American independent cinema has gained mainstream popularity in recent years as audiences tire of the bloated, clichéd spectacle of Hollywood films. But how independent are these movies? As John Berra contends in Declarations of Independence, the supposedly alternative film scene employs the same production techniques as its Hollywood counterparts and may find an uncritical audience in fans looking to attach personal sentiments and social reference points to art forms. This provocative volume questions the autonomy of independent film, asking if it is possible for a unique filmic vision to thrive in an industry of mass production.
About the Author
John Berra has a PhD in media from Sheffield University.
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Declarations of Independence
American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production
By John Berra
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Genesis: Modern American Independent Cinema and its Position within an Industry of Mass Production
'Independent adj1 Free from influence or control of others. 2 not dependent on anything else for function or validity. 3 not relying on the support, esp. financial support, of others.'
'Cinema n1 A place designed for showing films. 2 the cinema the art or business of making films.'
It is debatable as to whether a genuine American 'independent cinema' exists in the new millennium, a debate which this study will enter into in due course. What is not debatable is that the term 'American independent cinema' not only exists, but carries with it a variety of meanings, associations, and expectations of both an artistic and commercial nature. A by-product of society's constant need to assign labels to, and invent categories for, all forms of cultural expression and enterprise, the term 'American independent cinema' has been used to describe both a mode of production, and a form a thinking, relating to the financing, filming, distribution and cultural appreciation of modern film. It is a term which is suggestive of the classic argument of the relationship between art and commerce, the patronage of the artist by the economically well-endowed sponsor, and yet also indicative of a thoroughly modern sense of artistic enterprise, as rapidly developing technology opens up a variety of opportunities for fledgling film-makers and ambitious entrepreneurs. The term 'American independent cinema' is also suggestive of a romantic vision of filmic productivity, alluding to work that exists within a great narrative tradition, yet is presented within the context of a modern art form, and has been created autonomously, without the interference of other parties. The question here is whether such a form of cultural production is sustainable. As Bourdieu dryly notes,
At a given level of autonomy, intellectuals are, other things being equal, proportionately more responsive to the seduction of the powers that be, the less well endowed they are with specific capital.
This is to say that, when art meets, or conflicts, with economy, the artist is more willing to compromise their ideals when faced with the lure of financial reward, or the overarching economic power of the corporate giants. Recent commentators such as Caves have argued that it is possible for autonomy and economy to co-exist:
The basic structural characteristics of creative industries – their technologies of production and consumption – fiercely resist governance by anything approaching a complete contrast. Yet they have evolved distinctive and serviceable contract forms that seem to differ from deal-making patterns prevalent in other sectors.
Caves is referring to the romantic ideal of the artist and sponsor, whose relationship is both mutually exclusive and beneficial and this is the root of the paradox that lies at the heart of film-making, and 'independent cinema' in particular. The main benefit of the motion picture is its status as a cultural product of mass consumption, but such cultural products can only be regarded as 'artistic' or 'independent' works if their creators are to be allowed absolute autonomy. In order for all the opportunities, particularly those of an economic nature, to be realized, compromises with regard to the autonomy of the artist, or director, may have to be enforced and endured. It is this tension between the needs or the artist and the demands of the market, and its most prominent suppliers, which will form the crux of this study.
1.1 The Aims and Objectives of the Study
(1) To disprove the popular assumption amongst commercial journalists and consumers of popular culture, that cinematic works that have been declared as, or critically assigned the status of, 'independent', are autonomous of corporate sponsorship, or influence from other forms of popular media. This study will systematically outline the theory that American 'independent' cinema is dependent on corporate sponsorship in the form of the Hollywood studios and this theory will be supported by economic and intertextual evidence, provided by references to specific feature films and how they have conformed to the system of mass production, in terms of their conception, technical construction, marketing, and distribution. In addition, this study will seek to place American 'independent' cinema within a theoretic framework to show its relation to, and dependence on, the corporate giants, before questioning if the nature of this relationship is actually one of co-dependency.
(2) To redefine what can be meant by the term 'modern American independent cinema' in the new millennium, through a discussion of its moral economy, methods of production and distribution, and the qualities of the films themselves. While the status of many films as being 'independent' from an economic standpoint may be found to be impossible to substantiate due to their ties with the corporate giants, it will be of interest to attach such films to moments of popular feeling and periods of industrial change, thereby setting them apart from the more commercial cinematic offerings that are popularly associated with the Hollywood production line. This will be an analysis of what has become known as the 'independent spirit', a description that has recently been applied to film-makers who are considered to be true to their own cinematic visions, whilst also seeking sponsorship from corporate organizations.
