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Sundance 2005: The Mainstreaming of Indies

Let’s assume that the only source of information about American indies is Sundance’s premier section, the Dramatic Competition – excluding world premieres, American Spectrum, Frontier and other series that exhibit new films. What kind of conclusions can be draw about prevalent trends in paradigms, themes, and styles? What’s the state of the art of American indies as of 2005? How innovative, not to mention experimental or avant-garde, was this year’s Dramatic Competition? (Levy’s ranking of the Dramatic Competition)

It is a valid question, considering that Sundance has been the Mecca for new American indies over the past 25 years. It is easier to define the prevailing trends of this year’s Dramatic Competition by what they avoided than by what they actually accomplished.

Autobiographical and Personal Works

We expect American indies to be more personal and autobiographical than mainstream Hollywood products. By this definition, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, a divorce melodrama, is superior to, say, Kramer Vs. Kramer. Baumbach, who deservedly won the Waldo Salt writing and directing awards, draws on the painful divorce of his parents – academic-author and film critic- writer (played by the established actors Jeff Daniels andLaura Linney, respectively).

Though using similar narratives and characters, autobiographical films such as Baumbach’s don’t imitate commercial rhetoric. Filmmakers use themselves as subject matter, revealing new dimensions of their personal lives that are not evident in commercial movies.

Critical indies assume awareness of conventional cinema but instead of foregrounding recognizable characters and narratives, they foreground the conceptual structure that underline film expectations. According to this definition of indies, Miranda July, who won a special jury prize for originality of vision, has made a movie that, while drawing on established traditions, still manages to infuse them with a uniquely personal voice through her fractured and episodic narrative, eccentric production design and visual style, and innovative music.

Except for July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, there were not many innovative, visionary, or experimental works in the vein of last year’s Primer, which won the grand jury prize.

Name Casts: Use of Established Talent, Indie and Mainstream

At least half of the movies in competition had a name cast:

The Dying Gaul boasted Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Sarsgaard;

Thumbsucker benefited from the presence ofTilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughan, and the Matrix’s Keanu Reeves(review);

The ensemble of Pretty Persuasion includedEvan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, The Upside of Anger), James Woods, Selma Blair, andSex and the City’s Ron Livingston (review);

The Squid and the Whale achieved its emotional impact through the superlative acting of Jeff Daniels and two-time Oscar nomineeLaura Linney. It is one thing to observe a relatively unknown Laura Linney at the 2000 Sundance Festival in You Can Count on Me; it’s another to see her today, post Mystic Riverand Kinsey.

I am not faulting the films for using name casts, I just want to suggest that these days for a good meaty role, first-time indie directors can get actors of the caliber of Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, andJulianne Moore.

However, this is also the reason why I am partial toPolice Beat, a film that had a new kind of character, a rigidly moral Muslim cop in Seattle, played by an unknown actor (Pape Sidy Niang), in what is essentially a foreign-language film. It would have been a totally different experience if the role had been played by an established Afro American actor such asSamuel L. Jackson or Don Cheadle.

Indies used to cast average-looking performers in Hollywood-type roles, allowing the discrepancy to generate a new kind of understanding of traditional relationships between actors and roles, but this trend is decidedly in decline.


Missing in action this year were outright social criticism and protest films that indict various repressive aspects of American society. I didn’t see films of liberation that suggested, through anarchy and fantasy, new possibilities for the human spirit.

No Ruralism

In the early 1980s, ruralism and regionalism were in; cosmopolitanism and sophistication were out. Regional indies showed rural inarticulateness, the assumption of virtue, the sense of higher purpose and high-mindedness, solemness and even dullness. I am referring to such virtuous and earnest films as Rachel River, Lemon Sky, and The Silence at the Bethany, in all of which a walk through the fields was the dominant visual motif. In the festival this year, no such rural visions are to be found.

No Violence

In the 1990s, Sundance films were a Theater of Blood, where carnage and sensorial, senseless violence defined such films as Reservoir Dogs, Laws of Gravity, and The Usual Suspects. The mayhem in these new indies cut a dividing line between two visions of America. Not the line between violence and nonviolence, or between past and present, but between America as reality and America as dream, America the Mean and America the Delirious. It’s a pleasure to report that this year there were no violent or Trantinoesque imitations in competition.

Conventional Narrative Structures

Most films in competition had linear, evolutionary narrative structures, with clear beginnings, middles and neat closures that often suggested happy endings or brighter futures. Prime example was Hustle & Flow, the most overtly commercial picture in competition and extremely well-shot by Amelia Vincent (cited by the jury). A simplistic morality tale Hustle & Flow suffers from lack of credibility and some preposterous plotting.

Revisiting Suburbia

At least half of the films were set in suburbia, revisiting the specialized turfs of David Lynch (Blue Velvet and others), Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse,Happiness and Alan Ball’s  American Beauty). What is new about this year’s films, however, is their physical geography (Midwest, North Carolina) rather than their emotional landscape.

The Coming-of-Age Saga

This long-cherished Sundance tradition continues to demonstrate its force through such genre variations as Pretty Persuasion, Thumbsucker, The Squid and the Whale, and others. Each of these movies had a twist, a fresh perspective, a new type of character, but overall they walked familiar turf from both previous Sundance highlights (Heathers, Welcome to the Dollhouse, last year’s Garden State) and mainstream Hollywood (Mean Girls).

Culture Collision

The most prevalent theme, describing about 10 of the competition titles, drew contrast between different subcultures and lifestyles.

Between — a white American woman searching for her missing sister in Mexico.

Brick — a good, innocent high schooler confronts the sleazy crime world (represented by Lukas Haas).

