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Andrew Bujalski is the writer, director, and star of two of the most important low budget independent films of the past three years: Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. He kindly provided the following reflections on the art and business of  indie filmmaking for posting on the site. I highly recommend his piece. It's slyly funny, as well as being wise. Just like his movies. — RC

No Trouble with Movies
Andrew Bujalski

The film producers that I know like to remind me that there is a give-and-take relationship between art and commerce, that a balance must be struck between the needs of each as in any healthy marriage. I invariably tense up at the suggestion, not because I don’t believe that such a marriage exists—undeniably, art and commerce are in it together for the long haul—but I am far from convinced that the relationship ever has been or could be a healthy one. No, I’ve met too many couples like a&c; there may well be a genuine deep connection, and certainly there’s sweltering sexy passion, but the pair are essentially incapable of truly caring for and nurturing each other.

I don’t mind choosing sides here. To carry my metaphor surely a step too far, let’s say that art is someone I go way back with, someone, in fact, who I’ve had a pining crush on since early adolescence. Commerce then is the boorish boyfriend I’ve been forced to hang out with for years now and to whom I’ve grown grudgingly accustomed. Maybe there was even a weird night or two where commerce and I somehow ended up sharing a few beers together and it felt like we’d achieved a fleeting bond. But he’s still not right for art. I’ve seen the way he treats her. And I’ve seen him out on the town with plenty of other hot dates, everyone from fashion to politics, even journalism, you name ‘em.

The balance of power between a&c is, for obvious reasons, at its most grotesquely lopsided in the cinema. We’ve all been well educated as to how expensive movies are, and how risky an investment; we understand that when anything with a semblance of creative spark and/or deviation from accepted commercial formulae makes it to a screen, the event is roughly equivalent to a prison inmate’s successfully making the dash for freedom without getting taken out by the sharpshooters or torn apart by the dogs. The bulk of it is a barrage of mediocrity, and film critics who are professionally employed to receive this barrage seem often to be driven a bit batty by the task. These are people who have chosen to apply their intellect to analysis of the last century’s most formidable new art form—fair enough—but who therefore end up spending most of their time on product that, dare I say, does not seem particularly worthy of that level of scrutiny. Unless we begin from a Zen zero point, and assert that it is the very act of paying out our attention to films that is holy, and that the object of that attention is irrelevant—well, any less cosmic view would presumably result in very terse reviews (“There is nothing worth discussing about this film”). The critics would be left with insufficient word count, as well as a crushing lack of purpose.

So with all that brain power and not enough to apply it to, the most exciting critics just go ahead and create the ideas and themes that the filmmakers may (or may not) have if they hadn’t been responsible for returning millions of dollars worth of investment. I love Brian De Palma and I like Mission to Mars; I don’t know that Armond White is necessarily wrong when he asserts that “It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them…[T]he consensus blindness regarding Mission to Mars indicates a cultural crisis”…but I can’t escape the feeling that White is playing at a higher level—that his criticism is more entertaining and enriching—than the film in question. The Bernie Mac comedy Mr. 3000 is indeed much better than one might expect it to be, but if White is correct in his statement that, “It's one of the best movies ever made about being a black American,” then that would seem to speak primarily to a failing of movies in general.

The plight of the critic seems oddly analogous to the plight of the actor. Both willingly subject themselves to an industry whose economics—abetted by unforgiving laws of probability—ensure that they will almost always be asked to work well below the level of their talents. It is among the most perverse of movie business ironies that most Hollywood stars are, in fact, almost as gifted as their publicists would have us believe; but it has been determined that maximum profitability is to be had by using these gifts as varnish on deliberately mid-range work. Our national acting treasures practice their craft thusly: Robert DeNiro in Hide and Seek, Meet the Fockers, Godsend, Analyze That, City by the Sea, etc. Al Pacino in The Recruit, People I Know, Simone, Insomnia, etc. Dustin Hoffman again in Fockers, The Runaway Jury, and lending voice talent to Racing Stripes. Meryl Streep: The Manchurian Candidate, Music of the Heart, One True Thing, The River Wild. (Perhaps it’s to be expected that the titans feel they have nothing left to prove. What about younger lights of the medium? Denzel Washington [The Manchurian Candidate, Man on Fire, Out of Time, John Q]? Edward Norton [The Italian Job, Red Dragon, Death to Smoochy, The Score]?) What if market research one day revealed that Americans preferred to see their athletes play below their skills? Now that Lance Armstrong has finally given up these interminable Tour de Frances maybe we can get him to compete in some shorter, more easily televised races.

