Film Commentary: Death Knell for American Independent Cinema?

The well has evaporated for much of new American independent cinema.

By Gerald Peary

Has American independent cinema—at a high point in the post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape 1990s—run its course, run down and dry, twenty-five years later? Have there been just too many indie features since, and, with Moonlight and Certain Women the rare exceptions, all the good stories used up? Where is the new Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh or Katheryn Bigelow? Those were my sad thoughts while a jury member at Seattle’s 47th Film Festival watching the eight films chosen for our New American Cinema Competition. What we got were competently told, well-meaning movies, but, for the most part, with little original to say and no startling directorial point of view.

I have only praise to the Seattle programmers who championed these little films, wishing for them a healthy festival and theatrical life. But none have distributors, and that probably won’t change for the majority of them, considering that the actors in the films are unknowns and the narratives so fatally over-familiar.

I’ve seen the same downward trend in the last several years at SXSW and other festivals: the well has evaporated for much of new American independent cinema.

A scene from "Dara Ju."

A scene from “Dara Ju.”

Not all was hopeless in our Seattle competition. Though a conventionally structured story, Anthony Onah’s Dara Ju is praiseworthy for taking us into the Nigerian-American community; and Ami Ameen is a powerful young actor, playing the lead character, who escapes his humble immigrant African family for nefarious dealings on Wall Street. Kogonada’s Columbus gets points for its rigorous formal qualities, as the filmmaker goes the way of Antonioni by placing his alienated characters against the unexpectedly fanciful modernist architecture found in an Indiana small town.

The winning film of our three-person jury (one Swiss, one Israeli) for FIPRESCI, the international critics association? SJ Chiro’s Lane 1974, based on a true-life 1970s memoir of a young girl living under the thumb of a selfish, slightly deranged hippy mother. Chiro is quite successful at recreating the counter-culture period of her story. She’s even better with the bizarre, inspired final minutes of the film, in which the young girl runs away and tries to connect in Las Vegas with the grandmother she’s never met. Grandma turns out to be as malfunctioning as her grown daughter, and as uncaring, as she abandons her newly found granddaughter at a weird party in her house.

“Isn’t your ending shot taken from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows?” I asked director Chiro at Seattle’s closing breakfast. She screamed out, “You’ve made my day!” as nobody else she’s spoken to had gotten the obvious reference, comparing her suffering little heroine to Truffaut’s trapped Antoine Doinel. Chiro, a Seattle resident, was so stunned and thrilled at receiving our FIPRESCI prize that she asked for photo after photo be taken with our embarrassed, camera-shy threesome.

And away from our jury selections at the Seattle Festival? I managed to squeeze in a small sampling of films.

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is a hip, stylish, fictional take on terrorism, following a cadre of attractive young anarchists in Paris who murder a sleazy capitalist, blow up some buildings, and hide from police for a night in the most svelte of department stores. Importantly, the group is only Muslim in part, with the chief architect of the destruction a Caucasian Frenchman. This movie was decidedly exciting to watch, though perhaps a bit irresponsible in its elliptic political vantage. Though Nocturama is clearly anti-police, it’s unclear if the filmmaker feels we should be rooting for or against these kids to destroy Paris.

A scene from "Lady Macbeth."

A scene from “Lady Macbeth.”

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, based on a 19th century Russian novella, transfers the story to 1865 rural England. A feisty young woman, Katherine, finds herself trapped in a sexless marriage and kept imprisoned inside her new home by her cruel husband, who is aided by her stern father-in-law. The audience applauds when, in a burst of incipient feminism, she boldly strikes against patriarchy by taking a hot lover and even parading him before her awful spouse. But Lady Macbeth soon sinks into nihilism and off-putting violence, none of which has any point.

Justin Chon’s Gook, set in LA in 1992 at the time of the Rodney King-inspired riots, is a skillfully made tale situated in the Korean-American community and properly influenced by the storytelling of Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing. Chon himself heads a spirited, youthful interracial cast in this story of two Asian-American brothers who sell contraband shoes out of the back of an abandoned store. Their clientele are mostly African-American women, but the two protagonists spend their time trying not to get beat up and murdered by various young African-American gangsta types. A good movie, but I wish there was a bit less cursing and use of the “F” word, and Chon comes dangerously close to stereotyping all young black men as gun-toting lawbreakers.

