Declaration of Independents
By Alexander Payne
At a meeting of non-aligned nations during the Cold War, Fidel Castro made the dry observation, "In reality there are only two non-aligned nations: the United States and the Soviet Union." I often recall that quote when asked about American independent cinema, for I think on one level the only true independents are Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros., Universal and the rest of the major studios. Say what you want about their imprisonment by corporate edicts and market forces; only they can make whatever they choose, and only they enjoy assured distribution.
Of course, "independent cinema" has come to mean so many things. Endless conferences and publications attempting to get a handle on American independent cinema -- what it is, whether it exists, whether it's dying or thriving -- dance around what for me is the central issue: that the source of the financing is unimportant. Cinema is independent only to the degree that it reflects the voice of one person, the director (in conjunction with his or her hand-picked creative team). Martin Scorsese now makes studio films that cost $100 million, and no one questions his independent credentials. And at Sundance we see low-budget features whose only message is "Hire me."
I want two simple things of our cinema -- that it be comprised of a large percentage of films that reverberate the voices and hearts of the filmmakers, for that is how film is always at its best. Second, I want a cinema that is intelligent, uplifting and human, and that serves -- as good art should -- as a mirror, not as an impossible or fraudulent consumer-oriented projection. After all, what good is a story that does not somehow add another piece to the infinite jigsaw puzzle that is human experience? What good is a story that does not somehow connect people?
As a working American director -- a Hollywood director, no less -- I resent the cleft between what we consider studio movies and independent movies. I want and expect studios to finance personal, risky and political cinema -- as they did in the much-vaunted 1970s -- and I am overjoyed because I no longer think this a naive dream. I think it's starting to happen right now.
For some 25 years we've had American movies but not movies about Americans. For 25 years we've largely been making not films but rather glorified cartoons which can be as easily digested in Omaha as on a bus in Thailand; films whose principal message is, We need your money to keep our stock price up; films that exploit banality and violence as come-ons to the lowest angels of our nature; films based on formula so they can be consumed as readily and predictably as McDonald's hamburgers. We've turned away from the need and utility of art in favor of impersonal product to maximize profits and at the tremendous, tragic expense of our culture. There have been many wonderful exceptions, but I speak of trends.
But look at this great year for movies! We have "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Maria Full of Grace," "Before Sunset," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the rest of the documentaries in theaters, "Spider-Man 2," "Shrek 2," Tarantino, Alfonso Cuaron doing "Harry Potter." This fall we have David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh, Brad Bird's "The Incredibles," Brad Silberling's "Lemony Snicket." Fold in the American distribution of Almodovar, Walter Salles, Zhang Yimou, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. If they don't all turn out to be great films, at least we can discern a strong trend of cinema -- big and commercial as well as small and personal -- aspiring to be human, intelligent, respectful of the audience and director-driven. More big commercial films are being entrusted to stong and thoughtful directors, and more studios are planning their own versions of Fox Searchlight and Focus.
Why now? I see two obvious reasons -- the same that we saw decades ago. First, when the beast is dying, it seeks new blood. Maybe we can't point directly to a "Paint Your Wagon," but when studios offer up increasing numbers of big-budget dirigibles that tank, they look for solutions outside traditional decision-making boxes. And maybe we can't yet point to an "Easy Rider" or a "Midnight Cowboy" as a watershed film, but when "Fahrenheit 9/11" makes whatever it's going to make, or when "Lost in Translation" costs $4 million and makes almost $50 million, well, there are signs that, given creative control, directors -- many of them newer and younger -- might be in the best position to serve the contemporary audience.
Second, of course, the world is going to hell these days. As the saying goes, when small men cast long shadows, the sun is going down. Most likely things are going to get worse before they improve. When confused and troubled, people look to art in general and cinema in particular for context, for clues about who we are and where we've come from and where we might be going. Whether Bush and his corrupt gang are reelected or not -- and especially if they are -- these times ensure increased demand for films with human and political content.
Art is all we have to combat the fearsome, awful animal side of man that today controls events. To portray real people with real problems, real joys, real tears will serve as a positive political force, a force for comfort and possibly for change. With the inhumanity forced upon us by governments and terrorists and corporations, to make a purely human film is today a political act. To make a film about disenfranchised people is a political act. To make a film about love is a political act. To make a film about a single human emotion is today a political act. And bad things happen when good people fail to speak up.
Intelligence and humanity should not be "specialty" items. Imagination, artistry and risk-taking are as essential to big-budget commercial films as they are for the emerging filmmaker. Our studios may now wish to invest in a greater number of less expensive films and enjoy the profits of volume rather than always starving the small and medium films in order to feed the increasingly mercurial "tentpole" beast. And we filmmakers must be disciplined and keep our costs as low as possible in order to deserve the risks that define our finest filmmaking nature.
We have the potential for a new era where studios and filmmakers come together as they have not in a generation, and we have the chance to define a new age in a new century. I hope years from now my optimism will have been warranted, for I know that if our studios identify the signs and act, they have today the exceptional opportunity not merely to co-op "independent" filmmakers but to assume themselves the mantle of true "independents."