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.
Whereas Levy begins in 1977 and concentrates on the rise of the mainstream indies, Merritt begins his history in 1896 and respects no hierarchy among productions, discussing race films and porn side by side with pictures like The Little Fugitive, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin's 1953 drama of a runaway boy at Coney Island. This approach allows him to include the usual references to earlier avant-garde figures such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and the early Warhol, whom you find in most historical accounts of independent film. Yet for Merritt, too, anything non-narrative (or really strangely narrated) tends to drop out of the picture after the early 1970s, so that "independent film" by definition converges with conventional storytelling.
At the same time, "independent film" is made a vassal to blockbuster entertainment--again, by definition. The author of Duel in the Sun was not an independent but "a two-legged studio," Merritt writes, in one of many contradictions to a taxonomy that his own book proposes. Very reasonably seeking to avoid subjective judgments and hierarchies of taste, he begins by calling "independent" any film financed and produced outside of a studio, whatever the size. A "semi-indie," in his terminology, may be financed by a smaller studio, and its producers may have secured a distributor before finishing the picture.
But today's "smaller studios" are subsidiaries of the very media giants whose participation Merritt would rule out. Miramax is part of Disney; New Line belongs to Time Warner; USA Films (the former October and Gramercy) was cobbled together by Universal; Fox Searchlight is owned by a fellow named Murdoch. What's more, even for their big-budget releases, these parent corporations often rely on smaller companies to do the producing--which is why you now have to sit through the screening of as many as four logos before the picture can start.
"Two-legged studios" are more the rule than the exception in Hollywood, and practically everyone--including George Lucas--can claim to be independent. You would think, then, that one or two filmmakers who are independent of mind might risk confronting the big guys on their own turf; yet the last to try, Francis Coppola, made his bid a full two decades ago. The peculiar circumstances of his failure do not necessarily spell doom for all filmmakers. (Nor can they be tidily addressed within a mere book review. For an astute account, consult Jon Lewis's Whom God Wishes to Destroy...: Francis Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood.) But since his founding of a full-fledged indie studio, Zoetrope, there has been no comparable challenge to business as usual.
In the absence of such daring, or foolhardiness, the movie business has undergone a transformation that seems to me less like the rise of independence than the reconsolidation of the studio system. From the 1920s to the '50s, the major studios produced a diversified schedule: so many big-budget pictures each year, so many mid-size films, so many programmers and shorts. Today, the majors send out blockbusters and big-budget items under their own label and smaller films under the logos of their subsidiaries, "mini-majors" that operate as if independent. And so we arrive at a moment when the term "indie" is reduced in meaning to a middling feature, of more or less conventional appeal. As Julian said to the emperor: First you murdered my parents, now you belittle me as an orphan.
Perhaps the first step we can take out of the double bind is to stop fretting about the prevalence of "calling-card films." Indie lore has it that the mainstreaming of a once-feisty movement began in 1989, when sex, lies & videotape won the newly created Audience Award at the Sundance festival and went on to commercial success, helped along by a youngish distributor called Miramax. For a more complicated version of this history, we might refer to Party in a Box, a history of the Sundance festival written by Lory Smith, who was present at the creation.