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Rebels inside the gates

The lions of indie cinema are making bigger and bigger movies. So how much has the movement changed American film?

November 16, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

It came from a credit card, from a body sold to science, from the insurance payout on a car crash. Or so said the mythology.

Advocates of the independent film movement love to point out how its key movies emerged not from a studio machine but from scrappy young directors cobbling money together, bent on pursuing their visions and changing the way movies were made.

They were to be our home-grown Godards and Antonionis -- or heirs to two-fisted American mavericks like Cassavetes and Peckinpah. The rhetoric behind the movement, fueling the film festivals that helped the movies get seen, was populist shading into utopian: These directors would explode genres, tackle taboos, democratize Hollywood.

The suits were out; in came video clerks, literature professors, guys who'd always wanted to make smart, character-driven films but never had the means until Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1989 showed that fresh, inventive filmmakers could come out of nowhere. Directors like the cocky Quentin Tarantino and the gawky Wes Anderson became cover boys and hipster celebrities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Indie films -- An article in Sunday Calendar on Nov. 16 about the careers of independent film directors working in Hollywood incorrectly said that the 2002 film "Punch-Drunk Love" received an Academy Award nomination. Although it received other nominations and awards, it did not receive an Oscar nomination.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 30, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Indie films: An article in Sunday Calendar on Nov. 16 about the careers of independent film directors working in Hollywood incorrectly said "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002) received an Academy Award nomination. Although it received other nominations and awards, it did not receive an Oscar nomination.

Those same scrappy young directors from indie's early days are responsible for three of the fall's biggest pictures. "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," a bloody, extravagant epic that feels like Hollywood product, comes from Robert Rodriguez, whose 1992 "El Mariachi" was made for $7,000 he raised largely by leasing his body for medical experiments.

The comic "School of Rock," also a big studio film but with an unusually sweet sensibility, was directed by Richard Linklater, whose 1991 "Slacker" possessed an unhurried pace and coffee-shop-philosopher tone that supposedly defined a generation.

And the slick but still personal "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is only the third film Quentin Tarantino has directed since 1992's "Reservoir Dogs," a movie that redefined cinema violence and launched a thousand imitators. His "Pulp Fiction" is still the most emblematic "indie" film, known for its fragmented storytelling and lowlife poetry, even as its distribution -- through Disney subsidiary Miramax -- makes its indie credentials problematic.

Each of these three movies, with widely varying critical receptions, became the highest-grossing film the weekend it opened. Clearly this gang of Gen-X auteurs -- directors who broke through with independent films in the 1990s, mostly through the Sundance Film Festival -- has established itself as an important commercial force.

But did this generation that spearheaded the 1990s independent film movement do anything to change the way movies are made?

How many of them have lived up to the high artistic expectations that greeted their debuts? Can they compare to earlier anti-Hollywood movements, especially the 1970s mavericks?

A few years after the decade's closing, film historians and journalists are pursuing these questions in earnest. January sees Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film," and the New York Times' Sharon Waxman is writing a book about indie directors who brought their idiosyncratic styles to the studios. Historian Emanuel Levy is revising 1999's "Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film," the era's most complete record.

It's clear that these directors can work on a larger canvas and generate attention and ticket sales doing so. Their success with bigger budgets and more mainstream films, though, raises the question whether they can maintain their own, and their movement's, distinctiveness in the process.

Optimists point to this year's Academy Awards, in which films like "About Schmidt," "Far From Heaven," "Adaptation," and "Punch-Drunk Love" -- from indie-bred directors Alexander Payne, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson -- won nominations and showed that they could produce distinctive films, with Hollywood casts, within the studios.

It's proof, they say, that the '90s indie generation has come of age. After working on the fringes, the best of them are now "trying to bring auteur-style filmmaking into mainstream Hollywood," Waxman says, "at a time when the studios are owned by big corporations not interested in risky or envelope-pushing work."

"It's no different from Hollywood importing European directors in the '20s and '30s, Murnau and Lang and Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder," Levy says. "Hollywood is a very shrewd system, and they realize there is a huge disparity between the people who give the industry its bottom line -- Michael Bay, say -- and those who give it its soul."

And those, of course, who give studios good seats at awards shows. Last winter Warner Bros. President Alan Horn told The Times' Claudia Eller, "Let's just say, with my tickets to the Golden Globes this year, they sent me binoculars." The studio recently launched Warner Independent Pictures, a name unimaginable in indie's fire-breathing early days.

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