The Dying Gaul — the attraction between an openly gay man (Sarsgaard) and a bisexual exec (Scott).

Ellie Parker — a struggling actress in the cold, cruel film world of Los Angeles.

Forty Shades of Blue — a Russian woman living in Memphis with a legendary music producer twice her age.

Hustle & Flow — the transformation of a sexist, exploitative pimp into a better human being through his encounter with rap music.

Junebug — a sophisticated career woman from Chicago visits the simpler, down-to-earth family of her husband in rural North Carolina.

Logggerheads — an adopted, HIV Positive man encounters the surroundings in which he grew up and the relationship of his birth and adoptive mothers.

Police Beat — a bicycle cop from Senegal in Seattle encounters various true-life crime episodes, while contemplating about his obsessive love for a white woman, who may be seeing another man.

Cinema of Outsiders

My biggest disappointment with this year’s Dramatic Competition is the lack of prominent new voices representing ethnic minorities and disenfranchised groups. Historically, the most important artistic and political role of indies has been in fostering the cinema of “outsiders,” the cinema of the “Other America.” Cinema of Outsiders in two meanings: The characters of indies are outsiders (as in most John Sayles’ movies). And the filmmakers themselves are outsiders, including women, gays and lesbians, Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.

Over the past decade, there has been an immensely productive release of creative energies based on two needs: an aesthetic drive born out of necessity to explore new forms and styles, and a political need for freedom of expression in a restrictive society. New forms of creativity in film can be seen as a reaction against the oppression of American society and Hollywood mainstream cinema.

The indies’ “rebellion” targeted against Hollywood’s safe, calculated, formulaic fare — innocuous entertainment. Innovative indie directors have deviated from classic narratives that allegedly contained “realistic, believable” characters, motivated actions, predictable narratives, and fake resolutions. The new directors renounced Hollywood as an institution that has achieved the highest pitch of technical excellence but in the process had lost its heart and soul.

Under the creative leadership of Robert Redford, Sundance encouraged multiculturalism and diversity, showing new works by women, African-Americans, Asians — minorities whose voices had been largely unheard or ignored in Hollywood mainstream cinema. I wonder what Redford thinks about this issue now. In his l993 press conference, Redford said: “What emerges in independent film is a counter-reaction against what’s going on.” “Indies,” Redford ventured, “represent an industry that never goes bust. It comes close. But because of the narrowing of the main part of the industry, that opens up the other part of the industry, which is diversity, which is what independent filmmaking is all about.”

As a cutting-edge festival, Sundance has been instrumental in spotting new trends in American films. In 1991, the festival buzzed with the emergence of new African-American directors. The following year, 1992, was marked by a radical gay sensibility. An unprecedented number of directors were dedicated to the creation of a “militant queer cinema,” with little concern for positive role models. The portrait of America in these films was at once more idiosyncratic and more realistic than the polished, venerable norms of Hollywood movies. In 1996, a large number of lesbian-themed movies were featured; so many, in fact, that some journalists were prompted to label the festival “Queerdance.”

By my count, only 2 of the 16 (12 percent) of this year’s competition films were directed by women: the innovative and magical Me and You and Everyone We Know, written, directed, and starring Miranda July — a major talent to watch — and the well-intentioned but disappointing How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, written and directed byGeorgina Garcia Riedel. Set in an Arizona border town, Garcia Girls deals with issues of sexual desire and self-realization among three generations of single women in a Mexican-American family. It’s fair to compare Riedel with other women whose work premiered at Sundance, such as Nancy Savoca, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, a comparison that places her in a decidedly inferior position.

Most of the competition directors were white, among them two who chose to look at the world of African-Americans, such as Robinson Devor in Police Beat, or Craig Brewer, who like Marc Levin inSlam, focused on the black rap milieu in Hustle & Flow.

And how about new gay sensibility, a reliable element of every Sundance? I have not seen anything that approximates the earlier, experimental work of Gus Van Sant (Mala Noche), Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe), or Gregg Araki (The Living End).

I respect discretion concerning a filmmaker’s sexual orientation. One director, Craig Lucas, made a point in his introductory remarks to make sure that everyone knew he is openly gay. The sexual politics of the psychological thriller The Dying Gaul, however, is so fake and appalling that the film collapses entirely when a bisexual (Campbell Scott) expresses his anger at and envy of a gay writer (Peter Sarsgaard) just because he has a single sexual orientation. Pity the bisexual who has slept with both men and women, by choice. What has happened to Craig Lucas, the screenwriter who gave us the emotionally touching AIDS melodrama, Longtime Companion (Sundance class of 1990), directed by the late Rene Norman and also starring Scott.

The other explicitly gay film in competition, Loggerheads, is a soft, old-fashioned schmaltzy meller about the evolving relationship between a handsome HIV-Positive youngster (Kip Pardue) and an older man, whose longtime companion has died of AIDS.

Have all the interesting stories about gays and lesbians been exhausted? Do we need to rehash such conventional stuff as Loggerheads and The Dying Gaul, two of the weakest films in competition?
Sundance 2005: The Mainstreaming of Indies is the second of a two part analysis of the 2005 Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Part one can be read here.

February 1, 2005
E-mail Emanuel Levy

Updated twice weekly, the site features five regular columns: Current Reviews, Oscar Alert (of films and performances), Film Commentary (on timely and relevant issues), DVD of the Week (both classic and new), and Festivals/Events (such as essays on Brando’s career and this year’s centennial celebration of George Stevens and Cary Grant).

Samuel Butler once observed that, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” About Emanuel Levy …

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon