Lost in the Movies: Is Indie Dead?

Is Indie Dead?

Recognize the cover? It is, of course, a riff on the famous "Is God Dead?" TIME Magazine cover of the mid-60s. It perfectly fits its subject in a number of ways: the entrenched, self-conscious irony of "indie"; the essential triviliaty of same (from asking about God to asking about indie in forty years); and perhaps even a nascent self-loathing (ever notice how the most vociferous critics of hipsterdom have themselves a wide streak of hipsterism?). The article itself is compelling; you can read it here. It's timely, at least for me, because I was going to post a similar inquiry on the Examiner a while back, where I myself had been designated "Indie Movie Examiner."

That's the first time I've used that full title myself, and there's a reason for it. I just don't like that word. Jim Jarmusch famously said, paraphrasing Goebbels (by way of Godard, most likely): "When I hear the word 'independent', I reach for my revolver." (correction, two years later: actually he said "I reach for my revolver when I hear the word 'quirky'." Oops.) I don't have too much of a problem with the word "independent" - politically in particular I think it has a strong, potent ring to it. While it's accrued some negative connotations in the film world - smallness, marginalization, unpalatability to wider audiences - it still strikes me as an appropriate term for films made outside the box, whether that box is financial or conceptual. But "indie" is another matter. Its twee, quirky shortening smacks of a marketing moniker, and the very fact that it shrinks the term "independent" only highlights those inherent drawbacks of the term I mentioned above (except perhaps for the unpalatability, as "indie" has proved quite popular in recent years).

The Paste article focuses almost entirely on the term as it applies to music. So did a commentator on the Examiner, when I panned (500) Days of Summer while noting a redeeming quality: that it seemed to be waving goodbye to the "indie" aesthetic even as it embodied it. One Chaddy wrote (before moving on to declare I had "no soul" and was "obviously not a Smiths fan" - ?!), "Blahhh. Indie expresses an affinity for a particular music style, not necessarily an aesthetic." In my response, which unfortunately went unheeded, I wrote, "And much, much more. To most people, 'indie' can apply to films as well as music, and there are all sorts of aesthetic signifiers which have clustered around the world in the past 10 years." (I described much of this phenomenon in the review itself.)

Of course there's overlap between the indie music phenomenon and the indie film movement. Not so much at first, as in the 90s "indie movies" connoted dialogue-heavy low-budget features without much of an aesthetic at all. But the turning point probably came with 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums; Wes Anderson's childlike, referential, playful, and precocious style had a monumental influence on rapid growth of the quirky, "indie" aspects of the zeitgeist (particularly title and poster design). I actually think it's an exceptional film, despite its malign influence - it captured an elusive mood and sensibility which had never quite been articulated to this full extent, a fact which explains its persistent impact on pop culture (which is probably only matched in independent movie terms by Tarantino's roughly 10 years earlier). While according to "Indie is Dead?" the term is so indefinable and hard-to-pin-down that it's essentially meaningless, I'd submit that, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Still, as the article points out, if the term is no longer defined by the very conditions which birthed it (i.e. actual independence from the industry, be it music or film) isn't it time to retire it, or at least radically redefine it? This seems to be what they're after with their title question - has "indie" become so ubiquitous, achieving an erasure of the original need for itself in the process, that it might as well declare "mission accomplished" and "game over"? This isn't what I meant to investigage with my own indie-is-dead article: for one thing, I think there may be the first stirrings of a movement away from the 00s form of "indie"; for another I think the phenomenon which the word applies to is still severely limited, despite its ubiquity. As I said to JAFB beneath a recent post:
I'd welcome a renewed underground but also a fresh cultural approach which neither eschews the mainstream nor cowtows to it, but rather redefines it the way the 60s counterculture did. Marginalization and fragmentation, imposed and self-willed, have lasted too long.

And finally...death to the word "indie" itself! I was actually going to write an Examiner piece about this, pending a name change from "Indie Movie Examiner" to "Independent Movie Examiner." The word indie is so self-consciously quirky, twerpy, and wimpy. It reminds me of those aesthetically unappealing, stamp-size ads which used to bug me when I was a kid, eagerly flipping through the pages of the Boston Globe looking at the big posters for Jurassic Park or The Fugitive or (next summer) The Mask. Granted, many of these ads were for movies which actually turned out to be quite good (often better than the big-budget flicks I drooled over) but if my taste has changed, I still wish independent cinema wasn't so acquiescent in its marginalization. Think big, this is cinema! True, the dirt-cheap talkfests of the 90s are over but the overly stylized subculture movies of the 00s still haven't quite broken out of the ghetto.
Ultimately, the notion of independence - from both industrial and cultural norms - will have to transcend its own limitations, cast off the dead weight of the slight, cutesy term "indie", and prove itself not merely a watered-down or even reflexively contrarian "alternative" to the mainstream but a transcendence of it. The 60s counterculture became the dominant culture for a reason (demographics aside) - because it was unapologetic, stronger, more diverse, richer than the increasingly thin gruel of "adult" pop culture. Any similar achievements of the DIY scene and the offbeat ethos will have to achieve the same. With technology increasingly accessible, the kindling is there. The coming decade will see if the true fire of independence begins to blaze in full force, or if we're only able to warm ourselves by the increasingly pathetic flames flaring up here and there.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Just Another Film Buff said...

Movieman. I wanted to respond to the marvelous comment you made in your review of 500 Days, which you have resurrected here wonderfully. I absolutely agree with the need for a counterculture that doesn't victimize itself.

It is sad that independent cinema has become a delicacy of sorts and even a genre that independent filmmakers seem to gladly adhere to. The choice of aesthetics has become "safe". The themes are also right on the checkilist - multiculturalism, the great American dream, breezy romance, the aspiring middle class etc.

I love John Cassavetes in this regard. He made such great films that didn't try to cash in from their marginalization. So did the early films of Scorsese, I think.

MovieMan0283 said...

I think the best approach to independent filmmaking may be to treat it merely as a financial or even personal category - i.e., as filmmaking outside of the studio system and studio resources. As for the subject matter and stylistic approach, that could entail anything. There should be independent genre films, independent auteur films, and yeah the occasional independent talkfest. Above all, why not independent films with style, and not just the approved style du jour? Bold choices with camera movement, composition, editing, a command of cinema language? You don't need a great deal of money for that.

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