The Return of American Independent Cinema?

in 65th Cannes Film Festival

by Beatrice Behn

The glory of American Independent cinema was meant to shine above the Palais in Cannes again, “filling the gap between the small and the big cinema” as festival director Thierry Fremaux put it in the press conference. The competition section alone had five contenders in its line-up: Lawless, Killing Them Softly, On the Road, The Paperboy and Mud, all of which were highly anticipated. The last time such a strong American presence could be felt was in 2007. When Mud finally screened on the last day of the festival, the public’s unanimous response made it out to be the best of the list as it at least had a feel-good story to it, was well made and still had an auteur feel. Yet their underperformance in the competition is not what irks most about the anticipated comeback of American Independent cinema. After all, the competitors were very strong, especially on the European side which boasted work from auteurs Michael Haneke and Alain Resnais. More profoundly, after seeing the first three competition films, a strange feeling set in that something was wrong — a feeling which remained to the end. One could not help but think “Is this really American Independent Cinema”? This initial thought grew into a nagging doubt which frequently reared its head over the course of the festival.

For a start, it is hard to actually define what “American Independent Cinema” is. In general this term tries to describe the cinematic product made outside of the major studio systems. This definition might have been true for films created in the New Hollywood era, maybe even for its successors in the 80s and early 90s. But, as they say it the end of Killing Me Softly: “America is not a country, it’s a business”. By now all major studios have either bought independent production companies or created their own. Independent is a label, a brand that still seeks out new makers of the art and their unique films but eventually turns them into business. If the point of view is shifted to the aesthetics of film making instead of its production, “American Independent Cinema” can be loosely classified as a derivative of New Hollywood cinema that mainly focused on the deconstruction of mainstream American cinema. Critical of society, critical of conventional story telling and film making, it sought to be the counterpart, the other, the antithesis of Hollywood. It experimented on the story-telling as well as on the aesthetic level. It loved to break genre rules and put ambivalent characters into the limelight that could not be classified as the bad boy or the hero, who were not necessarily white, male and middle-class. Critical deconstruction seems to be the essence of it all.

Looking back at their older works, all film makers of this year’s American competition line-up worked with delight and in full compliance with these premises. How exceptional was Lee Daniels’ Precious starring an obese African-American girl in a film that uses the generic rules of melodrama only to twist and break them and show the darkest sides of urban American life in which a happy end is nothing one would ever hope for. Let’s pause and remember Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries, and Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories. Looking at the past and seeing the new films of Salles, Daniels, Nichols, Hillcoat and Dominik you get the feeling that something is missing. To put it bluntly they are nothing but conventional, sometimes even boring products — mainstream cinema in disguise, the wolf in Independent Cinema’s clothing.

In order to demonstrate how much those five films are alike to each other and how all of them go the same way — a conventional way, it is enough to compare them to each other regarding some central themes and topics. All five films are genre films: a western (Lawless), a road movie (On the Road), and three crime dramas (Killing Them Softly, Paper Boy, Mud) whereas the latter is also a typical coming-of-age story. When leaving the cinema after the screening the same thought was mumbled by one or more of the film-goers: “I’ve seen this before”. And indeed, all five contributions are such generic genre cinema that one has seen this before. Lawless is like every other Western. A little John Wayne, a litte Sergio Leone, flavored with a dash of 70s Bonny and Clyde and loads of violence to make it look more modern. Killing them Softly is nothing but a bleek try of a 21st century version of Goodfellas. Mud, despite being the best and most “independent” like in the group is very close in story and aesthetics to Stand by Me. On the Road comes closest to the origins of New Hollywood by recreating a journey as crazy and drug fueled as Easy Rider, yet this journey does not contain the zest for life, the hatred of conventions, the yearning for freedom.  No amount of genre rule-breaking, use of dirty editing or disturbing camera-angles can transport the feeling of movement to the audience. There is no movement at all. As a result, the film, the people in it and the people making it no longer appear to strive. They are saturated. The lack of new stories, new approaches are apparent. Even more apparent is the fact that those films are not at all breaking the genre rules, deconstructiong them. They simply recycle. They are not even interested in unusual characters anymore. Apart from the black African American narrator in The Paperboy, all films are white males and seek to show the sweaty struggle of the good white men, good at heart despite the odd spot of trouble with the law. Sweaty good bad boys they are, the backbone of America.

Apart from Killing Them Softly, all films are set in the past. The roaring 20s and the turbulent 60s and 70s are very much preferred; cities are of no interest, the setting is always somewhere cloistered, somewhere rural, a little dirty. Just like the camera work and the aethetics. A little dirty to give it the look of a time when things were still in motion. This is what all five films boil down to: a yearning for the past that was filled with passion and possibilites. And this is what the contemporary “American Independent Cinema” evokes in its audience. A craving for what it once used to be, a longing for new, fresh and daring cinema that does not bow down to the market and slowly turns into the conventional product it once passionately fought against.

American cinema is desperately lacking in the “independent”. But the five Cannes competition films clearly demonstrated that they are not the answer. They have indeed become part of the problem.