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Fake Independence and Reel Truth
The following remarks by Ray Carney were offered at the Grand Re-Opening of Seattle's Grand Illusion Theater as an introduction to a screening of A Woman Under the Influence and a festival of independent films that included the works of Su Friedrich, Rick Schmidt, and Caveh Zahedi.
We are here to celebrate American independent film, but I want to begin by observing what a bizarre concept an independent work of art is. It's weird because it's redundant. What other kind of art is there? All art is supposed to be independent. Independence is its natural, its only true state.
That's why we don't talk about independent ballet companies or independent ballerinas. We don't describe symphony orchestras or composers as being independent. We don't debate the pros and cons of painters and museums being independent. We just take for granted that they are, and would stop paying attention to them if they weren't. It is only the corporate nature of filmmaking in America that has made independence seem like something unusual. Hollywood has created this nutty situation where the majority of films are basically multimillion dollar business deals, so that the ones that are not have to justify themselves as being some kind of exception to the rule. So we invent this special category called independent film. Then the American Film Institute or Sundance can invite retired studio hacks in to discuss the pros and cons of being an independent as if it were something controversial and strange. How totally cuckoo. Let's never forget, the independent artists are not the odd ducks in the history of art; the businessmen are.
Of course, a buzz word is a buzz word, and corporate America recognizes the value of this one, so independence has been turned into a mass-marketing trademark. Once it gets in the hands of the ad men, the meaning leaks out of it, of course. Everybody is an independent–so long as it sells tickets. In Miramax's definition of the concept, Tim Burton becomes indistinguishable from Mark Rappaport. I had a student last week try to convince me that Star Wars was an independent feature. It was in a course on independent film I teach. In the first class I asked the students to define what was independent about independent film. The answers were all over the place: Some said it depended on the movie being made outside the studio system. Others said it involved making it for less than a certain amount of money. Others said it had to be made by a young and unknown director. Others said it was a film with a certain kind of style or content–directed at film buffs. One wit said it was any movie that had bad lighting and out-of-focus photography. I told them that, as far as I am concerned, being independent is more about the state of your soul than your budget. I don't really care how a movie is financed or who produces it. An independent film is any movie that uncompromisingly expresses a unique, personal vision. (Of course, it takes more than good intentions to do that. It's hard to be original. Most of the time we live up to William James' maxim that we think we're thinking creatively when we are just rearranging our prejudices.)
Most movies are the opposite of being personal. They are as industrial in their design as amusement park rides. And as mechanical. In the ten years that separate Star Tours from The Lost World, it's become increasingly hard to tell Hollywood and Disneyland apart. Filmmakers like Spielberg might as well work for some hybrid called Disneywood or Hollyland.
Rather than being unique, most movies are recycling operations. Of course the real recycling is not of pieces of plot and character, but of intellectual and emotional clichés that make their way through the American imaginative digestive system to be excreted on the screen prior to being swallowed whole again. There are really only five or ten of these films made over and over: the thriller with a twist ending; the movie about competing and getting ahead; the boy-meets-girl romance; the buddy boys who start out hating each other but grow to respect each other in the end; I'm sure I don't have to list the rest. The trick is to conceal the fact that it is always the same few movies over and over again. Do it just slightly differently, without really departing from the formula. I call it the Chicken McNuggets syndrome. It's really always basically the same thing as last time, but you add a different sauce or spice to make it look like a whole new meal. It's a truism to say that these films are mass-produced like cars, but that's a slander on Detroit. Our cars give us satisfaction for years. They last a lot longer. They are put together a lot more imaginatively than these films are.
You know it's all formulas when people can get rich teaching courses on how to make movies by recipe. I know someone who goes around teaching a three-day seminar on how to write a script. Can you imagine someone trying to tell you in three days how to score a great symphony? Or choreograph a ballet? Do you really think Guernica can be reduced to a paint-by-numbers scheme? But people are convinced film is different. It just shows their secret contempt for the art they claim to care about.
But you don't have to have pay a thousand dollars to take a course to learn the emotional formulas these films are based on. The clichés are everywhere. We are up to our eyeballs in them. We are bombarded with them on television, in the New York Times Book Review, in Time magazine, at sporting events, on the front page of the newspaper. They were not invented by Hollywood. In fact, the movies are not really any worse than (or different from) the rest of our culture. That's what's wrong with people who demonize Hollywood (or television). Most of contemporary America is organized around capitalist clichés about rugged individualism, the value of competition, and the importance of material achievement (not to mention a whole other set of emotional clichés left over from 19th-century melodramatic novels). There's no point in blaming the movies for the trashiness of our culture. Look at what's on the bestseller lists or in the editorial columns of our newspapers. Look at our fascination with celebrities, our obsession with "news," our insane faith in science. Look at the malling of our museums. In my hometown, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently mounted back-to-back exhibits devoted to the work of Josef Karsh, a society portraitist, and Herb Ritts, a fashion photographer–and crowds flocked to see both. Their work is as stupid as a Hollywood movie–probably worse.