“Independent film” was, and is, supposed to be an arena in which the laws of commercial Darwinism are, if not suspended, at least a bit less brutal. And to a degree, that is the case. A $10 million film can, literally, afford to be a bit more adventurous than a $50 million film. The inverse proportion though, does not hold all the way to the bottom; perhaps you can make a movie for $7,000 like Robert Rodriguez did, or, even better, $218 like Jonathan Caouette did—maybe you can even set the new standard and revolutionize cinema for two digits—but unless in your spare time you’ve developed innovative new modes of distribution, someone is still going to have to spend hundreds of thousands to get your film into theaters. (In the case of Tarnation, hundreds of thousands were necessary before the real work of distribution even began, just to clear the legal rights to the music and film clips employed throughout.) Which is to say, unless the film is the breakout hit that everyone sincerely hopes it will be, or you’ve gotten away with a wildly overenthusiastic advance, you’re still not going to make your $99 back. The economics of distribution are unfriendly to all, but most gruesome to the independent.

Not that anyone can really tell the “independents” apart from the dependents; the borders are notoriously slippery. The nominating committee of the Independent Spirit Awards (indie world answer to the Oscars), rather than attempting the formidable task of measuring the independence of individual nominees’ spirits, instead generally presumes the limit to be somewhere between $15 and $20 million—films in that range are open to debate, but above it are considered beyond the pale. Indeed, because of the demands made by people who’ve given it to you, there does tend to exist a loose correlation between access to enormous cash and a lack of artistic integrity, but there is no reliable mathematical formula here. Many, many films on the festival circuit lack not only the entertainment value but also the aesthetic coherence of, say, Charlie’s Angels.

In the actual trenches of filmmaking, though, one does try to develop an optimistic view of a low budget, and it’s always a comfort to think of the restrictions one avoids by sidestepping all that string-attached excess money. And unless you are Charlie’s Angels auteur McG or are in his rarefied company, then there is always a production out there more demonstrably extravagant than yours. As in the classic Charles and Ray Eames science class film strip Powers of Ten, there is always another exponent by which you can zoom in or out—the $10 million filmmaker can decry the decadence of the $100 million filmmaker, the $1 million filmmaker can decry the $10 mil guy or gal, I can decry them if I feel like, and some kid with a DV camera and Final Cut Pro can decry me. (And another kid who can’t afford Final Cut—who only has iMovie—keeps it even more real.)

Perhaps the most reliable definition of independence is the one that your parents had in mind when they spoke of encouraging yours. They weren’t talking about your nonconformist fashion sense—they meant that they no longer want to pay your bills for you. This tightly pragmatic definition applied to film would mean that either the filmmaker was funding his/her film out of pocket, or, at least no artistic decision was ever influenced by a hope to return, or grow, the investment capital. This is the characterization of indieness that has the greatest whiff of truth, but it also ends up disqualifying the great, great majority of movies that any of us ever see. Most films that fit this bill are experimental shorts, or student films. Generally you have to go to the shorts program at a film festival to see them; though as film festivals become a more competitive sub-industry of their own, their programmers grow more obligated to stack the deck with crowd pleasers and the horrifying creature known as the “calling card” film (loosely defined, commercials in search of a product).

All art industries are ugly. Painters and poets and other highbrow folk still have to chase benefactors and often feel demeaned in the process. But they at least are spared the scenario in which they cannot practice their art at all without first pre-submitting an overview of all artistic decisions to approval by corporate officers. (A screenplay is cheap and easy to produce and as such is the currency one uses to try to squirm past the first several tiers of guardians between filmmakers and financing. As a predictor of the finished product, it is approximately as useful as sheet music would be toward signing a rock band.)

