October 1, 2010

What is independent cinema?

What is independent cinema? Critics and film scholars have wrestled with this definition for most of cinema’s existence. Is it fair to consider a film independent when the whole distribution machine is dependent on Hollywood? These four filmmakers are all considered independent. In the book Personal Visions, they talk about their troubles with the system and the limits of their independence.


Terence Davies


The Liverpool-raised British director Terence Davies is one of the most poetic filmmakers working today. After living through an unbearably oppressive childhood, Davies found a way to channel all of his bad memories and experiences into his art as a kind of therapy for a life of constant “agony” and “misery”. It’s evident throughout his whole interview of the impact of his past on his present, whether by his self-deprecating answers or by his pessimistic views of the future, himself and his films. He himself declares: “[…] I hate me. I wish I could change. I would change tomorrow. I don’t like being me and I never have”. Nonetheless, his films exude beauty. Using constant stylization, and especially what the book names as a “tableau strategy”, Davies creates a unique, romantic and visceral experience.


Davies cites, as his first contact with film, the classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a landmark film in the musical genre – and containing a 20-minute stylized and silent dancing scene which no doubt influenced the filmmaker. As he puts it, “At seven, I saw my first film, Singin’ in the Rain, which was a wonderful introduction. I fell in love with film, particularly musicals […]”. For countless filmmakers, musicals have influenced contemporary cinema, even after the genre’s disappearance, inspiring filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann. Further through the interview, Davies will reiterate the impact of the genre on his art: “Well, the main [formative influence] really was the American musical, because that was what I was brought up on”. The influence is flagrant in Distant Voices, Still Lives, the filmmaker’s most well-known work, and The Neon Bible later. In Distant Voices, Still Lives, the characters’ constant singing is as much an expression of their misery and sadness as a hymn to the use of songs in movies, conjuring up instantly the musical. In The Neon Bible, characters will integrate music to the story in a way that seems more than narrative and important to the film as a whole, like the sudden introduction of the song Turrah Lurrah Lurrah.


The influence of Old Hollywood is evident in Davies’ oeuvre. “[…] I went to the cinema all the time”, declares the filmmaker. There is also a definite influence from English comedies like The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness and Kind Hearts and Coronets, which he unflinchingly calls “the greatest film comedy ever”. “Much later, I discovered Bergman and Ozu, an even greater revelation”, states the filmmaker. Davies’ cinematic past plays an important role in his movies. In Distant Voices, Still Lives, characters go to the movies to watch Love is a Many Splendored Thing and the next scene, of men falling through glass, unfolds through the theme music of that movie. Davies routinely uses references derived from his influences, like sound cues from The Magnifiscent Ambersons or Kind Hearts and Coronets. “They have enormous meaning for me and that’s why they’re in the film”, confesses Davies.


His work strategy is very intuitive. Talking about the editing of the first part of the Trilogy, Children, Davies says: “Very often, I would say ‘This just feels right.’ And she’d say, ‘well, if it feels right, you must go with it.’” Reading his interview, there is no sense of an overbearing analysis of his work; it seems to mysteriously come together for him. Images come to him through the elaboration of the screenplay, and those translate to the film. Talking about the Children script, Davies recalls his inexperience: “I didn’t know how you wrote a script, and so I wrote down what I saw. […] Also, if I write down everything, when I go on the set, I know every shot in the film. That gives you an enormous kind of bedrock on which to base everything”. He continues later, “Sometimes you don’t know where things come from, like the scene of the man falling through the glass roof.” It’s as if the ideas are laid on Davies by the Muses.


Like most independent films, the production process, retold by the filmmaker, appears as a terrible and horrific experience. Terence Davies’ path is no different. The financing of his first film, Children, was “agony”, according to him. On top of that, the jealousy and resentment of the crew affected Davies: “Everyone on the crew, apart from the cameraman, loathed the script, and they let me know it. They made my life complete misery. […] The crew’s attitude was: ‘You haven’t gone to film school. You haven’t made a film. Why should you get all this money from the [British Film Institute]?” His experience will be echoed by other first-time filmmakers in the book, like Neil Jordan.



