Underground rising

From Tarantino to Spike Jonze, from "Memento" to "Y Tu Mama," we're living through an independent film explosion. Salon introduces Indie Film -- a new section dedicated to cinematic life beyond the blockbuster.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 6, 2002 11:37PM (EST)

Today Salon launches a new section called Indie Film, which we think will allow us to provide better and more focused coverage of the movies we, and our readers, care about most: those created, produced and distributed outside the Hollywood mainstream. Cynics may say that "indie film" in 2002 is nothing more than a niche marketing device, a way for the infotainment empires to package marginal product aimed at upscale consumers. They're not totally wrong (hey, Salon is a business too, and we wouldn't be doing this if it didn't make business sense), but that's not the whole story.

In my role as a critic for Salon, I have repeatedly argued (beginning with an article last year) that we are seeing a new explosion of art movies -- challenging, sometimes dangerous films based on a pop sensibility rather than the high-art tradition of European modernism. Some of these movies, like Christopher Nolan's "Memento," Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast" and Alfonso Cuarón's "Y Tu Mamá También," became international hits, while others, like Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko" or Anne Fontaine's "How I Killed My Father," were seen by just a handful of enthusiasts.

In this new section, we plan to bring you expanded coverage of this new indie wave -- by which we mean both new North American cinema and movies from all over the world. We begin with the adjacent review of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" and Salon Sex editor Karen Croft's piece about the new feature from Euro-art goddess Lina Wertmüller that you may never get to see. As we develop the section, we'll have more reviews than ever, along with director and actor interviews, season previews, film-festival reporting, production news, and gossip from all over the indie universe. Basically, we're operating on the principle that former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart made famous in his discussion of obscenity: We can't exactly define what indie film is, but we know it when we see it. We think you do, too.

Starting about three years ago -- with movies like "American Beauty," "Being John Malkovich" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- we saw the rebirth of independent film as a meaningful form. Sure, the label no longer means that the financing or distribution of a picture is entirely divorced from the Hollywood system. It makes a kind of sense that directors comfortable with this freewheeling, hybrid style of pop-art moviemaking work right on the periphery of Hollywood; they're neither quite insiders nor outsiders.

Let's take an example: Paul Thomas Anderson's recent romantic comedy "Punch-Drunk Love" stars one of Hollywood's biggest box-office names (Adam Sandler) and was distributed in the United States by Columbia Pictures, a big studio that is itself a division of the multinational Sony Corporation. But Sony/Columbia didn't make the film; they just sold it. Nobody at Sony had the right to demand cuts or to tell writer-director Anderson that the story didn't make sense and that Sandler's peculiar role would drive his fans away. (Both comments would have been on the mark, but that's neither here nor there.)

"Punch-Drunk Love" was released on Oct. 13, on a grand total of five screens in New York and Los Angeles. Reviews were good and audiences liked it, so it expanded rapidly, going to 78 screens the next week and 481 the week after that. But the market for this film was limited and it quickly saturated; the week "Punch-Drunk Love" peaked at 1,293 screens nationwide, it made less money than it had two weeks earlier, when it played in about one-third the number of venues. (That peak figure of 1,293 screens may sound like a lot, but it's nowhere near blockbuster territory; "Spider-Man," for example, opened on more than 3,600 screens.)

It now looks as if "Punch-Drunk Love" will end up with U.S. gross box-office returns right around $18 million. That's less than the film cost to make, although I wouldn't shed tears for Sony; foreign sales and DVD release should eventually put the project into profit. That would be a dismal number for any major Hollywood release, but it's a perfectly respectable figure for an "indie film" aimed largely at audiences in urban centers and college towns. And that's exactly what "Punch-Drunk Love" is, whoever distributed it.

You can make precisely the same argument for any number of other new-style indies: "One Hour Photo," which starred Robin Williams, opened on seven screens and soared briefly to 1,332 before dipping back down into three figures again. It grossed a healthy $31 million. "The Good Girl," with Jennifer Aniston, never made it above 700 screens and grossed about $14 million. (And let's not forget the startling case of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," an old-fashioned feel-good comedy that cost $5 million to make, opened on 108 screens in April and at last count had grossed $205 million.)

We'll never know what marketing genius first coined the term "independent film" -- although '80s indie impresario John Pierson can surely take credit for popularizing it -- but it dates back more than 20 years, to the period when Hollywood became dominated by blockbuster mania in the wake of "Jaws" and the movie now known as "Star Wars: Episode IV."

At first it was a label used to sell such divergent anti-Hollywood fare as Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," Wayne Wang's "Chan Is Missing" and Alex Cox's "Repo Man." From the outset, indie had something of the flavor of punk rock, albeit a more inclusive, multi-culti punk that welcomed racial and ethnic minorities, sexual revolutionaries, and self-appointed weirdos of all stripes.

The succeeding decades have brought us two or three major waves of indie cinema and any number of smaller micro-phenomena. There was the African-American explosion that began in the late '80s, sparked by Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It." There was the new queer cinema of the early '90s, which has arguably percolated upward all the way to the multiplexes -- first with Kimberly Peirce's gripping "Boys Don't Cry" in 1999 and then with Todd Haynes' wonderful "Far From Heaven" this year. Female directors like Allison Anders, Nancy Savoca, Julie Dash and Nicole Holofcener began to change the boys'-club atmosphere of filmmaking. (Although there's still a long way to go.)

Inevitably, some of these directors working way outside the Hollywood system started to make hits -- and Hollywood wanted them back. Kevin Smith made "Clerks"; Richard Linklater made "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." And, of course, Quentin Tarantino made "Reservoir Dogs" and then "Pulp Fiction." Immediately after Tarantino's multi-Oscar pileup in 1994, people inside and outside the biz started to say that indie film was doomed. Now that the studios could see that the hip cachet of indieness was worth something, the thinking went, snarky pseudo-Tarantino hipness would be cloned and die-stamped like widgets in a Shanghai widget plant.

Well, that was pretty much true. (See, for example, the entire career of Guy Ritchie. Or rather don't.) But once all the imitation indies featuring jokey gangsters had been cleared off the stage -- along with the pretense that "Shakespeare in Love" was something more than customary Hollywood fluff -- we were left with a changed international film market, one where offbeat, pop-fueled delights like "Trainspotting" (a precursor to the next-gen indies) could become big hits. If Jarmusch and David Lynch are the Old Testament prophets of the new indie-film universe, Tarantino is its messiah and "Pulp Fiction" is its gospel, to be emulated but never imitated. Fans, critics and filmmakers alike, we're all Quentin's kids now.

We hope you enjoy Salon's new Indie Film page. Please let us know what you think.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------