PopMatters Film and TV Editor
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Why Movies Suck
As much as the lines between “independent” and “mainstream” movies seem impossibly blurred, the impulse to mark their difference appears irresistible. Witness TCM’s documentary, Edge of Outside, premiering this month. As a series of filmmakers and scholars struggle to define the term “independent filmmaker, the primary point is illustrated in recurring images between sections: a young white man with longish hair prowls his urban apartment, framed by doorways and windows, pondering the possibilities of… what, exactly? Art? Magic? History? Stardom? Politics?
All of these terms are aspects of movies, of course. And all are granted some vague or direct mention in the documentary. Most often, independents are understood to be “good,” in the sense that they buck systems, seek innovation, create disorder. This even as the industry has recently congratulated itself for nominating four (expensive and well-advertised) “independent” productions for Best Picture Oscars last year, and so claimed a sort of rebel-chic status in relation to itself, or at least in relation to the sequels and product-tie-in fare distributed to multiplexes and DVD outlets.
The very term “independent” takes on an ethical and political weight in such use. As the documentary kicks off a month-long celebration of independents on TCM, it also reveals that the problem they embody remains pretty much the same: money drives the industry, and while it’s hard for outsiders to get in, once they do, their creative brilliance is too frequently sucked dry. The filmmakers mentioned or described in any detail here are all men, and only one, Spike Lee, is not white (at least when he names filmmakers who influenced him—Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles—they or their films appear briefly on screen). As glorious and deserving of celebrating any of us might find Sam Peckinpah, Nick Ray, and Sam Fuller, it’s frustrating that no one even mentions Mary Pickford, Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, Penelope Spheeris, Martha Coolidge, Jodie Foster, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Joan Chen, Mira Nair, or Mary Harron or Nicole Holofcener… to name a precious few.
But the boys’ clubiness of the concept “independents” is instructive in itself. Peter Biskind opens Edge of Outside by describing the “mythic” (not to say stereotypical, or that pale fellow pictured in the documentary’s transitional inserts), independent filmmaker as driven and devoted.
[He’s a] starving, cadaverous, pale guy who hasn’t seen the sun in you know 10 years. Sleeps in his clothes, never bathes, and will do absolutely anything to get his film made, including staging car accidents, giving blood, selling semen, you know, anything.
Yeah, we know. At this point Lee appears on screen to recall the well-known stories of Robert Rodriguez selling his blood and Robert Townsend financing Hollywood Shuffle on his credit card. Edward Burns, who says he feels some affinity with John Cassavetes, another maker who acted to fund projects, says that an independent, above all, must have “the courage to do it alone,” and Frederick Elmes says the independent is “one who couldn’t imagine making a film any way but their way.” The ensuing descriptions of particular filmmakers tend to repeat these and other clichés, though the photos of Stanley Kubrick, Peckinpah or Fuller on set are fascinating no matter what anyone says about them.
Bogdanovich and David Thomson provide history and anecdotes, reiterating that early filmmakers like Griffith, Keaton, Chaplin, and Eric Von Stroheim were independents by definition, even when they worked for studios. As the industry evolved and focused more fiercely on profits, makers were called on to repeat themselves or follow formulas, and to submit their work to be finished by editors hired by studios to deliver to expectations. Some filmmakers found ways around such strictures (Hitchcock famously filmed only what he wanted to end up on screen, thwarting studio editors’ efforts to reshape his work), others found other ways to finance their work (as John Sayles cautions, financing is always a gamble, like hitchhiking: “It may be the third ride or it may be the 3,000th ride, you have to be patient, but sometimes, don’t get in the car”). The problem, however, has always been distribution, and early on, studios found ways to secure control (the documentary does not get into recent developments in this area, through cable tv, the endless film festival circuit, and DVDs).
Still other artists made (and sometimes still make, as in the case of horror movies, a topic not touched on here) inexpensive genre pictures, but made them their own by way of specific visual choices. As David Thomson describes Fuller’s style, the screen shows phenomenal, acrobatic camerawork during an argument: “For him,” Thomson observes, “motion equals emotion. You move the camera, you’re moving the point of view, you’re bringing an energy into the film that is not necessarily tied to the action, or the character alone.” Still, the documentary is short on such aesthetic and technical insight, focused more intently on personalities, and in making mention of a number of popular filmmakers.
Filmmakers obviously admired by everyone in the film include Orson Welles (whose appearances in archival interviews provide Edge of Outside‘s pithiest commentary on the business, though Thomson observes usefully, “He introduced the idea of a movie as an autobiographical statement”), Kubrick, and Cassavetes. The most illuminating stories include details of behavior and attitude, reveal innovations or eccentricities: Gena Rowlands says that while actors felt liberated by John Cassavetes’ refusal to block scenes, the practice was hard on focus pullers, the “real heroes”; and Nicca Ray says that for her father, films “allowed him to discuss things he would have otherwise had a hard time talking about… Temper, violence, believing love could save him and then realizing it couldn’t.”
Today’s independents like acknowledging influences by earlier independents, appreciative of signature framing, cutting patterns, or camera angles. Frequent Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker notes influences similarities between shots in Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Taxi Driver (a film she did not cut), and Darren Aronofsky confesses he was influenced early on by La Dolce Vita, She’s Gotta Have It, and—no surprise—David Lynch (Elmes describes the process of filmmaking with Lynch as repeated efforts to “draw David out,” to discover what he wanted to see on screen). Such admiration and understanding of what constitutes brilliance doesn’t always translate to more genius, but everyone might agree that it’s more productive to watch and learn from good, strange, or provocative work than to spend all your time snarfing down the equivalent of cinematic fast food.
At last the interviewees agree that talent and vision are not nearly the most important character traits for independent filmmakers. Rather, the successful independent must be relentless. As Welles puts it, he spent only two percent of his time filmmaking, and 98 percent “hustling.” Burns sums up: “It’s insane that filmmakers have to play that game and that’s why movies suck.”