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.

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.

In September 1978 Smith attended the original US Film Festival (which was then held in Salt Lake City) as organizer of its new-film competition. (The larger, better-funded part of the program was a retrospective.) He stayed on, in various capacities, through 1998. Party in a Box gives pretty much a year-by-year account of that period in American film, as seen from Utah; and though the syntax and paragraph structure are unsteady, the enthusiasm is unshakable.

Levy writes that “perhaps the greatest achievement of indies in the 1980s was to defy Reaganism,” a judgment that seems sound when you ride along on Smith’s memory tour. In its documentary section especially, the US Film Festival was politically extraordinary, showcasing films such as Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists, The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and a portrait of Rigoberta Menchú, When the Mountains Tremble–and that was just in 1984. As for the feature section: Any festival that gave a screen to the young Charles Burnett has earned its place in heaven. Yet complaints of softness came up early and often. Smith reprints comments made by the festival manager himself, Tony Safford, a year before the advent of sex, lies & videotape:

“After last year’s program, three respected national critics, Peter Biskind in American Film, John Powers in Film Comment, and Terrence Rafferty in The Nation, bemoaned the lack of originality in the films presented…. With the notable exception of River’s Edge, we too had this sense: that American independent cinema, while gaining momentum, had lost its earlier vigor and eccentricity. ‘Independent cinema,’ once a partisan phrase signaling difference, had become respectable, conservative, perhaps even fashionable.”

From this, we may learn the only lesson possible, that careerists and mediocrities will always be with us. Rather than worry about their presence within a scene of would-be virtue, we might do better to cheer on the real talents (never more than a handful) who manage to win an audience and even big-time distribution. David O. Russell started out low-budget and self-produced but then made Three Kings for Warner Bros. On Election, the truly independent-minded Alexander Payne got help–though scarcely enough–from Paramount Pictures and MTV. I don’t know what indignities these filmmakers may have suffered or what compromises they may have been forced to swallow, but the pictures turned out pretty well.

Those who still fear money and success, even in a movie business that’s been thoroughly Selznicked, might learn a similar lesson from John Pierson. A film lover who has been central to the New York scene since the seventies, Pierson is proud of winning big, so long as he can do it in good company. Best known as a producer’s representative, he has helped put together the financing and distribution for such films as Parting Glances, She’s Gotta Have It, Working Girls, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Go Fish, Slacker, Clerks–which is good company indeed.

Pierson’s lively memoir of ten years in the film business, titled Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, expresses understandable reservations about “Pulp Fiction the phenomenon,” which he is careful to distinguish from Pulp Fiction the movie. After all, you can’t gross better than $100 million and spawn legions of witless imitators without doing some damage. Still, Pierson’s heart is in the right place in two ways: He rejoices in every good picture he’s launched, and he’s pissed off that they didn’t get more money and attention.

Here’s the irony, Pierson says: “Everyone sees The Piano, yet Ruby in Paradise drops dead the day Jane Campion’s film opens. Pulp Fiction nearly wipes out Hoop Dreams in New York on their competitive first weekend. When Harvey Weinstein says that the success of a terrific film like The Piano is good for everybody, he’s not examining the statistics…. Indie blockbusters expand the audience for the next indie blockbuster.”

The problem, then, is essentially one of market share. People don’t go out to the movies as often as they used to; one trip to the theater per week now qualifies you as a fan. So when 90 percent of the people who look for “new and different” get pulled into the same picture, the other two or three indies in town literally don’t have an audience. Worse still, the indie blockbuster soaks up all the talk. It defines “new and different,” until the next hot movie comes along–which is why “indie” has come to have its present meaning, as a picture that’s audience-friendly yet just small enough to sustain the aura of being hip.

One way to cope with this problem is to stay small, playing to niche markets from the start. That, in effect, has been the strategy of Christine Vachon, the producer of films such as Poison, Swoon, Safe, Happiness, Kids and (in the multiword phase of her career) I Shot Andy Warhol and Boys Don’t Cry. I will make big pictures, Vachon writes with unchallengeable logic in her book Shooting to Kill, when somebody gives me a whole lot of money to do a film about a sympathetic pedophile.

Although it includes plenty of anecdote, Vachon’s memoir differs from Pierson’s and Smith’s in being a how-to rather than a tell-all. Listen to her carefully–her co-author, critic David Edelstein, has done a wonderful job of catching her tone–and you will learn the basics of everything from budget-reading to location management. (Among her useful tips: Hire Teamsters to drive your trucks. It’s a lot safer on every level.) You will also hear expressed, in the most disarming way, a certain clubbiness, which is the legacy of underground cinema to the indies.

The peepshow cinema, Parker Tyler called it in his invaluable work of critical history, Underground Film. Written in the late 1960s, at another moment when the eccentric and vigorous had turned into the overhyped and commercial, Underground Film proposed that a basic fact of social psychology underlay much of the avant-garde: People want to see the forbidden. Whatever artistic theorizing may have accompanied the development of the American avant-garde cinema, up through the moment when Warhol popularized the movement, a fundamental dirty-mindedness animated these pictures.

But what happened when there were no more forbidden sights–when John Waters perfected the cinéma du gross-out in Pink Flamingos, and sensible commentators realized it was just innocent fun for kids? Eventually, violations of taboos gave way to affirmations of identity; “avant-garde” became “independent.” As Lory Smith reminds us, the Sundance festival started out as a promotion of regional filmmaking, with the idea that people outside Los Angeles and New York ought to be able to present themselves onscreen. (Who knew that so many of them were dying to leave behind their authentic folkways and go work in Hollywood?) Similarly, what had once been a quasi-secret film tradition of gays and lesbians slowly metamorphosed into the New Queer Cinema. Not only could these films be shown but they could be promoted as queer, right in public–although very often that public was assumed in advance to be limited and self-defined.

As much as I’ve admired some of Vachon’s films, I feel my sympathies are more populist than hers. Call it a legacy of the old, old left to The Nation‘s film culture, but when I see a picture I like, I want everyone to watch it. Is it the hourlong, structuralist confession of a lesbian artist about her screwed-up father, shot in black-and-white with a score by Franz Schubert? Then open it on 300 screens, on May 8! Throw it up on a Jumbotron in Times Square! Failure is not acceptable–because once we grow comfortable with the notion that a good film won’t reach many people, we might as well consign our politics to a niche market, too.

I think of the comments of filmmaker David Riker, maker of La Ciudad, as recorded in John Anderson’s book Sundancing. Riker was one of the dozens of people whom Anderson spoke to at the 1999 Sundance–directors, actors, distributors, critics, volunteers, policemen, civilian moviegoers–all of whom contribute to a thoroughly entertaining collage portrait of the festival. Among these, Riker is one of the most articulate, politically responsible and (just slightly) self-righteous. He’s also one of those who have their priorities straight.

Of the marketing push at Sundance, he says, “It’s a terrible experience, from the beginning to the end…. And I know what’s going to happen–or it already has happened–is that there’s a negative impact on the work being produced.” But he also knows why he’s made La Ciudad and what kind of payoff he wants from it. “We expected thirty people,” he says of a screening held at a church; “we had over a hundred…and the response that I had personally has been incredible. For the last four days wherever I’ve been going, people have been recognizing me and talking about the experience of the film.”

What can we do for the Rikers of this world, we who are neither filmmakers nor film financiers? We can seek out their work, certainly. We can praise what’s praiseworthy while letting the rest, or most of it, pass in silence. And we can refuse to let their films’ reception be limited in advance, even by the seemingly praiseworthy category of “indie.”

What Jean-Luc Godard said, all those years ago, is still true today. Everything remains to be done.