But even though it flatters us to imagine our age the worst that ever was, I don't think things are any different than they were a century or two ago. Rupert Murdoch and Jenny Jones didn't invent sensationalism. Before Jerry Springer, there was P.T. Barnum; before interviews with women who married men who had sex change operations, people paid money to see the Wild Man from Borneo and the Fat Lady in the side show. Before the tabloids, there was old-fashioned, over-the-fence, backyard gossip. CNN itself is just a high-tech version of gossip. The only difference now is that the whole world has become our backyard. Cheap substitutes for thinking have always been with us.
It is the artist's job to free us from them and tell the truth. That's harder than it seems. The problem is that we prefer the clichés and the formulas. It's hard to deal with truth. As T.S. Eliot wrote, humankind cannot take much reality. D.H. Lawrence put it even better. He said we go through most of our lives with parasols over our heads, with a painted sky on the underside of them. We look up every once in a while and admire the view. Of course it's all a sham. But we don't realize it until something forces us to–until something breaks through the painted picture to reveal what is really on the other side. It can be some emotionally shattering experience that comes crashing down on us and collapses our parasol. Or it can be some artist who slyly, silently sneaks up on us and slashes a hole in our parasols, so that we can see past them. We briefly get us a glimpse of the real cosmos on the other side. But Lawrence went on to say that since we're not used to it, the sight of the other side is almost always bewildering or frightening. The parasol is no sooner cut open than we go about sewing up the hole. We prefer the painted sun and moon and stars.
That's a parable about almost all truth-telling art. Precisely to the extent that it breaks through the clichés, it's going to meet with resistance. It's not unique to film. Think of the reception the paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Eakins got in the nineteenth century. Or of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps early in this century. They were jeered at. The important critics completely ignored them. A few years ago I had a conversation with a curator of a major New York art museum who said that could never happen nowadays. The implication was that twentieth century critics are so much smarter and better informed than the nineteenth century ones were. But then how do we explain film events of the past fifty years? The initial Paris screenings of The Rules of the Game were so disastrous that the film was pulled from distribution and not screened for the next 11 years–until it had an equally bad run in New York and was withdrawn again. Citizen Kane was a flop on its release. And Carl Dreyer's crowning final masterwork, Gertrud, was booed on its world premiere screening. I should say, booed by the viewers who remained at the end of the film, since more than half of the audience had walked out before the movie was over.
It applies even to the film you are going to see tonight. There is no doubt whatsoever that A Woman Under the Influence is one of the major works of American film art–but consider what it took for the film to attain the stature it currently has. To start with, Cassavetes couldn't even get anyone to show the movie. Woman was scripted in the summer of 1972 and filmed late that year, completely outside the system (funded jointly by Peter Falk, who starred in it, and Cassavetes himself). Postproduction was complete in 1973. But as many an independent has discovered, making the movie was only half the battle; getting an audience to see it was a whole other war. For eighteen months ("the most discouraging time of my life," Cassavetes told me) Cassavetes went from city to city, cans in hand, trying to convince a theater owner to screen his work. The response was always the same: The movie was too long, too boring, too sloppily made, too depressing. Not one distributor or exhibitor in America would take a chance on it. Finally, in desperation, after a year and a half of getting nowhere, Cassavetes offered it to the New York Film Festival in the summer of 1974. The only problem was that they didn't want it either. It was screened in front of the selection jury and rejected. (According to Cassavetes, Molly Haskell led the chorus of objurgation, telling him personally that his film was "garbage.") It was only after Cassavetes called up Martin Scorsese, whose Italianamerican was scheduled for the opening night, and asked him to withdraw his movie as an act of solidarity, that Woman was granted a couple token screenings a few nights from the end of the festival. The film was a hit with the audience and the members of the selection board took turns taking credit for discovering it. But even at that point, Cassavetes still couldn't get a distributor for the film: "Too long, too slow, too depressing"–they all said. In the end, he had to distribute it himself.