Mel Gibson didn’t bother submitting his vision to industry simps. The Passion of the Christ was paid out of his own pocket, and as such he has a fair claim to being one of America’s premier indies. Though the simps are kicking themselves in retrospect for passing up the mint that Passion ended up becoming, they cannot be blamed for thinking that its commercial potential was, at least, uncertain, especially when Gibson was proclaiming his intent not to subtitle the Aramaic in the film. (His retreat from that thrillingly quixotic decision, even if he hadn’t really meant it, admittedly seems a stain on claims to “independent spiritedness.”) Like many people who were not raised hardcore Catholic, my primary response to the film was bewilderment—but please let us give the man credit for making a film that he felt he had to, and one that was at the very least a good deal more compelling than most of what his acting career was offering him, and us (Signs, We Were Soldiers, What Women Want, The Patriot).

George Lucas has been promising since at least 1980 to pull a Gibson and make something according to his own idiosyncratic interests, but as of this writing there is no evidence that such a project is forthcoming. In interviews he repeatedly expresses some sadness at the ravages of his success and a dream of returning to his experimental roots à la his debut feature, the marvelous 70s dystopia THX-1138. Ignorant of the specific pressures of his daily life, an outsider can’t help but wonder: What is he waiting for? Presumably he can afford to self-distribute if he fears his movie would be too strange for anyone to take on; and if it’s still too weird for the exhibitors, he can just build his own theaters, can’t he? And if the films are so experimental that still no one comes, surely he still has enough money left over to continue his charitable works and leave a very comfortable inheritance to his children, right? Is it just that he fears that he might offend his Star Wars collaborators if he turns his back on blockbusters? Would this be as irresponsible as the CEO of General Motors saying he was sick of cars and everybody ought to just ride a bike?

Maybe it’s absurd to look for signs of the independent spirit in multimillionaires. Perhaps the two are indeed mutually exclusive. Though still I’m hung up on Gibson; what more can we possibly ask of an artist than that he/she follow his/her most unpopular passion, or Passion, wherever it leads? To which, I suppose, the finicky might respond: We should also ask them to produce great art.

Well. That’s awfully subjective, isn’t it? Where does the conversation go from there? John Cassavetes?

Cassavetes, I concur, is the best. His films do indeed make most everyone else’s look like frivolous garbage. There is not much else useful I can say about him as an artist except to encourage anyone not familiar with his films to check them out—but even that feels a bit unnecessary and uncomfortable. His films don’t need me to proselytize on their behalf; they are best stumbled upon, by accident, in a dark cavern, where the movies belong.

Indie cinema’s JC, like Gibson’s JC, is easily cast as a martyr, having found far greater critical and pop-critical accord posthumously than he might have hoped for in his lifetime. These days he is popularly acknowledged as having invented American independents—though other films and makers may have anticipated some of the specific innovations associated with Shadows, that film nonetheless appears in retrospect to be the wellspring for all that has followed, much as conventional wisdom now appoints Robert Johnson’s blues as the official, original progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll. While he still walked the earth, Cassavetes had plenty of critical detractors, not to mention that most of his films were commercial failures. And in a way this seems a blessing—it’s hard to imagine that his work would not have suffered had it enjoyed consistent success in the marketplace. If studios had believed there was a reliable way to generate profit from his oeuvre, presumably the result would have been either (a) work compromised, intentionally or unintentionally, by the pressures of financial expectations, or (b) an artistic implosion, perhaps on a smaller scale than George Lucas’ 22 year withdrawal from directing, but of the same species.

It’s only recently occurred to me that perhaps there’s a perfectly sensible reason why so many excellent artists are not appreciated in their lifetimes (filmmakers specifically—no matter how totemic the figure, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, whoever, extremely few if any go their whole career without having their work tampered with by middlemen whose names will not be recorded in history, all the better for them to get away with it). Standing before Van Gogh’s paintings, we wonder how the world could have been so ignorant as to have not lavished riches and praise on the man. Driving under a billboard for Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God TV movie, I can’t help but wonder what Halle Berry was paid for her participation and what Zora Neale Hurston might have done with that money in the last years of her life when she was working as a housecleaner. But their contemporaries surely had a different, and distressingly reasonable, perspective: Hey! This Van Gogh fellow thinks that his paintings are important? I’ve got a family to feed here! I am ensuring the survival of the species!…I find it difficult to begrudge that person their lack of enthusiasm for art. Cassavetes regularly tried to get his films booked into theaters in minority neighborhoods, on the theory that working class people should be able to identify with his characters far better than the bourgeoisie—and of course, the exhibitors that he sold on the idea invariably lost money on it. Does one blame the working class, as a class, for not appreciating Cassavetes? Does one blame them as individuals? Or is blame rather beside the point here?

