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Monday, September 29, 2008

James Wolcott on Indie Films - Ouch!

I have a love/hate relationship with Vanity Fair, the iconic cultural-society-literary-celebrity publication now in its famed second incarnation, having been revived 25 years ago and helmed by some guy then Tina Brown and now Graydon Carter (my two cents: don't change the hair).

I have been a subscriber for lo these 25 years. Love it because receiving my Vanity Fair each month is a happy-mail-box ritual and I love, in this order, the Proust Questionnaire, the letters to the editor (in which I was once anonymously soft quoted as complaining about the number of ads that appear before the table of contents unless some other chick said the same thing in the same way which is possible but let me dream) Dominic Dunne, Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott. Hate because the copious, upscale ad content clashes mightily with my values and makes it A NIGHTMARE to find the table of freaking contents.

But yes, I do like reading about the lives of various Princess Von Furstenburg-Hapsburg-McFabulous's because it's a guilty pleasure of mine even though at the end of aforementioned guilty-pleasure bio-article, I am usually in touch with my inner angry Communist self. These people are so vain and so shallow! And so rich! LOOK at that spread of their palace-compound-castle! But ohhhhh to have a peek into such a rarefied world...

In the latest issue, the one with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, James Wolcott, erudite cultural critic, tells us of his new discovery - television. It's a really great article, actually - slightly behind the curve for Wolcott, says I - but well worth a read.

But tucked into the middle of this great article, Wolcott gets ensnared in two things: generalized, "the good old days" snobbery when it comes to indie films and witty, elliptical turns of phrase that make grasping his point an annoying exercise in parsing, well - witty, elliptical turns of phrase. To wit:

Most of these loosely-hung-together slow-metabolism vignettes remain nestled on the naturalistic surface, with mumblecore films caterpillaring into unmade beds.


Despite their supposed deviance from Hollywood formula, indie films are sometimes no better and often worse in their time-released didacticism and midafternoon droop, the characters so depleted by anomie, shrunken-head defeatism, dead-end prospects, deadbeat friends, bed-head hair, and a wardrobe of carefully selected from the dirty-clothes hamper that they can barely drag themselves to the diner to watch the new waitress tie her apron.

and

There's an overdetermined depressiveness to so many indies - noble in intent, conscientious in execution, they tell you tonally from the opening shot or the first scratchy musical note that there'll be no Shawshank Redemption at the end of this bus ride....[whereas] Television spares us the faint twitchings of twig life.

Now mind you: I have seen indie films that Wolcott is describing here, I really have. But Wolcott seems to (and it's hard to say since his writing here is quite definitely a mumblecore article caterpillaring into an unmade bed) be indicting all indie film except those of Paul Mazursky. To which I say - dude? Jim? You're making yourself sound really, really old here. There have been indie films caterpillaring into all sorts of disheveled messes as long as there have been indie films. Wake up and smell the JUNO.

We all know the power of words to persuade, romance, inflame and provoke. Anonymous internet jackasses know it (albeit unwittingly), screenwriters know it, novelists and journalists know it. And certainly Wolcott, a writer I greatly admire precisely for his rich, rambling, old-school voice knows it.

But in this article, Wolcott, like Ziggy Stardust, got sucked up into his own mind and the result is a mildly entertaining, thoroughly prejudiced, somewhat inaccurate musing on indie film. The main gist of the article is the delivery, speed and ascendance of good television, which in my view is inarguable. But -

...[whereas in indie film] there's a slumpy sameness to the dialogue delivery and body language, as if everyone were making withdrawals from the the same tired bloodbank.

Really, Jim? The majority of the time? Of course, the more movies you see, the more clear it becomes that just because a film has "indie" or "foreign" in front of it, does not automatically mean that greatness or intellectual, hipster or existential heights have been reached. But I do think Wolcott is rather letting his age show and is overlooking some of the best movies ever put to celluloid - or digital video, as it were, and as a lover of such, I take offense at the lumping together of all indie films as pretentious exercises in nothingness. Yes, yes, we all know that "indie" films aren't generally as "indie" as they used to be. But on the whole, they are one of the few outlets for filmmakers to unleash characters and dialogue that are anything but anemic blood bank withdrawals suffering from slumpy sameness and navel-gazing.

