"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.)
"What is independent cinema?" asked the filmmaker in his slow-mo diction. "Is it just this category that was invented since the '80s, or is it something through the history of cinema? To me, all it means is someone who makes a film because they have a desire to express something, and they have control artistically over the film. It's not a film designed to hit a certain marketing demographic."
How has Jarmusch retained his independence over the years? Simple, he answered. Avoid American money -- at least at first. (They want "input" and "control" and "final cut," words that will chill any artist's heart.) He gets "back end" financing from markets in Germany, Japan and other countries, in which distribution companies pay Jarmusch upfront for the rights to his film in their respective territories. And they don't exert any creative control. When the movie is made, then he can find an American distributor.
However, he recently accepted financing from the American-based Focus Films for "Broken Flowers." (See review on Page 30.) But Jarmusch doesn't see this as a change in his ideology because Focus promised him creative carte blanche for casting, story and final cut. Bottom line: He still gets to do what he wants.
Jarmusch is hardly the first. To get back to his earlier question -- how far back does independent filmmaking go? -- we could flashback to the 1890s. Long, long before Kevin ("Clerks") Smith's folks wore diapers, two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere took their silent movie camera and made films about real life. Their first showcase took place in Paris in December 1895.
One of their movies, a short one recording the arrival of a train at La Ciotat station so startled the audience that some fled the theater -- just to get out of harm's way. And way before George Lucas made "Star Wars," there was another George doing special effects and doing it independently. His name was Georges Melies, another Frenchman, and he made such creative films as 1902's "A Trip to the Moon," with the kind of jump cuts and optical tricks still used today.
All three filmmakers controlled their means of production and came up with their own ideas. There were many others in the early years of cinema who made movies independently, at least for part of their careers, such as pioneer D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton. But by the 1930s, the studios had monopolistic control over the filmmaking process. It was the beginning of a golden age of great films, but independent filmmaking was pretty much the exception.
Those anomalies have always been around. For every generation, there have been artists who refused to seek permission for their work to be made and seen. They also freed themselves from convention, taboos and fear of public reaction or loss of money. For instance, such filmmakers as Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Hy Hirsh, Oskar Fischinger, Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren made their own avant-garde films, which ranged from the surrealistic to the deeply abstract, before and after World War II.
The number of filmmakers who forged an individual path while collaborating with studios is virtually endless, but Orson Welles stands out as one of the greatest. Such films as "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," made in the 1940s, were largely his own creations, made through his own Mercury Productions. Unfortunately, "Kane" was seen as a commercial failure at the time for RKO Pictures. But it is believed by many to be the greatest American movie ever made. In fact, the AFI voted it No. 1 of all time.
Between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, the New York-based John Cassavetes made an extraordinary body of work, which he produced with his own in-house family of actors and technicians. He used money from his acting career to help pay for such great independent works as 1959's "Shadows," "Faces" (1968), "Husbands" (1970) and 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence," which starred his wife, Gena Rowlands.
During the 1960s, when the counterculture was booming, the climate was perfect for individual expression to explode on screen. A flood of radically charged movies, known as avant-garde and underground films, poured forth from such diverse filmmakers as Andy Warhol and Anger. In the early 1970s, Baltimore's own tongue-in-cheek shockmeister John Waters made the 1972 film "Pink Flamingos," featuring a trashy family and an upper-class one competing for the title "Filthiest People Alive." Waters's films were part of a subgenre that came to be known as "midnight movies." David Lynch's 1977 "Eraserhead" and Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 "El Topo," both independent productions, were also staples of the midnight circuit.
Independent films have given voice to those traditionally left out of the Hollywood picture. The 1971 movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," made by Melvin Van Peebles, forged the way for the great blaxploitation era of films and such later filmmakers as Spike Lee, whose 1986 "She's Gotta Have It" and 1989 "Do the Right Thing" surely belong on any list of all-time independent greats.
In the 1980s, camcorders became omnipresent. In the early 1990s, high-resolution digital video proliferated. Suddenly low-cost, instant-result filmmaking and consumer viewing of it became household. Filmmakers had a cheap, easy way to get their ideas into movie form. Hardware and software for editing became possible via personal computers. And people watched it at home. And of course, Lucas's decision to make his more recent "Star Wars" movies all digital has made digital filmmaking an assured part of the future. If Yoda's creator is doing it, then Joe Dropout's indie movie, also shot on digi-cam, can receive a sort of coattail respect.
There isn't space enough here to pay tribute to all the independent filmmakers over recent decades who have contributed to the overall aesthetic of Doing It Their Way, including the entire French New Wave of filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s, and Americans such as John Sayles, cheap-and-fast producer Roger Corman, Robert Frank, Jonas Mekas, Todd Haynes, the Coen brothers and Anderson. But there have been many of them, and for those brief shining moments, they have not only taught the world to receive and appreciate movies differently. They have asked people to look beyond star-driven entertainment, at least temporarily, and appreciate another perspective.
So here's a big salute to all those great impulses that have pushed filmmaking and audiences into the giddy light of unconventional originality. Maybe the accompanying top-10 lists of great indie movies, past and recent, will get you started on the same path via DVD. Hopefully, the lists will also whet your appetite to look for more indie and foreign films at such alternative venues as the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre, the Avalon Theatre, the National Gallery of Art's East Building, the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, and Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema.
And here's to my mother-in-law for watching "Junebug."
Desson Thomson has been Weekend's movie critic since 1987. He's had more success getting his mother-in-law to watch edgy indies than he has his father-in-law.