American Beauty or American Pie?
*Last year, I was the guest editor of The Nation's first issue devoted exclusively to Hollywood and politics. I used this space to explain why the magazine would be inclined to set out on a road that would carry it so far from its customary haunts, although, of course, throughout its long and distinguished life it has always published exceptional writing about film, not only from the current practitioner, Stuart Klawans, but also from the great James Agee and even, I learn, from Sergei Eisenstein, all of which is shortly to be assembled between two covers by Carl Bromley for Nation Books, the new imprint at The Nation Institute. So now it is the following year, and here is the sequel--immune, I hope, to the dangers of sequelitis that often afflict Hollywood's attempts at self-cloning. Although the following assemblage of pieces is rather eclectic, there is an emphasis on the so-called "independent" film just--as is so often the case when phenomena become sufficiently defined as to go under the microscope--at the moment that it may be disappearing, a victim of its own success.
Over the past few years the profile of independent films has risen so high that studios, not satisfied with buying up independent companies and hiring independent directors, have tentatively begun to experiment with films that are in most ways--except production values--indistinguishable from their "off-Hollywood" counterparts. Last year we had American Beauty from DreamWorks, Ride With the Devil from Universal, Election from Paramount, Three Kings from Warner Brothers, Fight Club from Twentieth Century Fox and The Talented Mr. Ripley from Paramount/Miramax. In fact, two of the directors of the most successful and critically acclaimed studio films of last year began their careers connected to Miramax: M. Night Shyamalan and Alexander Payne, while David O. Russell began at Fine Line and Anthony Minghella at Goldwyn. Meanwhile, the obverse is also true. Miramax's first hit after a lengthy drought is Scream 3, for all intents and purposes a studio film, despite a glance backward at the late, lamented American International Pictures.
Many of the independents look to the films of the seventies for inspiration. There will never be another such era, the good old golden days of the "New Hollywood," when the studios were so out of touch with the changes that were rocking the country that they opened their purses to hordes of longhaired, dope-smoking directors who promptly created some of the greatest movies Hollywood has ever known. But something's happening now, Mr. Jones, that's not far from it. In 1969 Easy Rider turned Hollywood on its ear. In 1999 it was The Blair Witch Project, which, like Easy Rider, not only scored a huge profit on a tiny investment, reminding Hollywood of an unpleasant truth--that despite its sophisticated tracking techniques and test screenings, it knows nothing--but more important, in its crudely shot, badly lit, sloppily edited rawness, Blair Witch overturned the tyranny of technical correctness so that millions of pallid Internet drones could shout, Me too! I can do that! So once again the gates have been flung open, and just as the last generation of independents has tasted respectability, a new mob of kids armed with matchbook-sized DV cameras is poised to join their ranks.
The crucial difference between now and then is that today the studios are hardly hurting, and consequently, although they're hungry for young talent, they'll be dictating the terms of employment to all but a lucky few. Moreover, today's independents and their fans are young and irreverent, but not necessarily "political" in the way the counterculture audience of the Vietnam era was. A lot of these filmmakers are just as eager to make the next American Pie, last year's raunchy teenage blockbuster, as viewers are to see it. Still, many of the independents are creating bodies of work that are as uncompromising and compelling as anything that came before. We asked seven influential independents--Kimberly Pierce, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Allison Anders, Kevin Smith, Christine Vachon and John Pierson--to mull over some of these issues in this year's Forum and discovered, not unexpectedly (they are, after all, independents), that they disagree about most everything. The studio/independent hybrids, the trading places, the buyouts and takeovers have so muddied the waters that the old arguments about what is truly independent have taken on the aspect of the proverbial debate over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Many have just thrown up their hands--a tacit acceptance of the marriage between Hollywood and the independents--calling the new setup "Indiewood."
Meanwhile, there are other changes afoot at the studios. For a couple of years now, it has been no secret that decisions about what we're seeing at the local multiplex are increasingly being made by women. In this issue, the always smart and funny Lynda Obst, herself a producer and founding member of the girls' club, explains how this came to be and what it bodes. We also have, among other offerings, an angry if bemused piece by the actor, writer, director and performance artist Danny Hoch on his misadventures in Hollywood, as well as a gimlet-eyed snapshot by Orville Schell of the Dalai Lama's progress through the unholy land of ego, power and occasional donations.
Hollywood has always been about the tug of war between art and commerce. Whereas last year the theme of our issue was money, this year we're feeling a little more upbeat. While money will always light up the eyes of studio honchos like dollar signs spinning in a slot machine, art--thanks in part to the independents, but also to a handful of studio executives who are keeping their hearts and minds well above the bottom line--is holding its own.