Neil Jordan


As Jordan himself states, he is issued from a literary background. He cites William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as cultural and aesthetic influences. “[…] It was a writer’s culture; it always has been”. To him, movies were inaccessible to the Irish: “When I grew up, I used to love movies but they didn’t seem to belong to the culture I lived in. Nobody Irish had ever made a movie […] If you grew up in [Ireland], writing was the main culture”. He still cites cinema mainstays as influences on his work: “I was interested in European and American films of the forties and fifties. I was into everything I saw. Nicholas Ray, Fellini, Buñuel, Kurosawa”. But, to him, influences could come from anywhere, even The Twilight Zone. It is even more apparent now with the mediatization of life. The present conjecture is evidently responsible for the appearance of works like The Matrix and Kill Bill, veritable pot-pourris of influences and pop references, whether consciously as dense and populated as they are or not.  


Jordan works in a poetic style, whether in film or in literature. He relegates that effect to the power of film: “I think cinema’s probably the most poetic medium ever invented, in a strange way. Even the most vulgar, noisy movies, it can lead to a kind of poetry you don’t find in any other medium”. That’s a self-deprecating quote. To deny the influence of the artist on the image is somewhat nonsense. There is no denying that poetic imagery can be found in “vulgar, noisy movies”, as Jordan labels them, as John Woo’s slow motion shots and Michael Bay’s low angle shots are an example, but the poetic aspect of a movie like In Dreams does not come from the medium, but the interpretation that Jordan makes of his subject and the tools he uses to produce those lush, dream-like images. As a way to adapt his storytelling style to what was needed in The Company of Wolves, Jordan turned to paintings: “We looked at a painter called Samuel Palmer. If you want to see how to eroticize landscape, look at his paintings; they’re beautiful”. Palmer’s influence on The Company of Wolves is similar to H. R. Giger’s on Alien. On Interview with the Vampire, Jordan once again adapted to the subject matter and worked to create a unique world for Anne Rice’s vampires: “I was just trying to create something that was dead, like a funeral home. The whole thing is a series of funeral interiors. […] It was about making their entire world like a coffin: Los Angeles, Paris, San Francisco”.


Jordan’s outlook on the whole production process is somewhat fatalist and resigned. He only leaped into directing after his scripts for television were mishandled by their directors: “I was so depressed by the experience of seeing them realized that I had to do it myself”. Angel, Jordan’s first film, came out of an arrangement with director John Boorman and Channel Four in Britain: “They [Channel Four] were worried about me never having directed before. I asked John [Boorman] to produce it for me, which gave them some security, and so they let me make this movie.” But the director regrets his lack of preparation for directing the film: “That’s the problem with a lot of first-time directors. You get a very clear image in your head, but you don’t realize that to actually get it on the screen, you’ve got to do all this basic preparation”. As the subject matter was a little sensitive, the production was up against mountains of resistance from the different groups who didn’t agree with Jordan: “I was getting death threats because I was making a film about sectarian killing, and some people thought it was about the IRA”. This apprehension toward the film echoed right through to the limited distribution of the film. But, the director accepts this interdependence between the filmmaker and the distribution outlets: It’s silly to pretend that you’ve no relationship with Hollywood. Every director does, anywhere in the world, even independent directors, because in the end their films have to be distributed by that system”. Like Richard Linklater, Jordan has come to terms with Hollywood and has learned to navigate its waters without compromising his vision.



