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Geoff King, American Independent Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005, $14.95, 294 pages, ISBN 1850439389)—Thomas Aiello, University of Arkansas


American Independent Cinema struggles with the nature and meaning of independence as it applies to the US film industry, arguing along the way for a broader definition of what constitutes an independent movie. Those that fit into King’s definition are (and have been), he argues, integral to the development of cinema as a viable avenue of artistic creation. The independents, in fact, according to his definition, are clearly the “good guys,” auteurs in a pluriverse of paint-by-number movies. Deviation from the norm is the lynchpin of independence for King, not funding.

Well, sort of. King’s definition of independence is never so clearly defined. His emphasis throughout seems a paraphrase of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography—“I know it when I see it.” Many of the films King examines received production or distribution funding from either a major studio or a studio owned by one of the majors. Many previous definitions would deny them the label “indie,” but King delineates a number of telling characteristics—methods of developing certain narrative and formal themes—that function as signposts of independent legitimacy, even when the paychecks are being signed by more mainstream sources.

King contrasts his definition against that of film scholar Greg Merritt, who argues that total autonomy from the studio system is the only qualification for independent status. Merritt’s seems to be the most linguistically reasonable of the definitions, but, for King, independence is more a state of mind—a vision of filmmaking that deviates from Hollywood’s grand narrative or moral sensibility. Funding is a consequence of the vision, and therefore subordinate to it. “The feature-length, narrative-based independent cinema examined in this book is not a single, unified entity. ‘Independence’ is a relative rather than an absolute quality and can be defined as such at the industrial and other levels.” [9] So independence from a studio is not the “indie” of common usage. Independence from a studio is simply the result of a more general aesthetic independence that cordons off a certain category of uniqueness, no matter how blurry that category becomes at its edges.

King describes these edges as “the contours of American independent cinema,” existing, “in the overlapping territory between Hollywood and a number of alternatives: the experimental ‘avant-garde,’ the more accessible ‘art’ or ‘quality’ cinema, the politically engaged, the low-budget exploitation film and the more generally offbeat or eccentric.” [2] This is by no means a scientific or philosophical absolute, but it frames a discussion (however loosely) that allows the reader to “better know it when he or she sees it.”

A brief history of filmic independence precedes these discussions, as King traces the industrial development of Hollywood from the original monopolizing patents companies of the early twentieth century to the studio system that colluded in so many ways to keep out filmmakers not under one of the major Hollywood enterprises. The author is careful to point out that eccentricity in film was always present, and that creators working independently of the studios, often on a contract-out basis, existed from the industry’s inception (and often with budgets exponentially larger than those of studio productions). Here King attempts to expose Merritt’s definition of independence, as the systematic development of the studio and contract-out systems technically qualify films such as Gone with the Wind and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as “independent.” The category is literally true, but not functionally true—though the label is linguistically accurate, it only serves to cloud common usage. That said, however, King’s willingness to allow larger non-industrial studios into his paradigm leaves him with Miramax and New Line productions such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Good Will Hunting, and Gangs of New York. So, in the end, even the defining lines of “mainstream” remain blurred.

These discrepancies are treated initially, but King then moves quickly to the 1980s and 1990s, where the bulk of the author’s focus remains. In the 1980s, he assures us, “the more arty/quirky, sometimes politically inflected brand of independent cinema began to gain a higher profile and a more sustained and institutionalized base.” [8] In other words, filmic independence became a makeshift industry of its own. It is in this realm of independent cinema as a recognizable entity that the majority of King’s work takes place, and he tailors his discussion around a series of signifying elements that form the outline—however distorted—of what constitutes film independence.

King first demonstrates the independent critique of the grand Hollywood narrative, the “classical” form of “an initial state of equilibrium […] disrupted and, after various complications, eventually restored or reinstated in a different form.” [60] The development of this narrative is pitched forward, with clear cause and effect relationships forming the connective tissue from scene to scene. Generally, a central plot begins, soon interwoven with a second (usually romantic) plot, and each build to a reasonable conclusion of the initial disruption of equilibrium. The author uses examples such as John Cassavetes’s Shadows (Cassavetes being one of the only pre-1980s directors that King examines in any real depth) and Harmony Korine’s Gummo to demonstrate the general break with grand narrative structure in independent cinema. In Shadows, an inadvertent interracial relationship causes chaos between friends and family, but the principal plot points (or, perhaps, what would become principal plot points in the Hollywood narrative) are treated without special aplomb—the emotion of the events emphasized just as palpably in the seemingly lesser moments of the developing action. Furthermore, what would seem to be the primary disruption of equilibrium—the overriding racial tension in the community—is never resolved, the characters exiting a bar after a brawl in the closing sequence to continue with their lives as lived before. Nobody learned their lesson. King reads Cassavetes’s intention here as emphasizing to his audience that the racial problems in the United States were too ingrained (the film was made in 1960) to be fully solved, particularly in an hour and a half.

In Harmony Korine’s Gummo, an independent film further abandons the Hollywood (or, for that matter, any) narrative structure. “Developing or sustained narrative drive is replaced by a more fragmentary portrait of an assortment of dead-end lives in a community of the disaffected and/or disadvantaged.” [63] The film serves as a portrait of the adolescent experience in the town of Xenia, Ohio, but its status as portrait itself severs preconceptions about filmic progress. A character known as “Bunny Boy” wanders the frame at certain points, though no explanation or connective purpose is offered. As stories progress, they are abandoned for others. And, in the end, no reconciliation is offered for the myriad problems portrayed on screen. Furthermore, those problems are not presented as problems. Cat-hunting, glue-huffing, rape, and alcoholic lethargy are presented as “slices of life,” rather than disturbing lifestyle changes to be overcome. So every element of the classical narrative is undermined. There is no clear cause and effect sequencing, there is no forward progress, and there is no sanctifying rectification.

