Alternative Practices in Film and Broadcasting – What do you understand by the concept of ‘Independence’

Independence is a word that has had many different meanings over the years, and has held significance with many different movements of history. One thing that hasn’t changed however is the inability to clarify the term succinctly and simply. This is because independence is such a complicated concept, that there is a strong argument that it doesn’t even exist. This argument becomes stronger once independence is put within the context of film and broadcasting.

“Film-making, both capital – and labour-intensive is the most dependent art form”

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James Snead, quoted in Gill Branston & Roy Stafford, The Media Student’s Book, (London: Routledge, 1996)

The periods of Film history most recognised as being independent are; post-war to cold war period amongst Russia, Czechoslovakia, as well as other Eastern bloc countries such as Hungary and Romania, 1960’s America and the Dogme 95 group spearheaded by Lars Von Trier. Aside from Dogme 95, which was seen as a rebellion against the values and pretensions of Hollywood cinema, these periods of independence seem to arise from great political and social change. This is hardly surprising, as the drive to subvert the status quo is similar in both a revolutionary, and an independent filmmaker.

“Independent film is all those films which defy the system–be it in regard to financial assistance/control or just in the film’s format or approach.”

The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers Website www.AIVF.org

That said there are exceptions to the rule. Although all independent filmmakers start out as people with the ideas but without the means, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to want to make a controversial or subversive film. Many use independence simply as a stepping-stone to Hollywood success. Indeed, some of Hollywood’s biggest directors (Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh) have had films they made while at film school hailed as underground classics. While Spielberg showed no intention of making any film other than mainstream fare (he’s credited with inventing the big summer blockbuster, with Jaws in 1977), after Soderbergh’s revised version of his debut, “Sex. Lies and Videotape” (1989) won huge him huge acclaim and a host of awards and nominations, he decided to use his influence to pick and chose exactly which projects he wanted to pursue, taking more unconventional scripts which allowed him room to experiment.

When assessing a project on its ‘independence’, there are four regularly reoccurring criteria:

* Aesthetics

* Finance

* Authorship

* Ideology

Aesthetics is essentially, the style of the film – incorporating subject matter and approach of said matter, the style in which the film is shot, set, made. This is something that is always hotly debated. Some argue that there is no particular ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’ style, and every film has it’s own individual identity, but I disagree. While it’s true that every film is individual, there are certain kinds of stock shots and situations that will always crop up in the same genre of films made by major studios. For example, the way in which the final showdown of good and evil in action films always features a shot of the two main protagonists, directly opposite each other, as if to say to the audience, “He’s the good guy, and He’s the bad guy”.

Finance is much more straightforward. It’s relatively easy to spot whether or not a film has been on a shoestring in the director’s hometown, such as Harmony Korine’s ‘Gummo’ (1997), or on a multi-million dollar lot at Universal Studios. Everything from the casting and set design to the distribution and exhibition of a film is governed by the amount of money it has backing it. This can be both a bad and a good thing as, depending on the director, this either means they have the resources and the gravitas to make the project of their dreams, or it means they’ll have to fight the studio all the way to make sure their vision doesn’t get the edges taken off it.

“If there comes a point in my life where I have to listen to studio people, if there’s a chance someone can take the film away, I won’t make the film. The movie should be one person’s vision, and that’s it.”

Harmony Korine quoted in interview with Geoffrey McNab in James Hillier’s American Independent Cinema (Indiana University Press: 2001)

The idea of ‘one man, one vision’ expressed by Korine, is authorship, or Auteur Theory when related to film. Auteurs Theory allows one man to take control of every facet of the physical act of creating a film – Writer, Director, Producer and often Cameraman as well. Famous Auteurs include Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Ken Loach, more of whom later.

The advantage of being an Auteur is not only in complete, undiluted control of the project, but the opportunity to create a personal statement, and to gain a strong fan base of like-minded people. While it’s true any director who makes a good film will have more people there to see the next one, Auteurs put much more of themselves into a film, meaning that even if the overall reaction is not good, those who understand and appreciate the statement will be loyal throughout their career. I know many people who will go and see the new movie by Tarantino or Scorcese without even knowing what it’s about. There is however a hole in Auteurs theory. With the hundreds of people required to make even the most basic of films, no one man can take complete credit.