Richard Linklater


Richard Linklater is the quintessential independent American filmmaker. Kevin Smith cites him as an influence for his first film, Clerks. Originally from Texas, he was able to work, until now, both as an independent filmmaker and as a Hollywood director. His first feature, Slacker, was seminal in that it seemed to come at a time of generational transition. To him, life in his native town of Huntsville, Texas was culturally disadvantageous although, since his parents were educated, his dad would take him to “museums, movie, and things like that”. He cites 2001, A Space Odyssey as “having a really profound effect”. “That’s a tribute to Kubrick’s genius, I guess, that it could communicate so clearly on so many levels”, continues the filmmaker. He also cites David Lynch and Martin Scorsese as influences: “[…] I saw Raging Bull, which became another touchtone for me. […] It was like ‘Oh my God! Film can be that?’” Further through the interview, he names French New Wave director – and a personal favorite of mine – Eric Rohmer as an inspiration for the style of Before Sunrise. Rohmer’s style is renowned for being very verbose but, in opposition of Rohmer’s characters who seem much taken by themselves and egocentric, Linklater’s characters in Before Sunrise seem genuinely disposed to communicating with each other.


Linklater talks about the development towards Slacker as a journey, beginning with his Super8 experiments, rather than as a singular experience. The writing was additive; the process itself was rather short, but the accumulation of material took a long time: “For five or six years, I’d been keeping notebooks of ideas, weird little things, dialogue or whatever. In one twenty-four-hour period, in spring 1989, I sat down and wrote the entire script”. The “narrative experiment” is about communication and forces the spectator to always inhabit the present of the story and not be distracted by any previous history: “There’s a certain pissed-off, on the verge of anarchy quality. […] [The characters] had no names, they had no desires outside what was going on in their head. […] It’s almost like channel surfing”. As well, in the post-production stage, editing was crucial to keeping the film documentary aspects. Linklater persists in using long takes as part of the film’s style: “It’s just the way it felt natural to tell that story. […] I wanted it to seem unmanipulated and real, and the more cuts you make, the more the audience, on some level, is aware of being manipulated. Of course, sometimes I had to cut, and it felt like some kind of moral violation. When I started cutting, I didn’t like doing it at all. Every cut was a big deal”. Linklater here seems to adhere to the famous Robert Bresson quote: “Every cut is a moral decision”.


When asked if the shoot was difficult, Linklater doesn’t seem to regret Slacker’s very limited budget: “We shot in thirty-five days over a two-month period and a lot of those were half-days. That’s pretty fast, especially for a no-budget film”. A lot of artists talk about the sophomore curse, that fact that critics often put great expectations on sophomore efforts. Linklater recalls that invisible pressure on Dazed and Confused: “Slacker had got some recognition, so you feel the scrutiny a little more intensely. They’re really judging you on that next film. It’s almost like everyone but your closest friends wants you to fail. They ask, ‘Are you just someone who got lucky, or are you a real filmmaker? Do you have more than one movie in you?’” This intangible curse has prevented several promising filmmakers from ever putting out a second effort. Most independent filmmakers talk of the difficulty of financing their second feature. Financing aside, distribution is also a recurring theme. Dazed and Confused wasn’t really supported by its studio, Universal: “I got a modest release, like 183 theaters. Universal was never very excited about it and it got passed off to a smaller distributor they had recently partnered with, Gramercy”. The emerging independent filmmaker, Dylan Kidd, who amazed with his first film, Roger Dodger, was confronted with the same reality of distribution when his sophomore effort, P.S., was released to video after a very limited release in New York. The same considerations plagued Benjamin Ross and he even expressed it as catharsis in RKO 281, which relates the battle to make Citizen Kane.  

