Sunday, October 12, 2008; Page M01
Have we seen this movie before?
Opening scene: A teenager's bedroom. Walls plastered with posters for cult bands. The soundtrack plays a cut from an equally of-the-moment musician. The credits roll as if someone doodled them in a spiral notebook, in a jittery, animated font. The plot has to do with some form of family dysfunction, social transgression or adolescent self-discovery. While it reaches its darkly funny or just plain dark conclusion -- often by way of a zany, epiphany-filled road trip -- its protagonists one-up each other in pop culture references that are by turns obscure and painfully hip.
Call it "There Will Be Hamburger Phones": More than 20 years after American independent cinema entered its latest Golden Age, what started as a fiercely autonomous cinematic response to Hollywood and its dominant genres has become a genre itself. And like all genres, the indie aesthetic is rife with its own versions of the hackneyed conventions, tired tropes and cliched themes that weigh down the most predictable action spectacle or by-the-numbers rom-com.
Dysfunctional family? Try "Rachel Getting Married." Disaffected teen? Meet "Donnie Darko." Sexual taboos? "Tadpole's" got 'em. Sly references to pop arcana and sardonic humor? Go, "Rushmore"! Hipper-than-thou soundtrack? Listen to "Garden State," it'll change your life. Llamas and recreational drug use are optional. An overarching tone of ironic detachment is not: Irony is to the indie what the horse is to the Western and the rain-slicked street is to the noir thriller..
To its credit, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" -- Hollywood's latest example of indie chic -- wears its irony lightly. Audiences charmed by the teen romance, which stars Michael Cera and Kat Dennings as mutually music-obsessed sweethearts, might have a vague sense of deja vu watching the clubland picaresque. There's the shaky-line opening credits, a soundtrack dominated by such alt.cool musical acts as Band of Horses, Devendra Banhart and Vampire Weekend, and Nick's battered yellow Yugo. Unpopular, unattractive and adamantly uncool, the Yugo may be the perfect indie prop, projecting both winking nostalgia and low-tech authenticity in one efficient, ultra-ironic package.
Could the yellow Yugo be this year's hamburger phone? The hamburger phone, of course, was the ultimate indie signifier in "Juno," the sleeper hit of 2007 and itself an extended riff on established indie tropes and themes. Written by a onetime stripper (indie bonus points!), "Juno" featured most if not every indie cliche in the be-doodled book:
· Taboo subject? Check: Teen pregnancy.
· Quirky young protagonist? Check: Spiky, cracking-wise adolescent heroine.
· Hip music cues? Check: Soundtrack by the cult band Moldy Peaches.
· Obscure pop culture cred? Check and double-check: Nonstop barrage of meta-references, from vintage B-movies and television ("Suspiria," "Thundercats") to beverages and breath mints (Sunny D, Tic Tacs).
The mass audiences that made "Juno" a success no doubt saw it as fresh and new, right down to its painfully stylized dialogue ("Honest to blog"). But anyone who had seen "Heathers," "Ghost World" and "Garden State" before it surely had the feeling they had already answered that particular phone.
Forget whether we've seen these movies before. Is there any reason to watch another one?
American independent films used to be the stuff of the cognoscenti, denizens of film festivals and art houses who laughed knowingly at their inside jokes, appreciated their scratchy production values and applauded their formal daring. It all changed in 1994, when the $8 million "Pulp Fiction" surpassed $100 million at the U.S. box office. Since then, "low budget" films have been steadily churned out by boutique arms of big studios and ambitious young filmmakers looking for a hot Hollywood career.
By the time "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody won the Oscar this year, it was painfully clear that the very principles that made indies so attractive in the first place had morphed into tired, cynical mannerisms: Spontaneity became false and studied; intimacy became precious; daring became shock value for its own sake; personal became shallow and solipsistic; and willingness to challenge linear narrative became pretentious and incoherent.
