introduce himself to both the public and the studios with Reservoir Dogs (1992); and within two years moved directly into the A-list of Hollywood directors with the remarkable commercial success of Pulp Fiction (1994). We shall see what happens with Foxy Brown. The model he provides sets an unimaginably bad precedent for those who would follow in his wake.
Led by Tarantino, this generation of filmmakers have rabid fans and rapturous critics who imagine that they are taking risks in pledging their allegiance to this brand of film practice. But it is precisely the fact that these films have been so calculated to be liked that undercuts any claims to adventurousness in their audiences or true independence on the part of their makers. With the growth of this false independents movement, we witness the triumph of hipbrow culture -- the palatably postmodern mask of the middlebrow.
Forty years ago, Clement Greenberg offered the following condemnation of middle-class culture's impact on high art: "Middlebrow culture, because of the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness." The postmodern collapsed the dialectic between high and low, but who thought that we would end up settling for its so easily digestible synthesis, middlebrow culture? Worse yet, we have settled for hipbrow, which is simply middlebrow tricked out in black clothes. Middlebrow culture at least acknowledged its own stolidness, exemplifying an honest appreciation of its bourgeois origins. But of course, no one would admit to being middlebrow these days. Hipbrow, on the other hand, is embraceable, a result of ironic marketing, or perhaps merely the marketing of irony.
The essence of hipbrow is as follows: take a slickly empty violence learned from observing not life but rather other movies, mix in slightly dated, off center pop culture references, and wait for the self satisfied reactions of audience and critic alike. Here is a formula perfect for those who are unwilling to accept their position in the bourgeoisie. Merchant bankers with great CD collections of "alternative" music can feel a rush of faux otherness as they refuse to squirm at the violence. Advertising copywriters can feel the bite of the street in the dialogue that they recognize not from their exposure to crime, but rather from their familiarity with crime films. And the critics revel in hipbrow because not only does it allow them to pontificate on the state of alienation, these films plug into their cultural references so well. How gratifying to be part of such a huge wave, a majority with minority tastes. Hipbrow lays claim to the signification of otherness, but hipbrow massifies otherness past the point of difference.
Those in the throes of hipbrow claim an adventurousness, wherein they cruise the margins, ferret out the underground, and wear their cultural awareness on their sleeves. Independent they are most assuredly not. Inthis moment of hipbrow triumphant, it is vital to memorialize the vanquished ideals of independence, which the contemporary cinema either debases or ignores.
Peter Lunenfeld is the Director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics (ITA). He teaches in the Graduate Program for Communication and New Media Design at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA. He is the editor of _The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media_ (MIT Press, 1998). (Peter Lunenfeld)