   

Benjamin Ross

Benjamin considers that he was, when younger, a movie fanatic. He cites classical literature such as Dickens, Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as influences for his work, which could account for the classical feel of his first film, The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, as well as other, more contemporary writers like Kesey, tom Wolfe and Kerouac. He cites influential directors like Scorsese, Kubrick, Milos Forman, Lindsay Anderson and Emir Kusturica which he met in film school, as well as more mainstream work like the Tarzan movies and several different other genres. With the realization that most of his referentials were American came the desire to transcend those limitations: “I had gone to New York thinking that somehow I had to make myself American because all my influences were American. In fact, when I got there, I found myself thinking about home and who I was. The experience of being dislocated somehow made me realize what I had to write about, which was what I knew”. This is the dilemma of every cinematography on Earth, living in the shadow of the imperial Hollywood machine. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s elaboration of a Third World cinema is based on this desire to escape the overbearing influence of American cinema.


Like Terence Davies, but seemingly to a lesser extent, Benjamin Ross allows a certain intuition in the elaboration of his work: “To be honest, I never look at subject matter and say, ‘Oh, that interests me because of its theme.’ It’s a purely instinctive thing for me, more like, ‘Where do I want to put myself for what’s likely to be the next two, three, possibly four years of my life?’” Ross and his co-writer were given money by British screen to work on the screenplay of The Young Poisoner’s Handbook which took two years. He recalls being prepared for the shoot, going so far as to storyboard: “I try to know everything and then improvise. Then it all changes and you have to try to be open to that. That’s the challenge, I suppose”. On his shooting style, he admits being a minimalist when it comes to the specifics of the shoot: “I like to keep things terribly technical. I’m very happy if my DP says, ‘A little to the right. A little faster.’ Very simple things”. Contrary to the shooting, which Ross finds difficult, he loves the editing process: “That’s the part I can enjoy, because you’ve got your material and then you’re really making the picture. You can make decisions and if it’s not right, you can undo it and try something else”. And that’s exactly what Ross did when, after a screening at Cannes, he realized that the picture needed fine-tuning and raised the necessary £50.000 to go back into the editing room and cut down his film. Ross also seems knowledgeable and specific about the look of his movie, a quality usually absent from first-time directors: “We wanted [the film] to be like a progression of English film stock so that it would have a historicity. It goes from the Ealing Studios look of the late 1950s, through to A Clockwork Orange, bleached Eastman, of the early seventies”.


Ross’ first brush with production didn’t go quite well, and he admits that his student film was a disaster: “[…] It was a very good learning experience. I used actors who were not good. All the things that can go wrong with a production, over which you have no control because you have no money, went wrong”. On The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, the complicated financing, a European co-production between England, a French co-producer, and a German producer, brought some problems with it. The German money, from public funds, meant some of the film had to be shot in Germany with a German-speaking crew: “We had a very tight schedule and it was quite hard switching to German, because we had a largely German crew. […] Shooting is difficult, but it was more difficult in Germany because of the language difference and because the crew really weren’t up to speed. It was a cultural chasm, really”. But, contrary to the other three filmmakers reviewed here, Ross’s first effort was well received and did well: [The film] got critically lauded everywhere and won a lot of prizes. It has enabled me to at least establish my name as a filmmaker”. Ross’ sophomore effort, RKO 281 for the American channel HBO, depicts the battle of Orson Welles to have Citizen Kane distributed. Although not as powerfully inventive as The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, it is nonetheless an interesting entry in Ross’ growing filmography.



James Mangold, director of Heavy, trying to comprehend the term ‘independent’, declares that “independent film contains a populist rhetoric, against the system, against the grain”. What distinguishes these four filmmaker’s oeuvre is its departure from the norm, whether the Hollywood model or the European art-house aesthetic. These directors somehow seem to navigate in-between these tendencies. But can they really be considered independent? “Some people are groping for definitions of independent and they just don’t exist, declares Richard Linklater in his interview. I would say independent is private financing, and having absolutely no interference. But like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, by the time such a definition is elaborated, hasn’t the elusive independent term morphed into something else?



Bibliography


FALSETTO, M.: Personal Visions: Conversations with Contemporary Film Directors, Silman-James Press, Los Angeles, California, 2000.


LEVY, E.: Cinema of Outsiders, New York University Press, New York, 1999.