Perhaps the worst offender in copping a derivative indie 'tude is "Napoleon Dynamite." The 2004 film starred a then-unknown Jon Heder as the title character, an awkward, adolescent super-geek with an adenoidal bleat for a voice and a penchant for tetherball. "Napoleon Dynamite," which was another crossover hit, packed in detail after cloyingly "indie" detail: Trapper Keepers, moon boots, a nonstop cavalcade of progressively more eccentric characters, the bleak, featureless backdrop of American exurbia. The film, a self-conscious compendium of "idiosyncratic" stunts and "quirky" set pieces, took indie irony to its cruelest extreme, expressing thinly veiled ridicule and contempt for its subjects and, by extension, its audience.
"Napoleon Dynamite" featured another dreaded de rigueur element in just about every indie film: the wacky senior citizen, in this case a grandmother who races all-terrain vehicles and raises llamas. In "Little Miss Sunshine," the role of choice was a heroin-addicted grandfather, for which Alan Arkin won an Oscar. (The 2006 picture won another Oscar for Best Screenplay and was nominated for two more, including Best Picture.) Since then, no indie film worth its micro-budget hasn't featured some Hollywood veteran "stretching" in an unexpected role, whether it's Ellen Burstyn in Darren Aronofsky's 2000 drug drama "Requiem for a Dream" or 1970s stars Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" or -- in this year's Most Unlikely Comeback Triumph -- Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky's upcoming "The Wrestler."
Maybe it was inevitable that films dedicated to fighting cliche would succumb to fatal cliche themselves.
From Charlie Chaplin to John Cassavetes, independent films have been part of American cinema virtually since the medium's inception, often indelibly shaping its growth and grammar. Otto Preminger, for example, helped destroy the censorious Production Code in the 1950s with "The Moon Is Blue" and "The Man With the Golden Arm." Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Cassavetes made rough-looking production values and improvisatory performance acceptable with such films as "Husbands" and "A Woman Under the Influence."
The innovation continued in the 1980s, when the films of John Sayles ("Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Brother From Another Planet") defined the gold standard for thoughtful writing, naturalistic settings and political engagement. With his 1984 breakout film, "Stranger Than Paradise," Jim Jarmusch introduced some of the most enduring trademarks of American indie chic, including the absurdist road trip, grainy black-and-white cinematography, eccentric-looking actors and an overall mood of ironic cool. Jarmusch also introduced the phenomenon of what might be called Indie Face: grim, expressionless and almost always accompanied by an equally affectless speech pattern.
David Lynch, meanwhile, gave indies their love of the surreal and sexually charged. There's a direct line between the dark portrait of suburbia in 1986's "Blue Velvet" and "American Beauty," which 13 years later co-opted cardinal indie themes (sexual taboo, suburban angst, family dysfunction) to become a slightly naughty mainstream smash. (For a hilarious send-up of Lynch's confoundingly insular style, watch Tom DiCillo's 1995 "Living in Oblivion.")
Sayles, Jarmusch and Lynch -- along with the Coen brothers, who made their debut in 1984 with the neo-noir thriller "Blood Simple" -- would inspire the next generation of indie auteurs, among them Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater. In 1989, Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" was purchased at the Sundance Film Festival by a little company called Miramax Films after a fierce bidding war. Two years later "Slacker," Linklater's deceptively sophisticated day-in-the-life of Austin eccentrics, became a cultural touchstone, introducing not just a name for a generation but the low-fi aesthetic, shambling structure and nonprofessional acting -- all indie hallmarks.
If "sex, lies" and "Slacker" started indies down the generic road they're now on, the $100 million baby "Pulp Fiction" put them into the fast lane, headed straight to the movie industry's cash register of a heart. With the commensurate growth of such indie imprimaturs as Sundance and Miramax, and with Hollywood increasingly embracing the form's stylistic tics (not to mention low budgets), the term "indie" gradually lost its meaning, becoming a marketing tool as much as an artistic statement. Suddenly, it seemed multiplexes were inundated with "Pulp Fiction" rip-offs, and every other issue of "Entertainment Weekly" featured a story about a filmmaker who funded his cinematic Cinderella on his mom's Visa card. "Slacker" begat "Clerks" which begat "Swingers" and dozens more, right up to the current "mumblecore" wave started by Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha."
