The word “indie” is like a container of sherbet. You’ve got the three different flavors: raspberry, lime and orange; but all of them are distinguishable in taste from ice cream. When it comes to indie filmmaking, there are several different degrees to the designation. There is the technical definition: a low budget film made independently of a major studio that is later purchased for distribution, often at a festival such as Sundance. Then there is the more connotative meaning to indie; that is a film that works outside of the traditional causeways of storytelling, and isn’t molded to be financially successful, rather just embody the director’s vision.
Then, because of the sheer quantity of indie films and people who seek them out in favor of the newest demolition porn raking in millions at the box office, there is the mainstream indie, a lovely oxymoron, led by notable directors including Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Jim Jarmusch, and Alexander Payne. It might be hard to find their movies in every theatre, but most people will know of them when they come out. There is also the more obscure realm of indie, like the work of Mark Borchardt. If you want a sense of indie filmmaking at its truest, watch “American Movie,” the documentary on Borchardt’s life.
The appeal of indie films is the same across the board. What I look forward to when I sit down for a movie that I know has the indie label floating over it is something different. I expect characters like no person I’ve ever met or so reminiscent it makes me wonder if my peers sold the rights to their personalities. I expect stories that anchor from new perspectives to express human emotion, bend the real towards the surreal (or vice versa), or tackle a hard issue head on that major Hollywood studios wouldn’t dare touch.
But I’ve noticed a few clichés cropping up in the indie films I’ve indulged in recently, particularly the comedies. Indie filmmakers definitely have a sense of their audience, because many of them are at the same time a part of that audience. This would be twentysomethings or those caught in the grey areas between Generation X and the Millennials; people with a progressive mind familiar with the fruitful benefits of the information age. The problem is in trying to create something that said audience would most relate to causes similar stylistic elements to pop up over and over again.
Films like “Frances Ha,” “Obvious Child,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “For A Good Time Call…” and “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” are very different standing alone, but have much, almost too much in common when put side-by-side. And I want to be clear that I really enjoyed, even loved, most of what I just listed. But even a 7-year-old will grow tired of Disney World if they live there for months on end. Many indie films take place in urban areas, and not even as essential component to the setting, just as a conformable backdrop. You know what makes Wes Anderson the deity of indie that he is? He shoots movies that take place at sea, in India, and on small islands off the coast. Get out of New York, or San Francisco or wherever, the scenery is so important in giving a film its atmosphere, and the one I keep seeing is getting stale.
Much of it is more down to the actual filmmaking process. What I have come to call the indie shot is a still camera with a wide angle, the head and shoulders of the featured characters on a slanted balance as they spit quips back and forth at each other. Scenes where the camera actually moves are sparse, relying on crash zooms instead. Then there is the editing. The trend right now is hard cuts, lots of them. Even during a monologue or montage, so many transitions are an instant jump. It’s interesting the first few times to watch chopped up visuals with a smooth audio track, but again, stale.
Then there is the use of music. Soundtracks play a large role in indie films, and what would an indie movie be without indie music. Part of this is just practical since the rights cost less, but I notice many are guitar driven, singer-songwriter tunes, that don’t just work to complement a scene, but actually dominate it and have the characters reflect it. But what sometimes happens if a pattern of a dialogue scene, then a music scene, back and forth throughout the picture. It would be nice if the music could be smoothly incorporated into the puzzle, drawing the audience’s attention without it screaming, “LISTEN TO ME, MY LYRICS TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT THE CHARACTERS.” Quentin Tarantino is the master of musical integration. Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” is another great example of a film that balances and properly paces it’s songs with the rest of the picture.
None of these complaints will ever amount to enough for me to turn away from indie as a “genre,” but one it’s biggest draws is being different. While indie works may be a world apart from the newest action vehicle starring Dwayne Johnson or whatever eight movies Kevin Hart is appearing in this month, conforming to each other makes them what they strive not to be. Indie films like “Another Earth” or “Me and You and Everyone We Know” show directors and writers at their most creative and ambitious. I would hate to see clichés water down how marvelous their visions can be.