With Cassavetes the man lost to us and only Cassavetes the profoundly, unassailably great filmmaker left for our consideration, it is tempting to appoint him the avenging angel of anti-Hollywood artistry. The Independent Spirit Award named for Cassavetes is the award given to feature films made for under $500,000—well under Hollywood’s radar—but the majority of Cassavetes’ own films cost more that amount (and that’s before adjusting for inflation). Though he no doubt held contempt for many individuals in Hollywood and a great deal of their product, it doesn’t jibe that he could have hated the system in toto. Of his 11 feature films, six of them were at least partially financed by Hollywood studios. The five that he self-financed would not have been possible if not for his, and wife Gena Rowlands’, very lucrative careers acting in Hollywood movies. (Cassavetes often turned up in just-for-the-paycheck fare like Incubus, or, a few steps classier, Brian De Palma’s The Fury—the final scene of which, wherein his character meets an extravagantly violent demise, is a particularly potent image, though I’m not sure what it means. An exploding Cassavetes will stick in a young filmmaker’s consciousness.) There is also the fact he lived in Hollywood for approximately the last 30 years of his life. No evidence suggests that he hated the most hateable of U.S. cities. Even George Lucas, who might have been King of Los Angeles, refused to move there—he’s a die-hard Northern Californian. But New York born and bred JC liked the sunshine, and if he didn’t love the sins he still had room in his heart for the sinners. “Anyone who can make a film, I already love,” he said to an interviewer.*

Most of film’s iconic iconoclasts are/were well versed in the ways of Hollywood, rather than existing solely above or to the side of it, as we might like them to be. Mike Leigh, Britain’s patron saint of refusal-to-compromise wrote an article for The Guardian recently about his most recent trip to the Academy Awards. He says of his predictable loss in the Best Director category, “My immediate disappointment is for Scorsese, in truth.” We can comfortably picture Leigh getting enthused about Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, or Mean Streets, or Taxi Driver. Maybe all the way to Cape Fear. But is he really saddened here by a defeat for The Aviator? Has Scorsese ever made a film more contrary to our notion of Leigh’s aesthetics?

Paul Morrissey is a Leonardo DiCaprio fan. Stan Brakhage loved the South Park movie. There are people on the planet who only watch obscure experimental cinema, but they are few and far between, and they are not obscure experimental filmmakers.

Filmmakers who would choose to work in direct opposition to the Hollywood/“indiewood” system have yet to effect its toppling. Nor have filmmakers attempting to “subvert” the system from within. Did the oft-discussed homosexual subtext of Top Gun advance the cause of gay rights? When a movie like Men in Black 2 is lauded by critics for its sly political commentary, one must ask who exactly is subverting whom. More likely the political advocacy has been turned into a Taco Bell commercial than vice versa. Again, commerce is very much the dominant partner in this marriage. And in fact, art is sometimes even a silent third partner; both Hollywood and indie films are more often designed as cultural artifacts than art per se, coded signals in a national dialogue, aimed at demographics, rather than items and experiences meant to be received by individuals.

Of course there are filmmakers who do work entirely outside of either maxi- or mini-Hollywood models. In various travels with my first film, I had the good fortune to briefly cross paths with guys like James Benning, Peter Hutton, the Kuchar brothers, Jon Jost—people whose specific aesthetics are unique and quite unlike each others, but who share the common bond of having staked out niches of extremely independent cinema after having come up during the heyday of U.S. “underground” cinema. (Mike Kuchar was actually able to quit his day job for several years from income generated by Sins of the Fleshapoids’ long New York run, quite unthinkable these days for a film devoid of niceties like, for example, synchronized sound recording—and not even full feature length!—in a city glutted by new releases.) Nearly all of these people support themselves by teaching, as Stan Brakhage did in his later years. At any given moment, like kids in bands 40 years their junior, they may or may not have health insurance. When Brakhage died he left significant medical expenses behind him; Sonic Youth and others performed benefits to aid his family.

