Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Problem with Independent Movies

I just finished watching Fish Tank, a much lauded independent film, written and directed by Andrea Arnold, starring newcomer Katie Jarvis and Inglourious Basterd Michael Fassbender. I disliked it intensely, and it made me think of another independent movie about a disaffected young woman, The Good Girl. Jennifer Aniston starred in Miguel Arteta’s film sight years ago, but not much has changed in Indie world since then. Life is still bleak, apartments are still grimy, people are still aimless and rude and self-absorbed. The camera is still-hand held, even if it’s digital now. Fish Tank looks like it might be the first film ever actually shot on someone’s smart phone. Though I suppose it would be an insult to the filmmakers to accuse them of buying such high-tech toys. I remember some indie film-maker joking at the Oscars a few years ago “This is surreal -- the dress I’m wearing tonight cost more than my movie.”

But there’s more to the intemperate personalities and squalid settings of most independent films than cranky moods and low budgets. There’s a philosophy at work here, and it’s the philosophy that annoys me the most. The inverse snobbery of these films makes a brazen statement to the audience: “This is the truth. This is real life. Of course it’s ugly and unpleasant. If that’s too tough for you, there’s a Sandra Bullock movie playing next door. We are not here to entertain you. Get your infantile jollies elsewhere. We owe you nothing. We don’t make cheesy deals with jaded thrill junkies. Pay attention. Embrace your boredom and discomfort. Medicine is supposed to taste bad. Iodine is supposed to sting.”

The clear implication is that they’re better than we are. It reminds me of an old girlfriend of mine who made an imperious virtue out of her self-inflicted misery. Sadness was more than unfortunate phase (or a clinical condition): it was a badge of honor. Attempts to cheer her up always ended in defeat – the fact that you were happy destroyed your credibility. Happy people were shallow, superficial children who didn’t grasp the appalling horror of the world, or the tragic ironies of human existence.

There’s only one thing to do with a person like that: flee.

In much the same spirit, I rarely watch an entire independent film. Give me Sandra Bullock any time.

Here’s why: regular movies like me. They want to win me over. They think (craven panderers!) that I need a reason to be interested in their characters and situations. They attempt to provide such reasons and in the process often wind up telling engaging stories populated with memorable people. You can trace this effort back to 1938, when Ernst Lubistch – along with screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brakett-- invented the ‘meet cute’ Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert are both shopping for pajamas, fighting with separate clerks because he only buys the bottoms and she only buys the tops. They make the obvious arrangement and they’re off to the races. Most importantly, we like both of them and actually care what happens to them.

The great James M. Cain explains the point brilliantly in 1 1944 preface to a collection of novellas called Three of a Kind. He attributes the story-telling wisom he dispenses to theatrical producer William Harris Jr., who clarified things, thusly:

In this story you think you want to write, they meet, they have lunch, they talk, they like each other, they fall in love. That’s how it does happen. But I don’t pay $5.50 for that. It may be love but it’s not a play. I don’t feel anything, and making me feel is what you’re after. Look, I’m sitting at a window, looking down at the park. There’s two benches there, one with a couple on it holding hands. Well, there’s no news in that, is there? I guess they’re in love but they can go right down and get married and send me a card from Niagara Falls and I don’t care a bit. On the other bench is a girl reading a book. She’s got a little dog there, and every now and then she exercises him by throwing a ball out on the grass and making him bring it back. A guy comes along, takes a look at her, and passes by. When he takes another look at her, I know he likes her looks, and right away I wonder what’s going to happen. Now if she looks up from the book and jumps up and runs over to him and kisses him, it’s still love, but I’m bored. But if she looks up, and he walks away quick, I know they’re strangers. I see him stop at a peanut vendors, and I wonder what he’s up to. He buys peanuts, comes back, sits on the bench, pays no attention to her. But the dog he pats on the head He starts on the peanuts, but right away he peels one and pitches it up in the air for the dog. The dog catches it, pricks up its ears for another. Turns out the dog likes peanuts. Next thing, the girl is watching it and laughs. The guy raises his hat, moves over. They both play with the dog. He’s done it, Cain, he’s pulled something, he’s got me interested. I stay right there watching them. I ought to be writing a scene, but I want to see how this comes out. After a while, when he flags a cab and they all three drive off together, he, she. And the dog, they’re my favorite lovers that day. It’s the same way with anything you write. Before you can interest me in a story, you have to interest me in them.

This is the essential narrative truth that independent films no only fail to grasp but actually repudiate. They have their dogma (they even have a school of filmmaking called dogma), but I think something much less fancy and high-falutin’ is going on underneath the academic double talk.

It makes me think of the first lecture I ever attended at Vermont College, Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders. These insects were purely graphic: if a student used the verb ‘to be’ enough times on a page, Doug could draw a dot in the middle and draw lines out to all the examples until the page looked like a multi-legged spider: not a good thing. The verb to be is a mere connector; it doesn’t tell a story; you should never promote it to the fall-back verb in a tough sentence, I loved Doug’s example. The student writes, “The barn was red.” A perfectly acceptable sentence, grammatically correct an inoffensive. Try substituting a real verb – suddenly you’re telling a story, something like this, perhaps “Red paint peeled from the barn, revealing a scabrous undercoat that exactly matched the old man’s complexion as he hammered on the FOR SALE sign and walked away for the last time.”

Years of work with graduate writing students have helped Glover understand the subtle reason why so many students choose not to seek out the fresh sprightly interesting verb and settle instead for that lifeless stalwart of the passive voice,”to be”.

It’s too much work.

Finding the exciting, vivid verbs to drive your story means that you (and not the reader) have to do the work of imagining what’s really going on, how it looks and smells and feels. Student: “The rabbit was on the lawn”

Or you could write it as Keats did, as quoted by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his daughter (“lucky girl,” Doug added), explaining in great prose verbs drive the sentences:

“The hare limped, trembling, through the frozen grass.”

So am I saying that Independent filmmakers are lazy? No – just the talented ones.

I don’t care about the others. But ones who do have a spark need to get to work. They have to realize that watching an angry teen-ager yell at everyone in her path for the first fifteen minutes of a film gives me no reason to care whether or not she finds love with her mother’s boyfriend at the end. They have to realize that a juiceless, washed out character like Jennifer Aniston’s Justine Last in The Good Girl presents no feature of interest. People like her exist? So what? When I was reading scripts for a Hollywood agent, every bad writer played the same card: “It’s a true story.” Nothing matters less. True stories have no third acts. True stories happened to you – I need something to happen to me. Forget the true story. Tell me the interesting story.

That’s how you get from the Independent Spirit Awards to the Oscars.


Jennifer Sellers said...

I love the spider example. What an inspiration to improve writing!

Anonymous said...

This article is really interesting (and true), but I take issue with the last line. Independents have increasingly won at the Oscars. However, a lot of that is because of studios focusing on tentpoles, not just their quality.