In the end, the film was quite successful commercially, but I'd point out that even at this point, the critics still didn't get it. To check out contemporary critical opinion, I took down an old edition of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies–you know the thick paperback that is everywhere–to read the following: "Typically overlong, overindulgent Cassavetes film." Maltin gave it two stars out of a possible four. To put that into perspective–on facing pages you'll see that two stars is the same as Woman's Prison and Won Ton Ton the Dog that Saved Hollywood, one star less than The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and two stars less than The World According to Garp. Just to be sure, I looked the film up in an old edition of another book. Halliwell's Film Guide doesn't use stars, but Leslie Halliwell makes his opinion perfectly clear–again I quote: "Insanely long case history in close-up, with all parties constantly on the brink of hysteria. Hard to sit through."
What can we learn from such off-base judgments? One thing is that when a film leaves accepted formulas behind, even a lot of the critics get confused. It isn't, as my curator acquaintance felt, that earlier viewers and critics were stupider or less knowledgeable than we are. The fact is that an original work is always going to be at least a little disorienting because it's not going to fit into our existing categories. As Marshall McLuhan said, when real revolutions come along, they don't look like breakthroughs–they look like chaos.
Let me offer you a concrete example–a personal confession. I have written three books on Cassavetes' life and work–two in English and one in French, but I want to admit publicly that I stormed out of the first film by him I ever saw. It was Faces. The movie confused and offended me. It violated everything I took for granted about movies. It was too sweaty and passionate. The characters were too extreme. I couldn't figure them out. It was hard to follow. Cassavetes didn't explain things in the way I was accustomed to. He just didn't play by the rules of filmmaking I was familiar with. For some weird reason, I went back a week or so later. But I walked out again. Then I went back again, and it was only on the third time that I was able to sit through to the end of the movie. But even then I still didn't know whether I liked the movie or hated it. It's now years later and there is no doubt in my mind that Faces is one of Cassavetes' two or three greatest works. But it took me a very long time to realize it. (And Faces wasn't the only time this has happened. I've fought some of Cassavetes' other movies tooth and nail also. Fought them to the death, before I realized what I was seeing.)
One of the reasons I can tell such an embarrassing story, is that I told this to Cassavetes once to apologize for my stupidity about his work, and he said the same thing had happened to him when he first went to see A Place in the Sun. He said he walked out on Montgomery Clift's performance and only later realized that what he resisted in it was precisely the quality that he eventually learned the most from. Cassavetes had a hilarious routine he used to do to characterize this situation. He would mimic a viewer (me, him, or someone watching one of his films) when the lights went down. He would slouch down in his chair, writhe in pain, and flail his hands in front of his eyes, as if to protect himself from the fury of an atomic blast, shouting (in-between his cackling laughter): "A new experience. Oh, no. Save me! Anything but that!"
My point is that it's easy to praise original, innovative film in the abstract, but the particular case can test our patience. We cry out all of our lives for masterpieces, but face to face with one, we reject it. The problem is that the next masterpiece never looks like the last one. When the next Citizen Kane, Faces, or A Woman Under the Influence appears, it won't look like Citizen Kane, Faces, or A Woman Under the Influence. It will look different. And that's why there's more than a decent chance we'll walk out, or shake our heads and say, no, no that's not what we really meant at all.
We want our knowledge easy. We want experiences that will snap like Legos into place with what we are already familiar with. But that's what great art never does. It offers new ways of knowing. It gets us out of our old patterns and into new rhythms. All growth, if it is important growth, is going to hurt at least a little. It wouldn't be growth if you stayed the same. You have to work to know something. Anything short of that is just Musak. It's cheap knowledge, like the forms of thought in the newspaper or on television. Great art makes things hard on us. It makes trouble for us, because it denies us our easy, familiar categories.
Given the psychological realities, how can it possibly be financially feasible to run a first-rate independent theater? The situation of the independent theater is similar to that of the fine independent restaurant that is placed in competition with a McDonald's or Wendy's down the street. People are so susceptible to saturation advertising, and so fond of the generic and predictable, that it is almost impossible for the independent to win the battle on the basis of sheer numbers. We have to hope there are enough people who taste their food before swallowing it to keep the mom-and-pop operation in business.
Let me make what will undoubtedly seem like a bizarre proposal. The best way to improve attendance at independent theaters would be to charge more for tickets. Much more–say thirty or forty dollars a seat. You should have to pay a premium to see art films. What's wrong with that? It makes perfect common sense. Star Wars is like a Happy Meal. You can mass-produce both the meal and the movie so cheaply and sell them in such quantity that you can almost give them away. Art is different. You just can't make great works of art that cheaply and count on selling billions and billions of them. In line with the example of an independent restaurant in comparison with a McDonald's, the independent theater should stop trying to compete with the mainstream theater on ticket price. It can never win that battle. There are too many economics of scale that favor the fast-food artistic operation. People should expect to pay more for the gourmet meal, and if they don't want to pay it, they should be denied the chance to partake. If you aren't willing to pay fifty dollars to see Milestones or Scenic Route, you don't deserve to see them anyway. Every night of the week, people throw down that much or more for a concert ticket, a ticket to a sports event, a dinner in a nice restaurant. Why in the world do they think seven-fifty is the top limit for an experience that is far greater than any of these others? (Cassavetes once said to me–more than half seriously–that he wanted to charge $5000 per ticket for Opening Night, since he figured that was what the film had actually cost him when he divided the budget by the number of viewers who had seen it in the first year after he made it.)