(3) To establish whether creative autonomy can actually exist within the system of mass production. This will entail an analysis of Hollywood's absorption of the 'independent' sector through reference to film-makers, the qualities of their work, the conditions under which it is created, and how it has been received by the audience.
1.2 The Social-Economic Background of the Study
Although the economics of feature film production and of mass entertainment in general, have previously been discussed in detail in an academic context, the industry sector that is American 'independent' cinema has been generally overlooked by scholars who have focussed on this particular form of modern media. If that has been discussed at all, as in Garnham and Wasko, it has been as an aside or a footnote to a bigger picture, its economic and social practices only coming in discussion when they are aligned with those of the corporate giants. Garnham acknowledges the existence of independent production, but divides it into two categories, one that ultimately becomes the product of the corporations in that it 'gets picked up by the major distributors after completion', and another that is aimed at 'specialized markets', examples of which he cites as being 'nature films' and 'soft porn'. Wasko only occasionally references independent film production, focussing largely on Hollywood and its dominance of the entertainment industry. In keeping with her key theme, she mentions independent cinema in industrial, but never cultural, context and does so as a means of emphasizing the economic power of the Hollywood studios. She states that;
While the film industry accommodates independent production, the majors ultimately set the agenda and reap the bulk of the rewards. Through their control over film distribution, as well as by pursuing various strategies to reduce risk, and protect and promote their products, the Hollywood majors have maintained their dominance of the US film industry, as well as much of the world's film business.
This means that this study will be delving into subject matter that is, at least academically, non-established. There are three possible reasons for this. Firstly, a rigid definition of American 'independent' cinema is hard to pinpoint. Secondly, the term has only gained cultural significance since the early 1990s, meaning that its place in the popular consciousness is still in a formative state. Thirdly, it is arguable that American 'independent' cinema is still not finite, existing somewhere between being a form of technical production, and the idealized conceptual model for any auteur wishing to use film as their form of popular expression.
Until the early 1990s, 'independent cinema' was simply a term used to define a production company that was not affiliated with a major studio, whereas now the termcarries with it a cultural, as well as economic, significance. Therefore, the majority of references to 'American independent cinema' are found in modern works of journalism, many of which have simply used the term as a shorthand method of implying certain aspects of, or attributes to, a particular cinematic work, shorthand references that can be found in both commercial journalism and more supposedly thorough texts on the subject, some of which will be referenced and discussed in this thesis. This study will seek to 'rescue' the term from such lazily non-specific usage, and place it with a theoretic framework, treating American 'independent' cinema as a method of production and a form of cultural expression, worthy of analysis within a social-political context.
This study will take 1969 as its starting point, although feature films completed and distributed prior to that date will be referenced. The year 1969 was the year that independent cinema came into both cultural and economic prominence, with the release of two films from opposite sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda released their biker odyssey Easy Rider, a cinematic road trip about two hippies riding across the country with a stash of cocaine concealed in their tanks; while in the United Kingdom, Ken Loach made Kes, an adaptation of the Barry Hines novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, which concerned a schoolboy who is neglected by both his family unit and the educational system. With their confrontational subject matter and distinctive aesthetic sensibility, each film played a major role in ushering in a new wave of cinema, an 'independent' cinema that was as much a means of social-political thinking as it was an alternative form of escapist practice. Both films traded studio shooting and rigid scripting in favour of real locations, improvised dialogue, episodic narrative, and reflective codas that would encourage discussion amongst critics and audiences alike. As Balazs explains;
The camera carries my eye into the picture itself. I look at things from within the space of the film. I am surrounded by the characters of the film and enmeshed in its actions which I witness from all sides ... my gaze and with it my consciousness is identified with the characters of the film. I look at the world from their point of view and have none of my own. Nothing like this kind of identification has ever occurred in any other art.
These were cinematic works that sought to reach new levels of social-realism by integrating production method with subject matter, resulting in the absorption of the audience in an acute filmic depiction of reality. As Benjamin notes,
Thus, the filmic representation of reality is incomparably more significant for contemporary man ... since it offers, precisely because of the radical permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of equipment.
Such methods created a new form of film production, one that would come to be termed 'independent' for both its unique aesthetic approach, and its social-political thinking. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to view Easy Rider as a 'hippie fantasy', a marketable version of a youth movement that had already imploded, and to regard Kes as simply the forerunner of what has become known as the 'kitchen-sink' school of British cinema, wallowing in the plight of the working class for the 'benefit' of a middle-class audience. However, it is doubtful that without their formal experimentation and social polemics, audiences today would have an 'independent cinema', regardless of whatever form, tangible or ideological, it can be seen to exist.
