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Indie: An American Film Culture

Michael Z. Newman
John Belton Editor
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    America's independent films often seem to defy classification. Their strategies of storytelling and representation range from raw, no-budget projects to more polished releases of Hollywood's "specialty" divisions. Yet understanding American indies involves more than just considering films. Filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, festivals, critics, and audiences all shape the art's identity, which is always understood in relation to the Hollywood mainstream.

    By locating the American indie film in the historical context of the "Sundance-Miramax" era (the mid-1980s to the end of the 2000s), Michael Z. Newman considers indie cinema as an alternative American film culture. His work isolates patterns of character and realism, formal play, and oppositionality and the functions of the festivals, art houses, and critical media promoting them. He also accounts for the power of audiences to identify indie films in distinction to mainstream Hollywood and to seek socially emblematic characters and playful form in their narratives. Analyzing films such as Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), Lost in Translation (2003), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Juno (2007), along with the work of Nicole Holofcener, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen brothers, Newman investigates the conventions that cast indies as culturally legitimate works of art. He binds these diverse works together within a cluster of distinct viewing strategies and invites a reevaluation of the difference of independent cinema and its relationship to class and taste culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51352-4
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    Like so many cultural categories, indie cinema is slippery. The same term refers not only to a diverse body of fi lms spanning more than two decades, from Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to Synecdoche, New York (2008) and beyond, but also a cultural network that sustains them. This book is about American indie cinema as a film culture that comprises not only movies but also institutions—distributors, exhibitors, festivals, and critical media—within which movies are circulated and experienced, and wherein an indie community shares expectations about their forms and meanings. Its topic is the American independent cinema of the...

  5. Part I: Context

      (pp. 21-47)

      Several obstacles stand in the way of a unified aesthetic of indie cinema. Among the Off-Hollywood filmmaking community, evocative concepts like “independent spirit” suffice to characterize a heterogeneous enterprise that might appear to resist more specific generalizations. Filmmakers and critics insist that independent films are more offbeat or personal or character-driven than Hollywood equivalents.¹ These formulations remain rather vague. To the sheer variety of films and the difficulty posed by generalizing about them, add the problem of authenticating the very independence the name designates. Is indie cinema of the Sundance-Miramax era anything more than a marketing strategy? I believe it...

    • chapter 2 HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS: Indie Film Institutions
      (pp. 48-84)

      In the Sundance-Miramax era, indie has assumed a role in American culture as the alternative cinema. At different times, independent has referred to everything from Monogram westerns to Otto Preminger prestige pictures to exploitation and drive-in movies to the products of the indie mini-majors. The meaning of independence in the indie era has a specific relation to the other term in its pairing—Hollywood—which was not central to any of its previous connotations. In particular, independent cinema has come to signify a parallel American cinema of feature films for exhibition venues that are alternatives to mainstream first-run exhibition. In...

  6. Part II: Character

    • chapter 3 INDIE REALISM: Character-Centered Narrative and Social Engagement
      (pp. 87-138)

      One distinction at the heart of indie culture is between mainstream and alternative aesthetics, which includes not only patterns of textual representation but also conventions of understanding these patterns and their significance. Different films and filmmakers, and different contexts of production and reception, offer different versions of these aesthetics, such that they appear in different configurations historically and according to differences within indie culture. Indie cinema is thus clearly not one genre that can be understood according to a unified set of widely shared and recognized formal and interpretive conventions; but within the discursive construction of indie culture,¹ a number...

  7. Part III: Formal Play

    • chapter 4 PASTICHE AS PLAY: The Coen Brothers
      (pp. 141-181)

      Blood Simple (1984), Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature, was hailed at the 1985 New York Film Festival as an auspicious debut, compared by Time magazine’s reviewer to Citizen Kane.² It would become an exemplar of a strain of American indie cinema concerned with exploring formal and generic terrain. But although Blood Simple is now quite widely and affectionately admired, not only for launching a unique directing tandem on a celebrated career but also for its contribution to the revival and revision of film noir, its initial critical reception was mixed. Some critics praised its visual and narrative daring. The...

    • chapter 5 GAMES OF NARRATIVE FORM: Pulp Fiction and Beyond
      (pp. 182-218)

      If the American independent cinema of the Sundance-Miramax era has produced a masterpiece, it is Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino’s opus topped many critics’ best of the 1990s lists and was crowned by Entertainment Weekly in 2008 as the #1 classic of the past twenty-five years.² Pulp Fiction has been celebrated for many of its qualities (and damned in some quarters for the very same ones). Like the Coen brothers’ films, Pulp Ficiton is densely referential, packed with allusions and homages to everything from Bande à Parte (1964) and Deliverance (1972) to Happy Days (ABC, 1974–1984) and Kung Fu (ABC,...

  8. Part IV: Against Hollywood

    • chapter 6 INDIE OPPOSITION: Happiness vs. Juno
      (pp. 221-246)

      The strategies of considering characters as emblems of their social identities and of seeing form as a game each correspond to a tendency in independent film toward realism and formalism, respectively. Our final strategy, to read as anti-Hollywood, has to a significant extent been a current running throughout the preceding analyses, functioning to define the festivals, art houses, and other institutions of indie cinema and to motivate realist or formalist aesthetics as reactions against conventions of the mainstream commercial cinema. Realism and formalism are tendencies that might sometimes overlap with classicism, the dominant aesthetic of Hollywood since the late 1910s,...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 247-270)
    (pp. 271-280)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 281-296)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-300)