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Where did the challenge go?

Independent films, lacking the aesthetic and political urgency that once made them so exciting, seem to be less about 'art' and more about the art of the deal.

October 20, 2002|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Why has "art" become a dirty word -- at least when it comes to American movies? The question first started to nag me last fall around the time David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" failed to set the world on fire. This hypnotic, heartbreaking work was among the best American films of the last decade and certainly its dystopic visionary's greatest movie in years. If the world were sane or at least more interesting, Lynch's film would have restored him to the Valhalla of our acknowledged masters or at least onto the covers of a few glossy magazines, where he'd once perched for "Twin Peaks."

As it turned out, "Mulholland Drive" wasn't even nominated for any major awards at that year's alternative Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards. The director, who with his 1986 film "Blue Velvet" had helped to define contemporary independent cinema, had been kicked to the indie curb.

Movies have always been caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of art and entertainment, between their aesthetic promise and hard bottom line. Lately, though, the word "art" is scarcely mentioned in discussions about films in this country, even where you might most expect it, namely independent cinema. The reasons are complex but would have to include the decline of fine art in middle-class life and our love affair with the most trivial aspects of entertainment culture. Grosses and gossip dominate the popular discourse, as does the media's endless shilling for the hottest, sexiest stars and scads of new movies that look an awful lot like the old ones, only worse. Meanwhile, in more rarefied cinematic forums, the faithful risk the public's indifference by writing about foreign-language movies most Americans will never see -- because distributors won't release them, because exhibitors won't show them, because critics won't look at them.

In a 1956 essay called "Movies, the Desperate Art," Pauline Kael set her sights on Hollywood and avant-garde film, putting forth an argument that is as relevant now as it was then. "From the beginning," she wrote, "American filmmakers have been crippled by business financing and the ideology it imposed: They were told that they had an obligation to entertain the general public, that this was a democratic function and a higher obligation than to give their best to a few hundred or a few million people." For Kael, this flight from the medium and its possibilities embarked on by Hollywood could now be avoided because it had become clear that "there is more than one audience, and that artists must judge their own obligations."

It's a simple idea, really, the notion that there are different audiences and that the artist must decide his or her own obligations. Indeed, the recognition of different audiences and the belief that filmmakers are artists cut to the heart and soul of the independent film movement that took off in the mid-1980s. Yet we live in a moment when fear of the mass audience and, perhaps more important, the corporate fear of that audience, means that most filmmakers are no longer allowed to decide their own obligations, even in the putative independent film world. It is one of the ironies of contemporary American cinema that although the studios have been revitalized by independent film, from which they siphoned off ideas and talent, the indies have become, more and more, as captive to the tyranny of public taste as Hollywood.

Perplexingly poetic

Awash in triviality, largely absent the aesthetic and political urgency that once made it so exciting, independent film is suffering from an identity crisis. Which isn't to say that good movies aren't being made. Writer-director Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko" was the most auspicious debut by a young American director since Paul Thomas Anderson showed us his stuff with "Hard Eight" some five years earlier. Released in October 2001, "Donnie Darko," with its poetic melancholy and ill-timed plot device of a wayward airplane engine, didn't stand a chance. It didn't help that audiences, including critics, seemed as perplexed by its narrative curves as by what it all meant, including the engine and the raggedy bunny with the evil metal grin. More than one critic complained that Kelly was overly ambitious, suffering from the unusual affliction of having too many ideas.

It has been a decade since Quentin Tarantino hit with his gangster film "Reservoir Dogs." As much as I admire that film and its follow-up, "Pulp Fiction," I have started to wonder if American cinema's reliance on genre is yielding increasingly diminished returns for the medium as an art. After "Pulp Fiction" in particular, the independent film world that had recently seemed so alive with possibility began to seem, with each passing Sundance, in thrall to a limited repertoire of stories and a crass commercial imperative.

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