Spirit of indies soars in provocative and ambitious new ways

Tip sheet
What: 19th annual IFP/LA Independent Spirit Awards
When: Saturday, 2-4 p.m.; doors open 11:30 a.m.; lunch 1-2 p.m.
Where: Santa Monica Beach
HONORARY CHAIR: Tom Cruise
HOST: Dawn Hudson, IFP/LA executive director

If independent spirit were the only criteria for an Independent Spirit Award,” notes Quentin Tarantino, “then you would have to give the award to Peter Jackson for ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ He took his money, hid out on the ass-end of the planet and made exactly the movie he dreamed of making.”

But, as Tarantino and others are quick to point out, even an auteur vision as vast as Jackson’s is not enough to make an independent film. Though, it does raise a good question: since the Independent Spirit Awards are called Spirit Awards, after all, what does Spirit mean in 2004?

The guidelines by which the Spirits panel judges films were established a decade ago. “When we first started in 1986,” says IFP/LA’s executive director, Dawn Hudson, “independent film was defined strictly by source of funding. We thought it was the best way to honor anti-establishment, on the margin, alternative filmmaking. But even back then that definition was a luxury. By 1994, we figured out that if we didn’t expand on it, we were going to end up being the funding police of the industry.”

Rather than spending their days bickering over “clean money versus dirty money,” the IFP/LA decided that films must have original and provocative subject matter, uniqueness of vision, economy of means and a percentage of independent financing. And while the latter two rules still fall under the cash cop purview — thus defining the Independent portion of the Independent Spirit Awards — it is the former two rules that govern the spirit of the Spirits.

There is a further distinction that needs to be made when it comes to the “uniqueness of vision.” The history of Hollywood is littered with deeply personal filmmakers, people like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, two legends who worked firmly inside the establishment and made films that were not subject to studio pasteurization.

But there is a difference between personal moviemaking and independent film.

“An independent film,” says Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, “is a film that is made independent of a sense of the audience” — a definition that hinges on both the financials and the mass-market appeal required to meet those financials.

Often people think of this appeal strictly in terms of plot, but increasingly that has expanded to include technique.

One of the things that has become clear is that while innovative style has lately become synonymous with expensive special effects, this year’s crop of indies — including “21 Grams” and “American Splendor” — use old-school ideas, like the jump cut and classic animation, for new-school ends.

“This kind of experimentation used to be the vanguard,” says George Clooney, “but it hasn’t been around for a while, not really since the mid-’70s. It’s a cyclical thing, but it’s nice to see it coming back.”

Indie filmmakers are also paying technical homage to some pretty outsider styles. “There are scenes in ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ that pay homage to the Manson family video confessions,” says Tarantino. “Rob Zombie took footage shot by serial killers and made it part of cinema’s artistic lexicon. People may not have noticed or they may not like it, but if that’s not independent filmmaking I don’t know what is.”

As far as content is concerned, there seems to be few trends, though there has been a recent drop off in the once incredibly popular indie coming-of-age film — a fact that may have something to do with networks like the WB playing that note ad infinitum.

Instead, says Hudson, indies are upping the ante when it comes to content. “One thing about this year is that our filmmakers are taking on way more ambitious subject matters. It’s pretty incredible that both ‘Shattered Glass’ and ‘American Splendor’ (two pics up for feature) are films by first-time feature directors.”

Many independent filmmakers not only chose to tackle subjects that don’t normally find studio funding, but they also further their choice by presenting their subjects in rawer ways than a studio could or would. “There’s an unspoken mandate in independent film to be arrestingly real,” says producer Ron Yerxa, who has worked both sides of this fence (“Cold Mountain,” “Election”). “Indies save you from the plot cycle of empathy, redemption and resolution. This year, neither ‘Thirteen’ nor ‘Monster’ could have been studio movies. Indies need the freedom to deal with the real mess of life.”

Which is to say that in 2003 — a year when the screener ban could have taken a mighty swipe at the indies’ thunder, and many felt the big studio fare left much to be desired — indies triumphed critically and fiscally. And they did so because their spirit has grown right alongside their crazy and creative financing schemes.

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