The most important day in the history of American independent film was May 8, 1947, which witnessed the opening of a picture so personal–no, so heedlessly self-revelatory–that viewers today still blush for its author. It was not enough for him merely to finance, out of his own pocket, a filmed confession of his sexual obsessions, and to cast their living object in the lead. He also insisted on writing the film–several times over–and on seizing its direction from a succession of trained professionals, whom he first hired and then pushed aside. To preserve his autonomy, the man even chose to do what almost no one would attempt today: He distributed the film himself.
This maniac, as knowing readers will already have perceived, was David O. Selznick, and the picture was Duel in the Sun, a landmark of independence that cost almost $3 million more than Gone With the Wind. Selznick opened it in 300 theaters nationwide, making it the first big picture to be marketed using the wide-release, critic-proof method that is today’s industry standard for blockbusters.
Let us now fast-forward, to use a term unavailable in 1947. “Independence” now refers to a state of film whose headquarters are said to be located either in lower Manhattan (in the offices of Miramax) or in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. For those who can say the words “film” and “integrity” within the same sentence, this high level of institutionalization is cause for concern.
“At the very least, one can suggest what American independent cinema is not,” writes Emanuel Levy in his thoughtful and substantial book on the current scene, Cinema of Outsiders. “It’s not avant-garde, it’s not experimental, and it’s not underground. With few exceptions, there is not much edge, formal experimentation, or serious challenge to dominant culture…. Postmodernism has collapsed the dialectic between high and mass culture, but who would have thought that American audiences would end up settling for an easily digestible synthesis….”
Is this a bad thing? Levy doesn’t seem sure. Despite his digestive grumbling, he cheers up quickly: “The development of a viable alternative cinema, with its own institutional structure, may be one of the most exciting developments in American culture during the past two decades.” Minced praise. The flatness of a landscape, as Marx once wrote, may be judged by the paltriness of what people call hills. But let’s choose to agree with Levy in his happier mood. Say the bumps are towering; say the alternative is not only viable but an alternative. The fact remains: Selznick blew six and a half million on Duel in the Sun, plus another two million for marketing and promotion, in 1947. Run that through the Consumer Price Index, and then tell me what’s so awesome about the numbers for Pulp Fiction.
My point, comrades, is that if you really want an oppositional culture, then you will feel that today’s so-called indies ought to be more dangerous–and not only to prevailing aesthetic/political values but also to the status quo of The Business.
So why aren’t the indies more challenging? Perhaps they are, or could be. To start with the aesthetic/political, I will observe that people still make low-budget pictures full of formal experimentation and political defiance. Americans have made them even in the 1990s, after the US Film Festival changed its name to Sundance. I think immediately of Su Friedrich and Ernie Gehr, Yvonne Rainer and Warren Sonbert–names that are passed over quickly, if mentioned at all, in Levy’s book, and are missing from Greg Merritt’s wider-ranging Celluloid Mavericks.