New movie mavericks declare independence
Two men in a drab motel room take their shirts off and begin a tentative man-hug, all slaps and pats. The natural lighting draws attention to their unbuff pallor, to their unwaxed patches of chest hair. They move uneasily to a full, on-the-mouth kiss and then separate, collapsing on the bed in giggles of embarrassment. A more un-Hollywood scene you could not imagine.
It is a key moment in Lynn Shelton's Humpday, a naturalistic comedy about two straight friends who agree to have sex with each other on camera for an art project. Humpday opened indie film fest Raindance in London last month and, with its risqué humour and realistic dialogue, typifies a new breed of low-budget American independent film about to refresh the mainstream with a breezy energy and honesty not seen for a generation.
Back in the 80s when Arnie, Sly and Bruce ruled the world's box office, there was another level of American cinema that catered for more, shall we say, sophisticated tastes. The "indie scene" operated at a distance from Hollywood, often out of New York, and gave the cinema names such as Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh. Ushered, via the Sundance film festival, to commercial and awards success by visionary (perhaps mercenary) producers such as Harvey Weinstein, the indie scene became part of mainstream Hollywood with films such as Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting. By the end of the 1990s, most of the big studios had opened speciality boutique divisions such as Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Paramount Vantage to deal with and foster "indie" film-makers, although by now they could hardly be called independent.
For a while, such a policy was rich reward for cinema-goers. In the 90s directors came to the fore and existing talents flourished on a bigger canvas, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater. The zenith of this was perhaps also the nadir when No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood duked it out at the Oscars in 2008. Directed by the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively, these were among the most dressed up indie films ever, boasting big stars (Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day Lewis) and shot with immaculate precision by cinematographers Roger Deakins and Robert Elswit . Costly advertising campaigns and awards glory, however, did not amount to box office gold, particularly in the US.
This pattern repeated itself this year, when Slumdog Millionaire, an indie film if ever there was, cleaned up at the Oscars and, while it was a significant box office hit, still the combined gross of the five Best Picture nominees (these included Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) didn't even match the $500m-plus figures for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. You do the math – or, rather, don't bother: Hollywood is better at math than you, and with the world in recession, they've decided this can't go on.
The indie sector, as we knew and loved it in the 80s, was left behind in all this. That edginess and weird cool we associated with films such as Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Jarmusch's Down By Law and Hartley's Amateur has been missing from American cinema for some time. The odd gem has come along in the meantime: Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent had the requisite indie quirkiness; Alex Holdridge's In Search of a Midnight Kiss channelled the sexual banter of Hartley and early Kevin Smith; Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy had wistfulness and wide open spaces; Little Miss Sunshine was itself an Oscar contender. In short, the old indie attitude and aesthetic has gradually become mainstream.
In this crunched economy, however, Hollywood's indulgence of the maverick has suddenly dried up. Studios have dropped their "experimental" divisions as quickly as they used to snap up buzz titles in a Sundance hot tub. Paramount Vantage has gone. Miramax, a brand synonymous with indie crossovers, last week announced they were shedding 50 staff. Even the Weinstein Company had a recent scaling down. Deals at last month's Toronto international film festival, usually the platform for Oscar contenders and break-out hits, were slower than for many years. Only Tom Ford's A Single Man, with its Venice-winning performance from Colin Firth, caused a stir as Harvey Weinstein, smelling Oscars again, shelled out $2.5m for the rights.
Film business veterans reported that distributors are currently less inclined to gamble and are taking their time, weighing up critical reactions before they take the plunge on risky titles. There was no longer a frenzy around hot films as in the days when voracious buyers used to surround directors immediately after screenings and usher them away to woo them with multi-million dollar deals.
So where does this leave an aspiring film-maker? While all this has been going on, I believe a new American indie sector has sprung up, almost unnoticed, away from the old hubs of LA and New York. Now is its chance to shine, and even embarrass the big studios with a new daring, a global outlook and an adaptability of shooting and exhibition.
The new wave of indies hasn't got a name yet. The lo-fi talky films of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Funny Ha Ha were dubbed "mumblecore" by Eric Masunaga, a sound editor who worked with Bujalski on his ultra-naturalistic dramas, featuring improvised dialogue, a pool of unknown twentysomething faces (such as Mark Duplass and Aaron Leonard) agonising about relationships, getting drunk and trying to plan for an uncertain future. But this reductive label – along with "MySpace neo-realists" and "Slackavetes", a reference to DIY pioneer John Cassavetes – has been more hindrance than help. I don't know why, but I'm tempted by "nubies" because, as we look through the rubble of a collapsing film industry, there's a host of new kids, male and female, on the old block with a fresh energy and a sexiness that could reinvigorate a stale American cinema scene.
Lynn Shelton's "bromance", Humpday, could have been shaped into a high-grossing Hollywood concept comedy starring, say, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. But the Seattle-based director didn't want to hang around to make her movie. "It's very simple," she says. "We had the cameras, we had the script and the actors, we borrowed some houses and rented a motel room and we shot a film. It makes you wonder what they do all day in Hollywood, doesn't it?" The result is a very funny, wholly audible comedy confronting modern masculinity.
Festivals such as SXSW (pronounced south by south-west and teamed with a music festival) in Austin, Texas, Tribeca in New York, the new-look Edinburgh in June and the upcoming London Film Festival have slowly brought these new film-makers to wider attention. Internet chatter, podcasting and blogging have cut through the need for the huge marketing budgets of Hollywood. Former backwaters such as Seattle and Austin have become hotbeds of new talent. Both have film cultures that have benefited from burgeoning music scenes, one artistic medium feeding another, and they're both towns with a strong sense of community, where leading lights such as Austin's Richard Linklater continue to host monthly movie nights at local theatres and make themselves available to help upcoming talents.
Whereas the now-classic indie film-makers of the 80s were very male and clearly influenced by the French new wave, the nubies have a wider frame of reference. The new technologies and lack of red tape seem to have freed up more women film-makers to be part of the scene, such as Lynn Shelton, Courtney Hunt, Kelly Reichardt and Suzie Yoonessi, whose Dear Lemon Lima screens at the London film festival this month.
Ramin Bahrani, whose Goodbye Solo is released in the UK this weekend, tells tales of immigrant life in America, a rich seam to mine. His debut Man Push Cart was about a Pakistani stall holder in New York; Goodbye Solo focuses on a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His sympathetic human dramas are clearly influenced by neo-realist and documentary techniques as well as Iranian film.
One of the most striking and original works to spring from the new independent sector is Precious, a gruelling, melodramatic, yet stirring movie based on a novel about an illiterate, obese black teenager in 1980s Harlem, pregnant after being raped for the second time by her own father, who begins to rebuild her life under a kindly tutor in a special school. After positive reactions at Sundance and Cannes and scooping the People's Choice award at Toronto, director Lee Daniels's film is now being tipped by many for an Oscar nomination, especially now that the best picture category has been expanded to 10 films for the first time. Some Oscar experts have even staked an early claim for Precious winning the big prize.
New blood is vital to any art form but it seems to me that cinema needs it more than most at the moment. Nobody knows where to show films, how to show films, how to beat pirates, how to use 3D, what to do with subtitles, how to navigate a hopelessly crowded marketplace, how best to replace DVDs, or what is so bloody good about Blu-ray. Amid all these arguments – or underneath them – a new generation has sprung up who don't care about all that stuff. They just want to make films, and trust that anyone who wants to see them will do so. Unlike the movie that might rubber-stamp their arrival come next Oscar season, they're not precious.
Source: Jason Solomons: Guardian Online