Beyond that, maybe the independent theater should present its works more the way a drama or ballet company does–selling subscriptions for an entire season, with the purchaser committing himself to a long-term involvement with the art form (and as I already said, at a price more at the level of a ticket to a play or a symphony orchestra). That would not only be financially advantageous for the theater, but also change the way the viewer approaches the individual works. I buy lots of season tickets to opera, ballet, and theater with the clear understanding that I will be taken on a long journey in which some of the events will be more to my taste and others less so, some will be more traditional and conservative and others will be more experimental, some more memorable and others more ephemeral. Each individual work doesn't have to hit a home run; you judge the success of the subscription on the basis of the entire journey. I'd buy a ticket for that sort of film subscription anyday if I believed in the vision of the programmer.
The problem in our culture is that–because Hollywood has polluted the atmosphere–film is never thought of as being in the same league with the opera, the ballet, or drama. It is simply never given the same respect as the other arts, and most people would roll their eyes at the idea of subscribing to a film series months in advance and at a higher cost. Desperate financial measures are required to break the cycle that keeps film in an artistic ghetto–all the more since neither the government nor the major grant agencies are willing to step in and assist with the funding of this art, as is done in every other civilized nation in Europe and North America. It's really a disgrace.
About the only way an independent film can get any real attention from the general public is through the free publicity of newspaper or magazine pieces. It's completely out of the question for it to compete financially with the Hollywood marketing mavens. Hollywood advertising budgets alone are ten to a hundred times the amount of the entire production budget of most American independent works. That is why, to a large extent, the fate of the indie is in the hands of journalists. I can't say that the situation inspires confidence. Most journalists are not interested in art anyway, and they are too bombarded with Hollywood press releases and the opportunity to participate in pseudo-events (celebrity interviews, gala ceremonies, and private screenings) to see what a con-game the Hollywood publicity whirl is.
Journalists are not bad people, just overworked and harried individuals who gratefully print what the Hollywood behemoth excretes. They simply don't have the time or inclination to buck the tide or check things out for themselves. Heck, given their deadlines, they hardly have time to think. I had the luxury of going back again and again to Faces, until it had pummeled me into submission, but what if I had had a deadline for a review for the weekend issue of the paper? Pauline Kael once bragged that she never had to see a movie more than once to know if it was any good, and that she almost never did go to see anything twice. Read her reviews of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence if you want to see the result. Art takes time. Real growth and insight are always slow.
I have a theory about how a movie gets to be covered heavily in the newspaper anyway. Most journalists' idea of a great movie is one that looks like journalism. Their idea of great art is a film with a discussible historical or current events subject, a film with a newsworthy person or event in it. The more the movie resembles an article in the newspaper the more attention it will get in the newspaper. At least that's the only reason I can fathom why movies about Richard Nixon, Larry Flynt, Malcolm X, the JFK assassination, or astronauts are treated as if they actually mattered. (If you ask me, it's the secret of Oliver Stone's and Spike Lee's whole critical success.)
Most newspapers treat the movies as if they were about as important as the society pages in any case. You can tell from the way The New York Times heads their Sunday movie section: Arts and Leisure, as if Bergman, bridge, and bowling were more or less in the same league. The joke about my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, is that they head their movie section Arts, Etcetera, but that there is always a lot more Etcetera than Art. It's really not that different from Jesse Helms' or Jerry Falwell's views of the unimportance of art. Art is for sissies or children. Real men don't do art. It's not the real world. It's all a kind of Disneyland.
The few exceptions that do get extensive journalistic coverage are invariably for the wrong reasons. El Mariachi gets covered because it has a tiny budget. A Woman Under the Influence got some coverage because it could be plugged into debates about feminism. Sex, Lies, and Videotape got discussed simply because of its title.
The other reason films get to be written about and known is because of what I would call tricks. They have a glitziness that grabs people's attention, but doesn't repay it. Tarantino is a good example of this sort of flash. Or look at John Dahl's work or that of the Coen brothers or David Lynch. Their works aren't about anything, except displaying their own cleverness. What do we learn from these sorts of movies? What do we have to know to understand them? How do they deepen our knowledge of life? Those are the questions we should be asking. They are the only questions that matter. But the works of these directors require nothing of us and offer us nothing in the way of knowledge. They just perform continuous stylistic, narrative, and verbal backflips to hold our interest. It's all empty, meaningless stunts–not instruction, not wisdom, not spiritual insight.