The work of Cassavetes and Korine play prominent roles in King’s account, as does that of Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch. In his 1980 Stranger than Paradise, Jarmusch, also demonstrates “the sense that nothing much ever seems to happen.” [72] But in a different way. Jarmusch’s tale evinces a linear development. A group of friends move from New York to Cleveland to Florida. The progression, however, happens largely off-screen, as long sequences of mundane car rides and quiet moments dominate the visual body of the film. The bulk of classical-narrative plot points (such as borrowing a car for one of the excursions) are mentioned by the characters though never actually seen. “Despite all the miles covered,” King argues, “in a series of uneventful car-interior scenes, the dominant sense is of an absence of change.” [72]

King’s discussion of narrative precedes another concerning the other formal elements of filmmaking—camera, sound, lighting, etc. He argues that, again, a classical Hollywood style, neutral an unobtrusive in its function, exists, and that the mark of independent cinema is to go either “beneath” or “beyond” that formal mean. “Beneath” for King, is an attempt to remove any “smoothly orchestrated fabrication” in an effort to create a more realistic, documentary effect. [107] “Beyond” signifies creative stylization (or over-stylization) to either tell the story in a unique way or to flaunt the particular director’s ability at the craft of moviemaking. A prominent example of “beneath” work would be the 1999 Blair Witch Project, whose success was based largely on backhanded claims to authenticity. Examples of King’s “beyond” approach would be the work of directors Quentin Tarantino and Joel & Ethan Cohen. “The appeal of indie films on formal grounds is often based, as suggested above, on a sense of difference—the slightly offbeat, quirky, etc.—the exact parameters of which might not be apparent to many viewers.” [149] The popularity of Blair Witch, Tarantino, and the Cohens seems to validate King’s claim, but, at the same time, that popularity, coupled with the advance of years, could easily qualify these entities as “mainstream.” Again, the contours of independent film are well-defined and blurry at the same time.

This contradiction is clearly the result of semantic constructs—terms originally used to delineate distance from an industrial system are in the process of defining something else instead. It is that shift that creates the blur. The subject of definition, however, seems vastly clearer. As the “independent” and “indie” labels have been applied to films, the language itself has cordoned off certain films of varying eccentricity into a genre of its own. People “know it when they see it,” define it as such, and thus inadvertently create a genre. Perhaps the best reason to apply the term “indie” is to place a “This Film Is in Our Club” sticker on the boxes of those movies. But then the question of just who constitutes “Our Club” arises. And genres are not static entities. Films like The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project exploit the horror genre. Westerns, detective movies, gangster films, and romantic comedies can be made independently, both independent of a studio and independent of grand Hollywood conventions. King notes this shift, arguing that indie films “continue to offer workings in and reworkings of generic identity that constitute some of their most rich and diverse qualities,” [195] and in so doing, create a genre of their own.

King closes his work with a discussion of the minority cinema of African Americans and homosexuals, as elements of a radical film lying predominantly left of center. “An important aspect of any definition of independent cinema,” King notes, “is the space it offers—potentially, at least—for the expression of alternative social, political and/or ideological perspectives” [199]. Black film and gay film fall into this category because the mainstream Hollywood outlets have not been “hospitable” [199] to those communities. The necessity of this outsider trajectory, of course, is due to the pressure of big-business Hollywood to play to the broadest possible audience.

In the 1970s, King notes, “black cinema” consisted of the infamous blaxploitation films that offered formulaic shoot-em-ups in urban settings. While some independent African American film has exploited that formula (again the manipulation of genre), the most prominent luminary of black indies is Spike Lee. Lee himself serves as an example in microcosm of the necessity of vagueness when trying to cordon off “independent cinema.” She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s 1986 first feature, was an entirely independent project, while his later popularity led him to work with much larger budgets and studio help before he moved back to a more independent method. His color and his early reputation, however, keep him an indie filmmaker in the broader popular mind.

In the early 1990s, film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term New Queer Cinema to describe the increasingly popular and increasingly well-made films directed by and about the homosexual community. The filmmakers not only worked with film, but entered the community in various pushes for AIDS awareness, equal rights issues, and other politically motivated activities. King quotes Rich as describing New Queer Cinema as “a more successful term for a moment than a movement” [227]. Filmmakers Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, and Todd Haynes emerged from the “moment” to become award-winning artists (with a far larger viewership than simply the urban homosexual community).

Of course, skin color and sexual preference are not the only reasons to take an outsider trajectory. Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness depicts Bill Maplewood, a quiet, middle-class therapist who happens to be a pedophile. While pedophilia is outsider enough, Soldonz’s presentation of Bill’s pedophilia as another in a panoply of mundane events in his life only heightens the film’s discomforting, anti-mainstream quality. David O. Russell’s 1994 Spanking the Monkey treats incest in a similar fashion. “To include mother-son incest at all is likely to be a marker of independent status,” argues King, “to make it seem relatively natural, and to deny it a full melodramatic treatment, is to enter into the realm of queering the family context in which it occurs.” [239] And thus it fits into King’s blurred paradigm of American independent cinema.

Categorizing films, however, is not an exact science, and King’s argument that his shifting method of grappling with films generally termed “indie” is more helpful than Merritt’s more certain alternative is vastly successful. His sources are sound, and his writing is replete with the semantic reflection needed to understand that any definition he provides is necessarily transitory in a discipline teeming with cultural constructs. He describes “the richness of the seam that can be mined in the area between Hollywood and the indie sector,” understanding that the two are not mutually exclusive [262]. “The centre of gravity of American independent cinema has certainly shifted closer to Hollywood since the upsurge from the mid 1980s” [262], but shifting, as King describes, is precisely the point.

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