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Living in Oblivion

Reagan-era callousness sparked an indie film renaissance. Will Bush II inspire another?

While Callender denies any direct parallels with his work at HBO, he holds up Angels in America as a prime example of a contemporary film that explores the way people's lives are "affected, impacted, and impinged by the social, political, economic, and cultural pressures that come to bear on them."

If HBO is willing to take on risky work, will Hollywood follow suit? It may have to. With soaring budgets and diminishing attendance, the studios saw a 6.2 percent drop in box office in 2004, according to Variety. And just as a failing Hollywood system in the '60s produced risqué films for the counterculture like The Graduate and Easy Rider to save their shirts, this year's indie blockbusters kept a sagging Hollywood in the black: Passion and Fahrenheit helped push overall ticket sales up $48 million over the previous year.

Even within Tinseltown, the studios continue to take note of offbeat hits such as Napoleon Dynamite (which made over $44 million at the box office) and pour money into their "art house" divisions to spur the acquisition and production of more idiosyncratic work. While director David O. Russell (I* Huckabees) admits, "I don't think Warner Bros. would make Three Kings today," he says, "my bet is that Warner will funnel everything over to [their specialty arm] Warner Independent. I think there are going to be studio divisions that are happy to make movies for the blue states. That's a lot of people."

Also, ironically, Bush policies may help fuel indie production more directly: A provision in last fall's $136 billion corporate tax-cut bill allows independent producers to write off the costs of films budgeted between $1 million and $15 million, as long as 75 percent of the budget is spent in the United States.

And yet, on the other hand, the consolidation and corporate takeover of artistic production could leave fewer places for truly groundbreaking work to emerge. And under the Bush administration, conglomeration is sure to be exacerbated; as Variety's Peter Bart writes, "Say bye-bye to meaningful media ownership caps."

"You have to think about the situation on the ground, and the situation on the ground is very different than it was before," says producer-screenwriter and Columbia professor James Schamus, who executive-produced 1991's Poisonand now co-runs Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures. According to Schamus, the cultural trends that allowed for the early-'90s American indie revolution—the 1980s' popularization of semiotics and pornography, and a network of B-movie filmmaking—have been replaced by film schools, film festivals, and the Indiewood industry to which he belongs. "And I think that's a taller order," he says. "To get a political film out there through that thicket is difficult."

"The one place you've got a shot," continues Schamus, "is Internet culture and open source culture. That's the thing to track." Schamus, like many in the industry, points to Jonathan Caouette's no-budget digital scrapbook Tarnation as evidence of a new type of innovative indie cinema, perhaps a contemporary parallel to the post-structuralist hipness of Haynes's Poison. "You're seeing a lot of work dealing with found images and personal narratives," explains Schamus. "But you're not seeing a lot of that coming out of film school."

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte agrees. "So much of the way people have expressed their dissent about the current politics is via the Internet and sending around pieces of media that are very direct, very pointed, and the gloves are completely off, because you're not restrained in any way," he says. "For me, that's really wonderful, and I can see that begin to infiltrate and inform filmmaking as it's conventionally known."

Whether a Bush II cinematic renaissance arises out of technology-based grassroots movements or from within the studio system itself, Callender places the onus on today's culture creators. "What is an independent movie?" he asks. "Is it about the artist as agent provocateur or the artist as apologist for the status quo?"

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