They are all a goof, a game, a lark–fundamentally no different from an episode of "Letterman," "Conan O'Brien," or "Saturday Night Live." Everything is "as if." Nothing is real; nothing is at stake; nothing is ultimately serious. Everyone involved in the process–from the director and writer to the actors and the viewers–treats the whole event as completely weightless. It's all Zero-G acrobatics with not even a pretense that it matters. These films reflect the culture of unreality we live in, and its all-American triumph of style over substance. Appearance has replaced reality. Outsides have replaced insides. The goal is to look (and sound) good, rather than to do or show anything morally good.
The postmodern dream has come to pass. These directors skate across surfaces and revel in their own deliberate superficiality. That is why these films are all ultimately ironic in tone. It's the curse of postmodern culture. Where nothing is real, irony is the supreme virtue. At least the ironist is wised up to the unreality of it all. At least the ironist is not taken in by the fraudulence of the game. It's not just the movies, of course. The Jack Nicholson smirk, the Macaulay Culkin cuteness is everywhere–on MTV, in advertising, in reporting. Why should the movies be any different?
Surely, I'm not the only person in America weary of stylistic games and jokes. I can't be the only one who wants a movie to teach me something, to change me–not merely to spin around chasing its own tail, no matter how stylistically virtuosic it may be. Narrative jokes, tricks, and surprises are too easy, too superficial ways of holding interest. This worship of empty stylistic virtuosity is Hitchcock's cinematic and Pauline Kael's lamentable critical legacy. Is that what art is about–thrills and chills? Surprises and winks at the viewer? Most of my production undergrads can do that before they arrive on campus–because it doesn't take knowledge, thought, insight, maturity. These movies whip up a frothy soufflé of zippy effects, but leave you hungry in the end. They don't nourish our souls–just titillate our feelings. It seems like such a revelation at the time, but there's really nothing to it. It's all fake feelings.
Fake feelings are manufactured all the time outside of the movies. Look at the craziness that parents are persuaded to flip into, chasing after Beanie Babies or Nintendo games for their kids, or at what happens at a political rally, or the Gulf War patriotic frenzy that had all of America by the throat a few years back, or at what goes on at sporting events. You'd think civilization hinged on who won the Superbowl or the World Series. You'd think whether the O.J. verdict was correct really mattered to the future of the world. These emotions are not real; they are synthetic, made-to-order.
For an illustration of how films can whip up and exploit what I am calling pseudo-emotions, look at the whole thriller genre. There's not a real feeling in it. The emotions are plastic. The only reason we fall for it is that it taps into some aspect of our evolutionary past, some section of our reptilian brain stems connected with flight or fight responses. I dare you to try to turn off a suspenseful thriller after you have watched ten minutes. I can't do it either. But what does that prove? Suspense is the cheapest trick in the book, and it means nothing–no matter how gripping it may feel. Just because you feel an emotion, doesn't mean anything valuable is happening to your heart and mind. The emotions in most movies are about as deep as an experience at the circus or an amusement park (though a friend who read this told me that I am being much too hard on amusement parks and circuses.)
Romance movies just use another set of tricks. Watching them, I get a lump in my throat; I get goosebumps and the hair stands up on my arms; sometimes I even cry; but it's not deep learning, just gimmicks. My students always say but a particular movie "is so moving." So what? If you want to feel emotions, go to a hospital emergency room on a Saturday night. Simply feeling an emotion about a scene in Shine or The English Patient proves absolutely nothing. You can get emotional hearing a baby cry, but that's not art. It's biology. It's something programmed in us. Shine and The English Patient are cartoons for adults–no different from Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, or Bambi. They're as simple-minded as a children's storybook. To put it more bluntly, they're a pack of lies. There's not an original or truthful shot, scene, or line of dialogue in all of Shine. It's a sign of how even our film festivals have been dumbed down to the level of the melodramatic mainstream that it played at Sundance last year. I think it even won some kind of award. Unbelievable. Thank you, Robert Redford, for bringing us works like Shine and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's nice to know that someone is out there fighting for the future of cinematic art–making sure that nineteenth-century melodramatic hokum will live on into the twenty-first century.