While Hopper and Loach were granted creative autonomy with regard to the genesis of their films, they did not self-finance them, and were reliant on a corporate sponsor with a commercial interest in the end result. For a film that dealt with a counterculture movement, Easy Rider offered the Hollywood studios a glimmer of hope at a time when their grip on the mass audience was slipping. This was a cinematic revolution that came from economic necessity. Hollywood's profits were not only down in the 1960s, the studios were actually running substantial losses, $35 million and $52 million in the cases of MGM and Warner Brothers respectively. When Easy Rider became not only a cultural phenomenon, but the fourth highest grossing motion picture of 1969, with domestic box office revenues of $19 million, the studios recognized not only a valuable new market, but also realized which resources it needed to utilize in order to successfully tap into it.
Easy Rider is the first example of how the unprecedented commercial success of one particular film brought about such rapid change in the industrial hierarchy of the Hollywood system, and in its production practices. It also encapsulated a movement of popular feeling, as an audience eagerly latched on to the presumed ideals of the piece, as if they had almost willed it into existence as a means of reflecting growing social-economic change in society. Later 'independent' pictures, such as Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1994 have threatened to have a similar effect, but the system has learnt from its experiences and has been able to absorb the more socially and artistically radical implications of such films, whilst still maximizing their economic potential. Such absorption has been achieved through an economic dominance of the feature film production and distribution in the United States, a dominance which will be explained firstly through theoretic framework, and secondly by reference to specific business practises. The stranglehold which the Hollywood studios have over the film business has contributed to the 'commercialization' of American 'independent' cinema, the gradual erosion of its values, the restrain of its cultural impulse, and the labelling of a 'movement' that has become an invaluable aspect of Hollywood's industry of mass production.
1.3 The Methodology of the Study and its Structural Framework
As the subject matter that this study will be exploring has been largely untouched theoretically, the method of enquiry will use certain existing literature as a starting point, before engaging in an intuitive form of intellectual practise. The study will work from the exterior of this 'field of power' to the interior, in order to provide a theoretic framework, shedding light on the political economy of American independent cinema. Bourdieu establishes a theory of the cultural field, placing artists and their work within the social conditions of their production, exhibition, and acceptance. However, it is his positioning of the field of cultural production within the field of power that is most applicable to this study. He examines the uneasy but necessary relationship between those who posses economic capital, and those who posses intellectual ability, assessing the competitive tension between both parties, and how their relationship within the field of power is, to an extent, one of co-dependency.
For Bourdieu, forces that are financial and artistic are contained within the field of power, although the field that he terms 'literary and artistic' is in a particularly dominated position, due to its lack of hard economic or political capital, although the field's possession of such symbolic capital as culture and education enables it to find a place within the field of power. Thus, intellectuals and artists are members of the dominant social class but, within that particular class structure, they find themselves dominated.
This lack of economic capital entails that Bourdieu's cultural field is split into two opposing sub-fields, the field of 'restricted' production and the field of 'large-scale' production. Bourdieu's field of 'restricted' production is what modern critics may class as 'high art', in that it represents the composition of culture for other producers, either for them to appreciate or derive further inspiration from. This is a world that uses its lack of income as an example of its moral economy. Therefore, success in this field is not measured in prestige and recognition from other producers, adding to the cultural credibility of the artist. By contrast, the field of 'large-scale' production is what could be classed as mass production, in that it is produced for the largest possible audience, where success is measured purely in financial profit and acknowledgment comes in the form of popular awareness of the eventual integration of the product in the public consciousness.
Excerpted from Declarations of Independence by John Berra. Copyright © 2008 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Genesis: Modern American Independent Cinema and its Position within an Industry of Mass Production
Ancestry of Independence: Easy Rider and the Declaration of a New American Cinema
The Art of the Possible: Hollywood Feature Film Production since 1970
Oppositional Fantasies: The Economic Structure of American Independent Cinema and its Essential Lineaments
Loyalty to the Rhetoric: Four American Film-makers and their Commitment to an Autonomous Mode of Cultural Production
Graduating Class: American Independent Cinema as Finishing School
A Cultural Comparison: British Independent Cinema and its Relation to its American Counterpart
Selective Exhibition: The Sundance Film Festival and its Significance to the Independent Sector
The Business of Art: Miramax Films and the Cultivation of the Niche Market
The Reception of an Alternative Americana: Audiences and American Independent Cinema