We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! – The Wild Angels, 1966.
The New Yorker recently published an article called The State of Independent Film in 2016, a fascinating read focusing on two recent indie titles at the Maryland Film Festival, The Love Witch, directed by Anna Biller, and Morris from America by Chad Hartigan.
In the article, author Richard Brody writes:
An independent film is one that’s made within the arm’s reach of the filmmakers, that’s experiential—that the filmmakers make in order to see not just the world at large but also their own place in it. […] Independent films are made for the filmmaker to learn from. In effect, they’re student films—films by students of life, who aren’t professing but searching for their own place in the world and in filmmaking itself. Independent filmmakers don’t take for granted their place in the cinematic firmament and don’t even presume its existence. They see all systems as up for grabs, ripe for transformation, in a state of perpetual crisis.
Brody’s view gets me thinking about experimentation in film, and the lack of experimentation in much of today’s independent film scene. In previous decades, when making a film outside the confines of a studio was a rebellion in itself, independent films ranged from Brakhage to Anger to Wood to Waters; their work never aped the studio system, but constantly judged it, hid from it, confronted its flaws.
Today, Sundance and other AAA festivals have created a culture where independent film has been reduced to a studio-system minor league rather than an environment where outsider art and storytelling can thrive; the last few years of Sundance award-winners and big-sells have mainly been the indies that most resemble studio films.
Considering how revered filmmakers like Kubrick are today, it surprises me how few of his disciples are willing to take the time it takes to make art.
The current festival climate creates an environment where, rather than experimenting, many filmmakers crank out new lo-fi variations-on-a-theme every year or two just to stay in the conversation—refusing to reach for, and perhaps as Brody surmises, rejecting the idea of a “cinematic firmament” entirely, while at the same time elevating filmmakers squarely inside that firmament, like Lynch, Kubrick, and Carpenter, artists with distinctive style and passion for unique stories (everything modern independent film lacks) as untouchable gods of cinema. This hero worship for experimenters amidst a lack of experimentation begs an obvious question: is that “cinematic firmament” truly seen as non-existent? Or is reaching mainstream cultural success with outsider/art films merely seen as unattainable today, or worse, unimportant? Considering how revered filmmakers like Kubrick are today, it surprises me how few of his disciples are willing to take the time it takes to make art, and make an effort to create new immersive worlds with each film.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another filmmaker with projects so wildly diverse as The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. And maybe that’s exactly why Kubrick has become such a fixture in the “cinematic firmament” in the last decade; as filmmaking become more and more about finding the next film to make “within arm’s reach” and less about dedicated focus on developing a unique, cinematic story, Kubrick’s impeccable craftsmanship and years of dedication per project seem mythic and completely out of touch with today’s #whitepeopleproblem cottage industry.
Kubrick may be the only revered filmmakers who doesn’t so obviously fit the maxim presented by Jean Renoir: “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.” And his work is all the better for it. Yes, Kubrick’s films were primarily studio-backed, but after the success of Spartacus, weren’t the driving force behind the films—he was. Kubrick proved that “branding” is bullshit and the only brand you need to be successful is the ability to create remarkably crafted art consistently. Kubrick had stories he was burning to tell his entire career, and told as many of them as he could; he wasn’t going back to the drawing board after each film premiere to MacGyver the best script he could muster out of Popsicle sticks and dental floss and his friend’s bohemian walk-up in Bed-Stuy.
Indie film shouldn’t be about creating “just within arm’s reach” on “student-of-life” films; that perspective encourages the lazy, low-hanging fruit that maintains the festival circuit status quo, and how we end up with a slew of instantly forgettable Brooklynesque dramedies each year. Many American films I see at festivals don’t challenge an industry “ripe for transformation,” and the only “state of perpetual crisis” is the repetitiveness of content and the hollowing of meaning as each successive filmmaker tries their hand at the same old story.
The gift of independent filmmaking is freedom to experiment, and experimenting should be telling extraordinary stories that no one else can or will tell, with the understanding that the imperfections caused by lack of resources can sometimes make a film perfect, and should be embraced rather than feared.
The Love Witch is one of the few independent films in recent memory to create an immersive world, a seamless aesthetic vision that perfectly supports the commentary being explored in its reclaiming of its kitsch/throwback trappings. It’s not a perfect film, but it stands out shoulders above any other indie film released this year, and is both a testament to director Anna Biller’s passion and knowledge of the history of her industry as well as a consummate dedication to a cohesive artistic representation.
Art doesn’t need to be precise to still be art. Art doesn’t need to be pretentious or misunderstood or over your head to be art. Art doesn’t need to be commercially nonviable or niche to be art. Art is not art simply because you expressed something (because there really are only so many ways you can skin a bittersweet post-NYU coming-of-age journey) but because you’ve expressed something primal, that taps an audience’s deeper emotions, suspends their beliefs, and, even if only for a second, changes the way their brain perceives the world around them. The Love Witch is art. Meshes of the Afternoon is art. 8 1/2 is art. Carravagio is art. But so is Ant-Man. The films of Ben Wheatley, Alma Har’el, and Coatwolf are art.
Filmmaking is a craft, but when practiced well, can become an art.
Ten years ago I interviewed Roger Corman for the first time, and I asked him if he though film was an art or a craft. His reply always stayed with me: Filmmaking is a craft, but when practiced well, can become an art.
If today’s independent filmmakers are ever going to believe in and find their place in a “cinematic firmament” outside the festival circuit, I think they’d better learn to stop worrying about the films within reach and love channeling their craft into the time-consuming, driven, and emotional journey it takes to create art.