These films–Shine, The English Patient, Schindler's List–offer lite experiences–not learning, but simulations of learning, with none of the trouble and pain and growth of the real thing. We go in not to be tested and grow but to have our prejudices confirmed. These movies are machines for mass-producing feelings, which roll off their assembly lines in one-size-fits-all form. The characters are generic; the dialogue is generic; the acting is generic; the ideas are generic; the emotions are generic. Shine is a series of emotional clichés–Rainman meets Mr. Holland's Opus–one little heart-throbbing manipulation after the other: Feel this, feel that–click, click, click. Get it? Got it. It's not real experience, but button-pushing–like the joke about the comedians' convention: "Number 23, number 18, number 3. Ha, ha, ha." These movies provide low-impact emotional workouts and knowledge on the cheap. If this is art, Norman Rockwell should be in the Louvre. It's cooked up from a recipe–about the level of an afterschool special on TV. As with Schindler's List, when it works, the goal is to make us feel good about feeling bad. We can congratulate ourselves on the nobility of our emotions.
Are we that desperate to feel something? Are our lives that out of control that we need this degree of emotional reassurance and predictability in our works of art? Are we this addicted to emotional formulas that we need a fix of these fake feelings every Saturday night? Do viewers actually enjoy having their buttons pushed in this cynical way? I hope things are not that bad. Yet I have to admit that when I eavesdrop on the conversations of the couples streaming up the aisles as the credits roll, it seems that most of them absolutely adore being passive and manipulated like this. They like being put on intellectual autopilot. They enjoy turning on the Cruise Control, sitting back, and being taken on a mindless, impersonal, emotional ride.
How different a film like A Woman Under the Influence is. You have to work as a viewer of that movie. Cassavetes tests your powers of response. You have to come to grips with difficult, unclassifiable experiences. You learn things as you watch. It's not clichés. It's not a cartoon version of experience. It's not Cruise Control, but an Indianapolis 500 of the feelings, demanding continuous emotional lane-changing and gear shifting, as you navigate hair-raising, hair-pin emotional turns every second. It's not high school understandings of what life is about. You have to know a lot about men and women and children and marriage and life in general just to understand what is going on. You have to think about what you see. You have to work through it emotionally. The film makes demands on you. It deliberately challenges you. It defeats your expectations–all those formulas we try to impose on experience. It doesn't scream its meanings at you. It doesn't simplify everything. It shows us things that are subtle and slippery and elusive. You have to really rise to the occasion, just as you do in the subtlest and most delicate moments of life. Cassavetes makes adult movies–not in our degenerate, pornographic sense of the term–but movies you have to have experienced a lot to understand, movies that take emotional maturity and subtlety to keep up with.
Everything about A Woman Under the Influence challenges us. Nothing is formulaic. Consider the main character, Mabel Longhetti. She's impossible to pin down. We can't bring her into focus. She won't fit any of our stereotypes. She has so many different facets to her personality. So many different selves. She reminds us how boring and predictable the characters in mainstream movies are. She reminds us that there are no characters in real life. No one in this room is a character like someone in a mainstream movie. Mabel is a chameleon who becomes different things with different people. That's also why she stirred up critical debate. Each critic tried to catch her in one net or another–she was a victim, she was a feminist, she was oppressed, she was free–but she slipped through each one's grasp. It's a wonderful place to get a character to–beyond reductive categories. But it's also confusing and dangerous–especially if you want good reviews. Cassavetes gets his film to a place beyond the bumper-sticker ideological slogans that pass as a substitute for thinking–a place a lot like life.
While there are only five or ten generic Hollywood movies, there is no one kind of independent film. They come in as many flavors, sizes, and shapes as there are artists. That's why it is easier to say what independent films are not than what they are. I can tell you some things they aren't: They aren't about fancy camerawork and razzle-dazzle visuals. They leave that to TV commercials. They aren't about pretty photography and gorgeous shots. They leave that to the manufacturers of calendars and postcards. They aren't necessarily about telling a suspenseful, gripping story. They leave that to writers of murder mysteries. You don't read Shakespeare for the story. You don't go to Chekhov to find out how it ends.
These films aren't about grand sociological generalizations and clanging symbols either. They leave that to Time magazine think pieces about 2001, Apocalypse Now, and Thelma and Louise. Independent films may even violate conventional notions of morality–the infantile punishment of villains and rewarding of heroes that you find in most mainstream movies, because they call us to a higher morality, where what matters is not rewards and punishments, but subtleties of sensitivity and kindness and love.
The best way to describe these films positively is to say that they give us new powers. They give us the ability to see and feel in new ways. Watching A Woman Under the Influence is like seeing family life through a microscope, suddenly being able to see things that we live most of our lives not noticing; suddenly being able to feel in new ways. We see butterfly flickers of emotion in characters' faces; we hear verbal flutterings with super-sensitive ears; we see and feel emotions we never realized existed.
