While George W. Bush is being inaugurated in Washington, D.C., next Thursday, the annual Sundance Film Festival will kick off in Park City, Utah. The two events may seem unrelated, but as we saw in 2004, American politics and independent cinema go hand in hand.
Of course, indie powerhouses The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 represent the most partisan products of the contentious last 12 months, but as we enter Bush’s second term, the country’s extreme rightward turn could ignite the type of movie renaissance not seen since eight years of nuclear proliferation, HIV discrimination, and materialist greed helped produce the American independent film movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s. If the careers of Todd Haynes, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh were all launched during the Reagan-Bush regime, imagine what’s possible over the next four years.
“You see a lot of strong filmmakers working this year, and I find that an encouraging sign,” says Alexander Payne, director of this year’s top critics pick, Sideways. “And combined with our worsening political situation and the effect that will have on our culture, I think we may see a change for the better in our cinema.”
An ardent fan of the ’70s American New Wave, Payne would like to recapture that moment when the film industry embraced more personal, human dramas reflective of American life. “At a time when, as a society, we don’t really know who we are or what we’re doing, that’s a useful time for cinema to be a mirror,” he says. “It’s like when Tony Curtis catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror in The Boston Strangler and triggers that change from one of his personalities to the other. We need that, too.”
Payne is more hopeful than most. “I haven’t yet seen cultural repression,” he says. “It’s not like Germany in the ’30s where the big jackboot is coming down on degenerate art.” Still, many in the film industry feel deeply disturbed by the censorship-inducing “moral values” mandate and believe a backlash is imminent.
“It’s clear to me from the projects I’m looking at that there will be a cultural response to the im-
pending, much more deepened conservatism of the next few years,” says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer on Gregg Araki’s upcoming Mysterious Skin.
But what exactly will make up this response? Levy-Hinte says it won’t be “necessarily a film that’s a direct rant against Bush,” but rather “an exploration of estrangement, alienation, personal responsibility, and the questioning of oppressive and authoritarian characters and attitudes.”
Todd Solondz’s latest, Palindromes, already presents a blunt challenge to conservative mores, both in subject matter (the abortion debate) and in style (multiple actors across age and gender play the same character). But Solondz says he never intended the film (opening this spring) to so acutely capture the blue/red divide. “Certainly the film’s subject matter is inherently charged, but it takes an administration like ours to ignite it into something much more troubling,” he explains. “I’ve always felt Bush winning a second term would make for better material for filmmakers to work with. It’s all just too rich—like living in a real live Kubrick movie.”
But Christine Vachon, the New Queer Cinema pioneer who produced Todd Haynes’s Poison and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, doesn’t see the same urgency today that existed in the early ’90s when she and filmmakers like Haynes and Kalin participated in ACT UP and Gran Fury protests while they were making movies. “I hope that there are filmmakers out there who are where I was 15 years ago, and they are trying to tell their stories in a way that is countercultural,” she says, “but I don’t know who they are and I haven’t come across them yet.”
“But on the face of it,” continues Vachon, more hopefully, “there have been some cool movies recently and people are going to see them.” Speaking of Kinsey, for example, Bill Condon’s biopic about the infamous sex researcher, Vachon says, “The take on the material was much fresher than I thought it would be.”
Vachon’s current projects also tackle aesthetically and politically fertile ground: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan (“It’s a radical reworking of a traditional biopic,” she says); Douglas McGrath’s Every Word Is True, a look at Truman Capote’s days researching In Cold Blood; and Mary Harron’s The Ballad of Bettie Page, about the sex pinup and devout Christian, which has been in the works since the mid ’90s.
Vachon can thank financier HBO Films for helping to bring Bettie Page’s story to American audiences. Shot largely in the commercially risky format of black-and-white, Bettie Page provides further evidence of HBO’s reputation as a haven for experimental and political work. Whether it’s Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Mike Nichols’ Angels in America, or the Harvey Pekar Sundance hit American Splendor, produced by New York indie stalwart Ted Hope (see sidebar), HBO is trying to make movies that “embrace the complex,” says HBO Films president Colin Callender, a Brit who got his start in the ’80s during the “height of Thatcherite England,” he says, when there “was a whole slew of filmmaking that was informed by that political climate.”
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 Poison and 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?”