Independents' Day

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

"Was that movie . . . independent?" my mother-in-law asked me the other day after she had seen a sneak preview of "Junebug," a low-budget movie set in North Carolina (opening Aug. 26 in Washington) in which the characters are unconventional and -- in some cases -- pretty darn weird.

"Uh, yes," I said.

"Yeah, I thought so," she said. "I thought so."

By "independent," what she meant was: a movie that gave itself license to be its own bad self.

What's an "indie" movie, anyway? Well, it means independent, and it has come to mean a lot of things to different people. Whatever it is, most would agree that it is different from the usual Hollywood studio business, the kind that comes with big budgets, megablitz advertising and household stars face to face with Katie in the morning or Oprah in the afternoon. ("So, Brad, you gotta tell us -- are wedding bells in the picture?")

Because they are independently conceived and directed, in most cases, indie movies are known for taking advantage of good narrative and character quirks instead of computer-generated effects. And these movies are made free of meddlesome studio executives who never met a project they couldn't bury under a pile of memos, "notes" and audience research printouts.

Asked recently about the difference between Hollywood studio movies and independent ones, "Junebug" director Phil Morrison deliberated. He cited two independently made films, 1997's "Thirteen," by David D. Williams, about a 13-year-old African American girl who runs away from home, and Charles Burnett's 1990 "To Sleep With Anger," in which Danny Glover plays a mysterious visitor with a clearly shady side.

Films like these, Morrison said, "are not designed to make you enjoy them because they affirm a preconception of yours as an audience member. They don't pat you on the back for being how you already are but rather remind you of how to try to be better. Just doing better as a person. They're not narcotic. And I think what the studio process can do is create movies that are meant to just please us with sensation. It's like MSG [monosodium glutamate]. You know, MSG makes my food taste really, really good, but it makes me feel a little bit lazier later. It makes me feel sort of numb to reality."

Indies, at their best, are off-Hollywood creativity at its finest, a sort of inspired, low-tech rage against the machine. That machine is the hype-feeder that pours formulaic pablum directly into feed funnels atop the multiplexes. Thanks to the success of films such as Steven Soderbergh's 1989 "sex, lies and videotape," which won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and Quentin Tarantino's 1994 "Pulp Fiction," which not only won the Palm but also went on to make more than $100 million, the possibilities are too delicious to ignore. And these movies have spawned untold numbers of dreamers.

Their dream goes something like this: Some kid from Scranton, Pa., drops out of college; maxes out his (or her) credit cards; begs neighborhood doctors, friends and family to invest; and somehow gets Marisa Tomei to work for union scale because she believes in this script about a single mother and short-order cook who finds love with a moody dude named Dylan. Then the movie wins an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. And the next thing he knows, Sony Pictures Classics picks up the distribution rights for $2 million and yada, yada, yada. In a way, indie movies have become a sort of junior varsity trial for the bigger leagues. But in many cases, the indie filmmaker (such as Wes Anderson or Soderbergh) maintains his or her unique talents, and even if he becomes part of the Hollywood picture, he makes mainstream audiences that little bit hipper.

Another attractive development for indie movies is the consumer DVD revolution. People watch their movies at home these days. And they choose more unconventionally. They don't just want to rent or buy "War of the Worlds" when it comes out, they want the director's recut of "Donnie Darko." They want to catch up with that Michael Moore documentary. They want that early Errol Morris movie, the one with all those weird people in Florida. Which means indie films are making their money back in the video store. (Unfortunately, this also means that Hollywood's mediocre movies can fail at the box office but recoup in their DVD afterlife.)

In a recent telephone conversation, Jim Jarmusch took a few minutes to talk indies. He's the director whose superb 1980s movies -- "Permanent Vacation," "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down by Law" -- were hailed as "independent cinema" back when Ronald Reagan was president. He has managed to stay around for more than two decades, making movies his way. His latest film, "Broken Flowers," opens this weekend, and the American Film Institute is showing a retrospective of his work this month. (See story on facing page.)

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