MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

On Kevin Kline, Todd Solondz, and the Sad Decline of Indie Film

I was thirteen years old in 1996, which I think is the year “indie” film became more of an adjective than a movement. It was the year that “indie” replaced the word “arthouse” — which was odd because many of the successful indie films that followed weren’t independently financed at all. But that year had a big effect on me, in terms of how I viewed the film world.

Studio films, in my young mind, were boring and safe, whereas these “indie” films were dangerous. Films like Secrets & Lies and Fargo were willing to go places that traditional Hollywood films wouldn’t. I loved the risks these films took. It was an exciting time to grow up as a movie nerd because it seemed like the envelope was being pushed and there was a clear distinction between what kind of movies Hollywood made and what an indie film was.

Looking back on it now, I see that many of those “indie” films I loved in 1996 weren’t really all that groundbreaking or different. Take Shine or Sling Blade, for example, which I loved at the time; aren’t they really just repurposing similar themes that we’ve seen before about mentally disabled people overcoming obstacles and/or finding love? But those films had an “indie” sheen to them; they looked muddier and grittier and so we assumed that they must have been more real. They didn’t have traditional Hollywood endings so we left the theater unsettled rather than reassured.

But the truth of the matter is that the difference between big-budget and low-budget filmmaking isn’t so great. The winner of Best Picture that year – The English Patient – was trumpeted as a triumph of independent filmmaking. Other than the fact that it starred Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche rather than Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, was it really any different from the standard romantic epics that Hollywood has been churning out for a century now?

I yearn to see more filmmaking that is truly independent, and so I spent a day catching up on some indie cinema. I was struck by two particular films — The Extra Man and Life During Wartime — and I’d like to talk about how these films illustrate both what is right and necessary in the indie film world and what is so very very wrong with it.

I’d like to start by saying that Kevin Kline is a national treasure. Has the man ever given a performance that was less than wonderful? I don’t know why he hasn’t gotten his “Jeff Bridges moment” yet, where everyone suddenly realizes how unappreciated and wonderful this particular actor is. Maybe it’s because Kline has already won an Academy Award so there isn’t a clamoring for him to be justly rewarded for all his great work, but I just find the man absolutely riveting and fascinating. I could watch him onscreen for hours. In fact, I’d like someone to create a buddy movie vehicle for Kline and Bridges — that would be a movie I’d pay to see many times, even if it was merely mediocre.

So, despite the mixed reviews for The Extra Man, I knew I was going to see it as soon as I saw that Kevin Kline was one of the stars. Based on a novel by hipster writer Jonathan Ames, the film follows a young writer named Louis Ives (Paul Dano) who is interested in cross-dressing and becomes enamored with the lifestyle of his eccentric conservative roommate Henry Harrison (Kline). The film then goes in all sorts of unexpected directions, which I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

It reminded me quite a bit of Dylan Kidd‘s wonderful Roger Dodger, in that it’s about an older and more cynical man taking a young man under his wing and teaching him all the wrong things. And they both take place in New York City, a setting for which I’m always a sucker.

Directed by American Splendor filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, The Extra Man is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, there’s a period in the middle that seems kind of boring and pointless. However, it does what most “indie” films should set out to do: tell an offbeat story in an original and unexpected way, populated with characters that are not often seen on cinema screens. And in that sense, it delivers — primarily because of Kline.

He is not, ostensibly, the lead character of the film, yet he is missed every second he is not on the screen and dominates our attention when he is on. This is not a slight on Paul Dano, who is engaging and winning in the lead role in this film and deserves a lot of credit for solidly supporting some of the best and most charismatic performers (Alan Arkin, Daniel Day-Lewis, and now Kline). It is, however, a testament to just how commanding a presence Kline is on screen.

The character that Kline plays is truly an original creation. Henry Harrison is a smart and articulate man who happens to be ultra-conservative (for instance, he doesn’t believe women should be educated) and pretty gross (he has fleas). That Kline is able to convincingly portray the duality of this character is really an incredible feat. Henry Harrison is the ultimate social climber and name-dropper, but he’s of a different era; despite the fact that he might slather shoe polish on his legs to give the appearance of socks, he’s undeniably charming.