“Anyone who has made even the simplest Super 8 film knows that the phrase (independent film) is a contradiction in terms. No film-maker is independent in the way that a poet is.”

James Snead, quoted in Gill Branston & Roy Stafford, The Media Student’s Book, (London: Routledge, 1996)

Ideology is a tricky subject to analyse, especially in this context as it incorporates idea of both aesthetics and authorship. An independent ideology can mean putting across a different angle of a common stereotype, exploring and breaking social and moral taboos, or even just rebelling against everything you’ve been told, be it by your parents or the government. Directors like Michael Moore, creator of fiercely anti-establishment films as “Bowling For Columbine” (2002) attempt to educate the general public by exposing them to another way of thinking about key issues, things which up until this point they hadn’t even realised. The ideology of a filmmaker can sometimes get in the way, as was the case with some critical reaction to Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic ‘Platoon’ (1990), as some attributed the wild exchanges between those in authority and the platoon to some sort of physcologically scarring incident Stone himself suffered while a soldier in Vietnam.

The reason there appears to be so much confusion surrounding the notion of independence is because there seems to be trouble deciphering between independent and alternative. The two films I will be looking at illustrate this perfectly. The first, ‘My Name is Joe’ (1998) by Ken Loach, is what I would class as a truly independent film, in almost every sense of the word. The second, ‘Kids’ by Larry Clark, but written by Harmony Korine, is a little more complex – trying to combine a stringently independent and outspoken duo of Clark and Korine, with a major studio such as Miramax, home of such movies as “Air Bud: Seventh Inning Stretch” or the screen adaptation of “Chicago” (both 2002).

Ken Loach is an Oxford educated man, who began his career as an actor in theatre and television, before joining forces with producer Tony Garnett to make ‘gritty’ TV docudramas, the most notable being “Cathy Come Home” (1966), which was widely regarded as a catalyst to changing the laws surrounding the homeless. Since then, he has gone on to make critically acclaimed films such as “Kes” (1969), Riff Raff (1992) and “Land and Freedom” (1995). Loach has a distinct style to filmmaking, focusing on the raw emotions of the characters, just as much as the story itself.

“Loach’s work is emotionally direct and bitingly relevant. His films acknowledge the social and economic realities of the day, but his characters refuse to bow down even when life throws its worst at them.”

Alan Morrison

British Film Institute website, www.bfi.org.uk

For my name is Joe, a story about the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and a social worker in a rundown area of Glasgow, Loach went to great lengths to capture the essence of the setting, almost to the point of being obsessive. He used actual areas of Glasgow (and for some scenes, Dundee), refused to create any set pieces, and aside from the Male and Female leads – Peter Mullan and Louise Goodall, and a few others, used non-actors for all other parts, including the football team that play such a central part to the story. Indeed most of them were well known to the local police, to the point that during one scene where they undertake a robbery, onlookers who couldn’t see the cameras called the police. This is an idea he shares with Korine, who famously once said:

“I have almost no interest in actors. If I write a script about someone who fights alligators, I’d rather find the person who would fight the alligators for real than ask Tom Hanks to play the part”.

This seemingly flippant quote reveals a lot about the mindset of both men – fiercely independent, continually disillusioned by the Hollywood circus. Both could also be described as Auteurs, although on the features in question, both collaborated with others – Korine with director Larry Clark, Loach with writer Paul Laverty. Despite this, no one could deny both films come from a very singular vision. Both have a habit of using the same production team, and to some extent actors (Korine’s one-time girlfriend, Chloe Sevigny, has starred in all of his films to date). Working with the same people time and again helps to create an identity as a team, and also makes things easier when discussing what they want from a film.

“The film is a “wake-up call,” and I guess it serves that purpose for folks who haven’t yet figured out that this world is populated more and more by selfish, disenfranchised youth who get their kicks from drugs, sex, and casual cruelty.”