As paragons of artistic integrity, these men are all suitable heroes. If “having it all” is more your style then perhaps your heroes are more along the lines of Steven Soderbergh or Gus Van Sant, the guys who theoretically have their cake (affirmatively weird movies like Schizopolis or Gerry) and eat it too (Ocean’s Twelve, Good Will Hunting). The so-called “one for you, one for me” model seems to be a slippery slope indeed, but as long as the occasional interesting film gets squeezed out of it I won’t object. (I suspect that this sort of career track, which requires ability to finesse and manipulate many different sorts of people, may be a manifestation of a mild form of sociopathy; which isn’t to say that more obstinate artists don’t suffer from worse psychological disorders.) At any rate, none of these people were the heroes I grew up with—like the great majority of film lovers, I only came to the arty stuff after decades of absorbing and learning the language of the big product.

Probably the most useful lesson I ever picked up on the process of independent filmmaking came from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the first scene, Kirstie Alley, as Lt. Saavik, participates in a simulated battle exercise called the Kobayashi-Maru. (I liked that, in a Trek universe filled with fake-sounding alien names, “Kobayashi-Maru” sounded unmistakably Japanese/Earthling, as if to further drive the point that this story has useful applications on our own planet.) The K-M is a no-win scenario that is designed simply to test potential officers’ mettle under stress; only Capt. Kirk has ever avoided simulated death-by-Klingons in the exercise. Saavik, after her own nerve-rattling defeat, asks Kirk how he did it, and he admits: he cheated. He hacked the computer before the test and reprogrammed the parameters to make it beatable.

For me this is the most potent metaphor for independent filmmaking. The system, wherein thousands upon thousands of aspiring auteurs compete against each other for desperately limited resources, is not designed to accommodate the triumph of an individual vision, yours or anyone else’s. So like Kirk, you’ve got to pull a cheat, a hack. The easiest and best hack is to have unfettered access to extreme wealth. Failing that, more creativity and elbow grease are required, not to mention endless favors from friends and new-friends. The good news is that the system can indeed be circumvented. The bad news is that, again like Capt. Kirk, you’ve still never really taken the test. You may open a door or two in the film industry, but you still don’t know if you can survive once you step inside—and unless your hack is somehow self-replenishing and/or limitless, you can only avoid that step for so long. Behind the door lie ugly beasts worse, and more wrathful, than Khan.

Maybe you can just keeping pulling out new tricks, provided you’re not too exhausted. Supposing that you manage not to get ruined by failure, or, far more devastating, success, you might keep pulling it off. David Cronenberg has said that “at the time you're being an artist, you're not a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever.” Be aware, though, that living up to that lack of responsibility is a lot of work. You might be better off—and now perhaps is the time to stop hiding behind evasive pronouns—I might be better off trying to live up to the responsibilities of when I am a citizen. I could drop all the pretensions and go work for Jimmy Carter, or something like that, couldn’t I? Shouldn’t I? I’d start at the bottom. I’d bring Jimmy his coffee. I’d be a p.a. on the production of justice and generosity and kindness. (Though it would be a purer fantasy if I evicted ex-Presidents and other cults of personality from it. Why the need for a charismatic figurehead? And worse yet, another JC.)

For better or worse, I’ve been consumed with films as long as I can remember—at least since I saw Rocky III. As an adult I came to filmmaking because of an enthusiasm for the filmmaking parts: writing, directing, editing, performing. Becoming versed in technical minutiae along the way (one can spend a lifetime contemplating the vicissitudes of analog-to-digital-and/or-vice-versa transfer) is of course necessary if not always pleasant. Whether or not the extraneous stuff—learning to act as your own accountant, your own lawyer, your own press agent, your own distributor—is necessary or not is very much in the eye of the beholder. What education I’ve had in these things all occurred grudgingly; I have a deep-seated superstition that acknowledging the realities of the “biz” only feeds its power. Willful naïveté is a defense against evil. I may well have invited the devil in by speaking his name in these pages.

So before I make matters worse, here, then, is my final analysis: the cinema is fine. There’s nothing wrong with the art form that the dismantlement of capitalism wouldn’t fix. Or that, at least, would be a good shot in the arm. Until then, movies shall continue on as most human endeavors. Miracles will occur; being miracles, they will defined by their scarcity as much as by their brilliance. But some real light will surely fall through the cracks, onto the screen. Our spirits are dependent on it.


* For info on John Cassavetes’ life and career I am much indebted to Ray Carney’s exhaustive and inspiring Cassavetes on Cassavetes book.

[A shorter, edited version of this essay appeared in the fall 2005 issue of n+1 (]

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