What makes independent filmmaking distinct from mainstream big-budget filmmaking? Is it that independent films want to tell stories in ways rarely explored by mainstream film? That does seem to be the party line. In film school it was always “visual storytelling,” no matter the type of film in question. I remember Godard’s Breathless being accused of not having a story by a classmate one early morning in Randy Rutsky’s intro to film studies class, to the apparent objection of no one. Breathless‘s obvious plot notwithstanding, my classmate appeared oblivious that a film could be anything else other than a vehicle to tell stories. And so it often seems in the world of American independent film, even among those of us who do know that films can aspire toward other things. I still hear the variation of “new ways of cinematic storytelling” quite often. Perhaps it’s just a good way to draw in the uninitiated. Obviously, we need viewers.
Back when I was still one of the uninitiated myself, I used to think of independent films as “small films, about people.” European films and international cinema in general often fell into this category, but it was rare that an American film outside the sphere of independents ever did, and the same holds true now (it sometimes seems like a minor miracle we even have people like Lonergan, or Malick, or Reichardt making their films just outside the mainstream). I remember having the feeling of breathing fresh air again when I first began to encounter such works, American or otherwise, and the feeling of having been liberated from the constraints of plot and all the other devices a filmmaker necessarily had to work with, at least according to Syd Field books and screenwriting teachers. It wasn’t that these films subverted these devices, as say a Tarantino movie might, but that they left them behind altogether. Instead these films focused on behavior, the kind that we might see (or fail to see) in our everyday lives, and explored emotional territory deemed too marginal or too boring for Hollywood. They pulled back the veil of the mundane to reveal the extraordinary universe happening just beyond.
My progression didn’t happen overnight. It took me from seeing Mike Leigh’s Naked in the late 90s on IFC (it seemed to play twice a week back then), to the DOGME films in the early 2000s (The Celebration in particular), to IFC’s DV Theater during that same time (does anyone remember this?), to Andrew Bujalski’s first couple of movies a few years later, and then having Caveh Zahedi as a documentary film teacher and discovering his work, and finally to reading Ray Carney’s books on John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. And then came a cinematic epiphany. If I were forced to name a scene in a film that changed my life, that cemented my feelings toward independent cinema and that perhaps I thought might convert the skeptical (or at least, help them to understand my viewpoint in some small way), it would be this scene from Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut film Bleak Moments:
Leigh’s film, and this scene in particular, conveys a world of unspoken thoughts and feelings – it’s all subtext, and the subtext is all that matters. I’ve heard it said that 90 percent of all our interactions with people are subtext, and I have no doubt it’s true (even if the percentage seems high). How can we show that the unspoken truths of life are more exciting than any Marvel film? Here is an answer. I will never forget the epiphany I felt while watching this scene for the first time, and I’m still on the edge of my seat every time I have viewed it since. Contrary to its title, Leigh’s film is hardly depressing, and I am always reinvigorated at the end of one of his films, ready to dive back into life than escape it in some way.
Bleak Moments was Leigh’s first film, based on his play of the same title. It was no surprise then that, during my final two years of college, I took a minor in theater. (I even transcribed the above scene for my first acting class so I could see what it was like to be on the inside of it.) I became aware that the relationship between theater and cinema couldn’t be so easily ignored. I have always maintained since then that film, especially independent film here in America, stands a lot to learn from theater. I don’t think it has learned enough. The notion that a film must be “filmic” and never “stagey,” or it somehow doesn’t count, is a fallacy rarely questioned. The above scene proves it isn’t true.
As far as brief blog posts go, this is about as good as I can do to explain why I think independent film is important. At its best, theater conveys a sense of life rarely felt in films of any kind. Talking about that is another blog post in itself, one I can’t so easily toss off like this one. But that sense of life can be felt in Cassavetes, in Leigh, and in our best independent films. I’ve even felt it watching Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. (Which is essentially a filmed play inspired by Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; blog post on that forthcoming.) I realize I’m probably starting to sound overly lofty and quasi-mystical, especially when I’m describing type of film that so often distinguishes itself by being grounded and concrete. But that je nais se quoi is what I am after.