People think that great works of art give us big ideas, but that is not correct. We can leave that to Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Star Wars and 2001. Really great films give us experiences which ideas are entirely too coarse and rigid to take in. As T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, these artists have minds too fine to be violated by an idea. Ideas are an easy way of knowing. These films don't tell you what to know, where to look, what to feel, or what to conclude about what you see. They make you work. Rather than giving you thoughts, they make you think. They give you experiences too mobile and slippery to be boxed up in an idea.
The films you are about to see this weekend are parasol-slashers, but that does not mean that they are negative. In fact most of them offer euphoric experiences, because they are liberating. As Emerson said, the poet is free and makes free. These artists show us ways out of the clichés, the fakery, the synthetic feelings, the canned identities that our culture overflows with. That is the real reason this gathering is an occasion for celebration.
The preceding should suggest why the real nature of cinematic independence is not bureaucratic, but emotional and intellectual. It matters less how and where these films were made than that they break the chains that bind us (as Horace said was the function of all art). They break us free from the fabric of lies, simplifications, and half-truths that our culture is woven of.
What is it to be an independent filmmaker? I want to propose a series of definitions in the hope that at least one may be meaningful. Cassavetes once said to me that he thought of himself simply as a reporter, and that is not a bad definition. Of course, being this kind of reporter means that you file reports from the emotional front that avoid the intellectual clichés and emotional formulas that most professional reporters employ. Ezra Pound said that the only difference between an artist and a journalist is that the artist reported news that didn't become obsolete. News that stayed news.
Another way to think of independent filmmakers is as anthropologists–anthropologists who don't go off to Borneo or New Guinea to study mating rituals and family customs, but who stay at home and study their own culture.
Another way to think of real art is as endless question asking. These filmmakers are little Socrateses who are never satisfied with a pat answer. They keep asking did you notice this? This? This? They dare to ask questions to which they really, truly don't have answers. And they ask the hardest possible questions: Questions about our uncertainties, fears, and insecurities. Questions about our ability to give love and to receive it. Questions about our loneliness or our alienation from our emotions. Questions about why we may not be happy even when we have everything we want. Questions about what ultimately matters in life.
Another way to think of artists is as explorers who travel and map unknown inner worlds. While the Hollywood filmmaker knows where he or she is going every step of the way, storyboarding scenes days or weeks in advance of the shooting, and going in each day with a set of predetermined points to make in each shot, real artists set off down a road they can't see to the end of. They work in the dark, feeling their way step by step, learning new things as they go along. In our smug, know-it-all era, it is clear that artists are almost the only the real explorers left, and that they come back with the only news that really matters. But we might as well accept the fact that Ted Koppel will never devote a panel discussion to Mark Rappaport's or Robert Kramer's explorations. Barbara Walters will never interview Caveh Zahedi or Su Friedrich and ask them where they have been traveling emotionally. It's so easy to deal with factual discoveries, and so hard to deal with emotional ones that it's not surprising that the more important kind of exploration is almost completely ignored. We know so much about facts and events, and so precious little about ourselves. Sometimes I think we're downright scared of looking ourselves in the eye. We'd always rather look outside ourselves–cruise the Internet, travel the world–than sit still and listen to our own hearts.
But my favorite metaphor for thinking about artists is as students and teachers. (Since I'm a teacher, I admit that my occupation probably biases me.) Like students and teachers, above everything else, real artists must be humble and willing to learn. They must open up themselves and make themselves vulnerable. That's not a very fashionable stance. We live in a culture that's devoted to being "cool," in control, and above-it-all. The goal is to be wised-up and "in" and smart. That's another source of Tarantino's cachet. His movies are so hip and knowing. Well, I have news for him. Real art is about not knowing. It's about being humble. It's about admitting how little we understand about who we are and what we need or want. The greatest films are made by artists who dare to plunge into their uncertainties, their places of fear and doubt.
Again, Cassavetes can stand as a model of this kind of artist. He went into his films genuinely willing to learn from the process of making them. He used them to explore parts of his life he didn't understand. He had a sense of wonder at all they taught him about life. Let me tell you a little story about one of his greatest works that will make clear what that means. This is the first time I've ever told it. I'm not sure how many of you know about the early part of his career, so I'll briefly summarize it. He made his first film, Shadows, as a no-budget indie production, more or less entirely on his own in New York. The film didn't do that well commercially, but Cassavetes managed to get some attention by giving interviews. When all was said and done, he was offered a studio contract to make two low-budget features on the West Coast. He was young and naive, and jumped at the chance, and moved to Los Angeles actually believing he could do the same thing he had done as an independent, only this time with a decent budget, a professional crew, and a whole studio support system. He thought it was a dream come true.