And while the ascendance of great television is inarguably a threat to the box office, great television is hardly new - there's just more of it now.

In my view, television still offers, on the whole, a vast acreage of vapid nothingness compared to indie film. Reality programs, teeny bopper musings on Vanity Fair inspired rich-life pipe dreams (a guilty pleasure but not mine) and stultifyngly dull, outdated sitcoms the success of which mystify me. Everybody Loves Raymond. Really? Did they?

For every great television show there are 10 awful shows. So let's keep our wits about us here. Wolcott's rather sweeping take on indie film as a head-up-its-own-arse exercise in nothing-muchness is too sweeping for this girl's taste.

Despite having taken exception to the midsection of this particular Wolcott piece - I recommend reading it. Because I may be complaining here, but damn I love a good writer, even if Wolcott writes the equivalent of indie-mumblecore-caterpillar-slouching-into-intellectual pretension while protesting it at the same time. Love ya, mean it Jim. Have your people call my people.

To read James Wolcott's blog, click HERE.



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9 comments:

Kirkland said...

There are "indie" films and then there are indie films, the former being the more modern work which comes from the indie arm of the studios (which only passes as an indie film because the studio was too cheap to actually spend any money on it, believing that, "...well we bought the damn thing, we might as well give it the indie guys and see if that generates some interest (read money)..."

Personally, I prefer the true indie film.

And Wolcott has got some nerve talking about "talkie" indie films, I mean considering his use of twenty-five dollar words and given his own NY-style cultural snobbery.

Julie Gray said...

I know! Talk about the faint twitchings of twig life. I love Wolcott in general, crotchety as he may be (and you can tell by my mention of Hitchens that crotchety seems to appeal to me in a weird way), but seriously, man, lighten up.

Christina said...

I finally gave up on Vanity Fair after 10 long years. I also hate not being able to find the table of contents.

I renewed my Mediabistro membership recently and one of the benefits was a subscription to New York magazine. I've fallen in love. Kind of like Vanity Fair without the pretentiousness. Better content. Great movie reviews, book reviews, articles on current events (like the Wall Street crisis) and pop culture (a great piece on Martha Stewart's daughter that was 50% unflattering and fun to read), a rundown of the fall season on TV... etc. And it's -- weekly! It's replaced Vanity Fair in my life.

Only thing I skip - restaurant reviews. All NYC restaurants. Makes me want to eat food I can't eat.

Try it!

Juanse said...

Thanks for the post. It is important to respect the work of so many people who write what they best know how to. This time it happens to be indie films. It's not smart to bash an entire world of film because a few movies are not as good as Shawshank Redemption or Boogie Nights.

On a side note... Each country has its own industry and usually Americans subcategorize foreign film as indie, no matter what the budget is. A 5 million dollar budget is not an indie budget in most of the countries in this planet.
"El Orfanato" (Orphanage) and "Laberinto del Fauno" are not indies. They're the Spanish equivalent of an Scorsese of Spielberg film.

Sarah said...

Hah - I actually felt *rage* the other day when I tried to find the table of contents in US Vogue and wondered if I was the only person in the world who felt this way. Maybe you're supposed to buy it for the ads. Yuck. But thanks for making me feel a little more normal...

Anthony Peterson said...

I know its off topic but is their any connection between the "table of contents" and the first 10 pages of a screenplay?

chaia said...

Is he aware that "indie" refers to funding and neither content not quality? I'm too curmudgeonly myself to read his article and find out.

Seth Fortin said...

I agree with Kirkland, though -- these days "indie" doesn't even necessarily tell you much about funding. Maybe the useful distinction is between "low-budget" (Pulp Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine) and the truly independently financed (later Welles, the films of John Cassavetes, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation). But given that distinction, I would say that independent financing does have something to do with content, in the sense that when you spend your own money to make the movie, you're answerable only to your own artistic conscience. (Doesn't always make a film better, but it does usually make it more personal.)

Kirkland said...

I guess Wolcott is correct, not only can't we writer indie films, we're not very literary either:

http://www.mail.com/Article.aspx?articlepath=APNews\General-Entertainment\20080930\EU-Nobel-Literature.xml&cat=entertainment&subcat=&pageid=1