Recent annals are full of such cinematic family trees. "Little Miss Sunshine," about a troubled family taking a road trip so their 7-year-old daughter can participate in a youth beauty pageant, bore more than a passing resemblance to "The Daytrippers," Greg Mottola's charming comedy a decade earlier about a bickering family trapped in a car in New York. With its portrayal of troubled family dynamics, teenage disaffection and suburban banality, "Little Miss Sunshine" also bore whiffs of "Thumbsucker," "Donnie Darko," "Flirting With Disaster" and Todd Solondz's oft-imitated "Welcome to the Dollhouse." (Other movies with debts to Solondz include "Pieces of April," "Margot at the Wedding" and now "Rachel Getting Married," ad infinitum, amen.)
Or take the recent film "Baghead," by Jay and Mark Duplass. The modern-day horror comedy owed a clear debt to the 1999 do-it-yourself game-changer film "The Blair Witch Project," which with its faux amateur cast and garden-hose camera work breathed life into a mock-doc form that's been polished to comic perfection by Christopher Guest -- whose own movies hark back to such classics as the 1967 pseudo-verite satire "David Holzman's Diary."
Then there's the compulsive ante-upping of filmmakers who revert to the perennial indie trope of Shocking the Viewer. In 1972, John Waters shocked even his midnight-movie audiences when he directed Divine to eat dog excrement in "Pink Flamingos." Such movies as "Kids," "The Brown Bunny" and "Shortbus" (not to mention this year's "Choke") have engaged in an escalating arms race of graphic sexuality and taboo themes. The most controversial film at Sundance last year was "Hounddog," featuring the then-12-year-old child star Dakota Fanning in a brutal rape scene.
Can indies be saved? Yes, but only as long as the question is framed differently. It's time to stop talking about budgets, "edge" and filmmakers' come-from-behind biographies -- indeed, maybe the word "indie" itself should be banished -- and instead rediscover values like intelligence, emotional truth, moral heft and restraint, which will endure long after indie-chic signifiers and smug hermeticism have worn themselves out.
By that standard, it's clear that new visions and voices are still emerging by way of the traditional route of financial resourcefulness and out-of-nowhere success. Such recent releases as "The Station Agent," "Old Joy," "The Savages," "Half Nelson" and "Lars and the Real Girl" prove that in the hands of assured, un-self-conscious filmmakers, even standard indie fare -- alienation, troubled families, drug addiction, sex toys -- can result in something that feels compelling and new. (Note: It doesn't hurt to have a Ryan Gosling or a Patricia Clarkson as your star.)
Some of the best films of this year have been indies, in the most classical sense of the word. "Frozen River," "Chop Shop" and "The Visitor" (by "The Station Agent's" Tom McCarthy) each tells a well-crafted story about characters we haven't seen before, in spontaneous, unstudied ease. Another bright spot on the horizon is "Wellness," by Jake Mahaffy, which has barely been seen on the festival circuit but turns heads wherever it's played. Mahaffy's unsettling, finely observed drama about a traveling salesman in Pennsylvania suggests the possibility for a new cinematic genre: post-industrial American neorealism.
Or consider the standouts at this year's Toronto International Film Festival: The searing Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker," by Kathryn Bigelow, Rod Lurie's political thriller "Nothing but the Truth," Soderbergh's epic "Che" and "Sugar," by "Half Nelson" husband-wife team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, were all made outside big studios ("Sugar" was made at HBO). One of the most fascinating films at the festival was Barry Jenkins's "Medicine for Melancholy." The quietly funny romance, about an African American couple in San Francisco, could be accused of succumbing to fatal indie-ism if it didn't so cleverly upend assumptions about race and the segregation of pop culture.
In financing, lineage and vision, these movies are as independent as they come. But none of them looks or sounds or acts like "Little Miss Juno Dynamite." Instead, they look and sound and act exactly the way they should. They don't concern themselves with being cutting-edge or groundbreaking; rather, as Chekhov exhorted, they simply care about "what flows freely from the heart." Devoid of mannerisms, gimmicks or look-at-me gestures, they do the truly radical thing. They tell their stories simply and well. Move over, indie: Old-school classicism may be making its own comeback.