My Journey Through French Cinema is three glorious hours of the veteran French director showing clips of his favorite Gallic films made by his favorite filmmakers. It’s the most personal and idiosyncratic of tours, yet Tavernier is so charming, so astonishingly knowledgeable, and so filled with devotion for cinema that we are always eager to see where he will take us. I expected he would spend time with the films of Jean Renoir, the greatest of French cineastes, but Tavernier seems just as enamored of the far-less known movies of Jacques Becker and the far less honored works of Claude Sautet. I was so pleased that he decided for this occasion to praise the lustrous music scores from the 1930s of Maurice Jaubert. Tavernier avoids a possible charge of sexism by including his admiration for Agnes Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7. His discussion of Godard is quick and surprisingly perfunctory. But I forgive all for his lengthy, wonderful appreciation of the difficult, eccentric master, Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom Tavernier apprenticed as a film-crazed young man.

Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. Jon Jost on June 24, 2017 at 2:57 am

    I recall when Sex Lies and Videotape came out, seeing it with Rick Schmidt. We both thought hmmmmm straight to Hollywood for this guy. We were right. I guess the concept/idea of “independent” is a slippery one. l would not consider, say, Tarantino an “independent” at all. Perhaps compared to much Hwd dreck more lively and inventive, but well within the parameters of commercial cinema.

    I guess you are really saying “independent” within the strictures of that narrative-feature/commercially palatable realm. For example, Kelly Reichardt, much praised of late, to me is a rather conservative unadventurous filmmaker falling in the vague category of Euro minimalism (Kurismaki, Berlin School etc.), which decades ago ceased being in the least bit anything but a convention. Bottom line, I think there remains some genuinely independent work, but you won’t see it in safe-first festivals.

    Because our entire culture has been consumed by capitalist consumerism, and 90% of people are thoroughly sucked into it, and if it doesn’t make lots of $$$ it is unworthy of making/existing. Most young people buy into this and want to be Michael Bay or…. Ergo. No surprise in such a culture that you don’t find much boundary pushing. But then it was kinda like this in the ’50s and then something changed (for a little while.) If it happens again this time around it likely won’t be in the cinema though. I think way back when Bergman said something about cinema being a snake skin full of ants giving the appearance of life, but…

  2. Harvey Blume on June 24, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    Much as I respect and enjoy K. Bigelow, was she ever “independent”?

    And if there’s a deficit in independent cinema now might that not be because directors et al are taking advantage of cable TV and the web?

    • Gerald Peary on June 24, 2017 at 11:50 pm

      Hi, Jon: I actually like Sex, Lies, and Videotape a lot, and Stephen Soderbergh has had a pretty interesting career, And you and Rick were wrong. He never went to Hollywood. I also like Kelly Reichardt a lot, and thought Certain Women was terrific, especially the last part. You are not looking if you call her “a rather conservative unadventurous filmmaker. You must not have seen Meek’s Cutoff, a western like no other. Tarantino started independent with Reservoir Dogs, “lively and inventive,” to use your words. And, yes, Jon, you know I am a great fan of your cinema, and I’m thankful that you somehow keep making films.
      I agree with all you say in paragraph 3. But Soderbergh and Reichardt are not the enemy! Maybe Tarantino has become one.

    • Gerald Peary on June 24, 2017 at 11:54 pm

      Katheryn Bigelow definitely started as an independent with her avant-garde first feature, The Loveless, followed by her great vampire movie, Near Dark.
      It’s certainly easier for women filmmakers to direct on TV than for movies. And because there are no government subsidies, you pay from your pocket to make an indie film, but TV pays you to direct.

      • Harvey Blume on June 25, 2017 at 6:24 pm

        I am informed by what you say about Kathryn Bigelow — haven’t seen The Loveless but agree completely about Near Dark.

        Bigelow is almost too good a filmmaker. Her films about Iraq hardly allow a breathing space for thought, or anything as abstract as politics. To that extent, powerful as they are they are to my mind problematic.

        Still, my main point was that film, independent film, at least the American variety— with some noted exceptions of course — is giving way to other visual narrative possibilities.

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