Kline has always been one of the great enunciators of cinema, but here he finally has a role which utilizes that abiltiy to speak clearly, in an American upper-crust accent that almost borders on British in its formality. I’m just so happy that I got to see Kline knock one out of the park in a role that was tailor-made for him. The film is a showcase for a fantastic actor and sometimes that’s enough to justify its existence.

On the other hand, a film like Life During Wartime has no reason to exist. I really hate to rag on indie films in general because I feel like they need all the proponents they can get. When I’m given a screener or go to a screening of an indie film and I don’t like it, I generally don’t talk about it because I don’t want to piss on a film that probably won’t be seen by very many people and relies on writers like me to give it positive notices. But I gotta say, I found the newest effort from Todd Solondz infuriating. What I find most unsettling is the fact that Solondz has not only not grown as a filmmaker — he’s regressed. He is no longer interested in telling a story that takes place in a recognizable world, which dilutes so much of the ennui that he is hoping to get across in his films.

To backtrack for a second: I’ve long respected Solondz and I think that Happiness is the perfect example of what indie films should do. It’s unsettling, it’s challenging, it deals with themes and ideas that traditional Hollywood films wouldn’t touch, but it manages to bring those ideas to life in a way that is exciting and raw. But what makes that film works most of all is that it feels real. Maybe it doesn’t feel “real” in the sense that this is what people do in real life, but it touches on real emotions and attitudes; it gets at the idea of children being inquisitive and naive while adults are cynical and sometimes tortured, but that doesn’t make anybody better or worse than anyone because we all have our demons. Sometimes one person’s demons are just more difficult to swallow morally.

Life During Wartime is a quasi-sequel to Happiness, but all of the vitality has been sucked out of it. Instead, the entire film feels like a dull retread of material we’ve already seen explored in the first incarnation. But what really made the experience miserable for me was the pretention that Solondz brings to the proceedings this time. While the first film felt like he had a deep affection for his characters despite their flaws, in this film it really feels like he hates humanity and all of their foibles. And I think this is typified by the fact that the entire cast has been replaced by actors who look nothing like their original counterparts.

It’s one thing to accept Ciaran Hinds in a role originated by Dylan Baker, but I can’t really accept that Michael K. Williams is in any way similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure Solondz is trying to make some larger, Godardian point about race and how we’re all the same so it doesn’t really matter who plays who, but on a logical and instinctual level, I can’t accept it. Bunuel was able to have two women play the same role – sometimes in the same scene – in That Obscure Object of Desire, but his point was made clear about the dual nature of this woman and, indeed, all women. Solondz, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t make his point apparent — and that makes me wonder if he even has one at all.

But more than that, the people that populate Life During Wartime don’t speak or act the way any human being has ever spoken or acted. I can accept that this is a film and therefore things are heightened for the benefit of the screen, but he’s not working in the realm of science fiction. He’s made an indie drama about – among other things – child molestation. I do not accept that any mother – let alone a woman who was married to a pedophile – would tell her young son about how her new boyfriend makes her “wet.” And I do not accept that a 13-year-old child wouldn’t understand how a man could molest a boy and could mistake the hug of a man for being molested. Either this is the dumbest 13-year-old ever put on film or Solondz just doesn’t care that much about how people act in the real world.

The most frustrating thing about Life During Wartime, though, is that Solondz was once the promising face of indie filmmaking. I thought Storytelling was a noble failure (the original script was brilliant, though) and that Palindromes was an interesting failure. But this is just a failure on every level, and I hate to see someone so talented make such a big mistake. It got me thinking that maybe the best thing for Solondz would be to take on a bigger-budget studio film and try to work within the system, within some guidelines and rules. Hell, I’d like to see his take on a comic book film.

The indie film landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. It’s become a genre unto itself and has therefore become predictable. Life During Wartime is unpredictable, to be sure, but it fails on a basic level. The Extra Man works on a basic level, but is certainly predictable. I want my indie films to be dangerous and smart and to connect with me. As much as I lament the decline Hollywood films, I think they’re doing a better job of connecting with me – and most audiences – than much of what passes for arthouse these days.

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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