Well, I probably don't have to tell you what happened. The predictable result was two mediocre movies and a total, unmitigated, career disaster. The studios had talked a good line, but when final cut time came around, they wanted their kind of picture not his, and on both films Cassavetes got into incredible fights with his producer, and eventually got thrown off the set of the second picture and blackballed from working in the studios. He went back to his big, new house in the Hollywood hills and sat at home licking his wounds, unemployed and unemployable. He could hardly believe the way he had been treated and what had happened to him. He was young and idealistic and inexperienced, and had never had a run in with the kind of men he had had to work with on these two pictures–high-powered studio producers and executives whose only interest was power, money, and the bottom line. Art was a dirty word to these guys. Cassavetes was treated pretty badly, but he was so different from these men that even when it was over he still couldn't really understand why they done to him what they had.
So what did he do? He decided to make a movie about them. The result was Faces–the film I walked out on. Cassavetes made the movie to try to figure out what made these guys tick–how they could be so entertaining, and so much fun to be with, in some ways, and so awful in others. He wanted to understand what they were like when they were home with their wives eating supper. He wanted to understand what their sex lives were like. He told me he was puzzled all the way through the movie: he wrote the script to try to come to grips with them; he shot scenes in dozens of different ways to try to figure out how they might have acted in different situations; he played and replayed the footage on an editing table to try to figure out what it was like to be them.
But Cassavetes also told me that a strange thing happened as he made the movie. As he wrote, directed, and edited it, his bitterness and rage dissipated, and he began to feel a deep compassion for these men. He started to realize things that he hadn't before. He let his film teach him, and he gradually changed his mind about these men. He still saw how awful they were, but where he had begun by despising them, he began to feel sorry for them. He saw how they tortured themselves even more than they tortured other people. He saw how unhappy they were, how emotionally needy they were, how insecure, how desperate for love and approval. In short, Cassavetes eventually came not only to understand the men who had ruined his life, but almost to love them. He came to see them with kindness and sensitivity.
That's what it means to use film not to tell a canned story in the Hollywood way, not to make a set of points you've already arrived at, but as a means of understanding life. That's what it means to humble yourself before your material, and genuinely let yourself learn from it. Is it clear how different this is from the way films are usually made–not only by mainstream directors, but even by many independents? It's obvious to me that Robert Altman, for example, whatever his other considerable gifts, is incapable of this sort of openness to his material. He has clearly figured almost everything out before he steps onto the set. His goal is to score points–not to look, think, and actually learn or change his mind in the process of making the movie.
To open yourself as completely as Cassavetes did in front of a set of experiences you don't understand and use film to work through them is to grapple with deep mysteries of human personality. By mysteries I mean something entirely different from the acts of mystification in Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch, the Coens, or their clones, of course. There's lots of mystification in contemporary film–the deliberate withholding of information to thrill or titillate an audience, but no real mystery. The mysteries in thrillers can always be cleared up by the final scene, which is to say that they aren't mysteries at all in the sense in which I mean. Cassavetes explores mysteries of who and what we are that won't be resolved. His mysteries have the profundity of life.
All of the filmmakers being shown this weekend ask us to become explorers along with them–to enter into a different kind of viewing experience, not to sit back and register a series of predetermined points and meanings, but to open ourselves to any and all possibilities, and genuinely go on an adventure of discovery.
I do a lot of interviews, and I frequently get asked the question of where is independent film heading? What trends are there? I always answer the same way by saying that it is an illegitimate question. It treats art as if it were like advertising or politics or Wall Street, as if it were a matter of demographics or trends or business cycles. The truth is the opposite. True artistic creation is solitary in its essence. It is not done by a group but an individual. It is one heart speaking to one heart. And it doesn't ultimately depend on funding or support groups or government grants. (Though those things certainly don't hurt!)
There's lots of talk about how technology will make it better for filmmakers of the future, but I don't think the future of independent film depends on technology either. Real artists can use anything. If 35mm film is not available, they will use 16, and if 16 is not available they will use 8; if 8 is not available they will use video or even a still camera. In Another Girl, Another Planet, Michael Almereyda made a feature film with a 69-dollar child's pixel-cam. It's terrific. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls when he couldn't afford actors. Superstar is pretty amazing too. A real artist can use finger paints–like my friend Stan Brakhage–or finger puppets–like Paul Zaloom. The best student film I ever saw in my life was a series of still slides projected on a screen with a desynchronized voice-over narration. One of the best artists I know uses his hands to make shadows puppets on a sheet hung on a rope. It doesn't matter. Where there are men and women devoted to telling the truth about life, great art will continue to be made.
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