Friday, May 10, 2013

Question for the Week of April 29 - May 5: Indie v Studio Standards

How do you approach indie movies in contrast to studio films?
Well, in this instance, I'll admit to a bias - but one that I think is totally appropriate. Most of my Reviewing with Others posts are reviews of indie movies. I was at a bar two months ago - for a benefit/Sandy relief cookoff hosted by friends - and when I mentioned this to a playwright, he asked if I only reviewed movies that I liked.

I was shocked by the question, because I wouldn't dream of doing that, ever. And yet I didn't trash any of those indix pix in my RwO's, did I? The worst grade I gave was for Mansome, which received two stars (actually "hearts," as the site insists on a rating). However, several movies, like Sironia and Cure for Pain, received glowing reviews. And I practically gushed over Save the Date in January... So what gives?

For once, I'll write plainly and put my point up front: indie movies are, largely, different from studio films. While the standards don't change - you're judged on cinematography, dialogue, story, and character - expectations for each type are surely distinct. In fact, maybe expectations do affected the standards, but that's not as cut-and-dry as it sounds...

Darren Aronofsky can be trusted to be an artist on any budget, and Boyle focuses on story every time...

Most studio pictures are made to (a) entertain and (b) draw a profit. Some of the industry's yearly output is made up of big budget dramas, biopics, and documentaries. Yet that's a fraction of the films released in any year, and even those might be as flawed or hollow as the studio releases in the scifi, comedy, and horror genres.

At this point, the standards of quality are all over the place. I can't trust certain actors, or genres, and I can't even rely on directors I trust (though that's still my measuring stick).

But when a movie is attached to Jim Jarmusch, P.T. Anderson, or Steven Soderbergh, this might guarantee that a big-budget effort is worth my time artistically and emotionally. Indie movies are more likely to have a thesis, or themes that are played out to a particular end. And some directors graduate from indie status and forget these things as their profiles and budgets rise...

Hollywood movies tend to "play it safe" in terms of audience appeal; they aim for a bigtime release in theaters and/or successful DVD sales. Indie movies are more likely to be experimental, and they might play in a theater for only two weeks; they aim to satisfy a smaller audience, and the artistic intent of its creators. At times, it's easy to tell that some small time writer/director is really driving at some purpose, whereas most studio pix tend to be edited to give the audience easy-to-follow plots.

Cronenberg is such a fine artist.

In short, independent films are more likely to display some genuine artistry, in effort and intent. This means that a good viewer should watch an indie differently than they would a studio picture's great fx and all-star cast. I'm not talking about the fact that Michael Bay has, for all his faults, a fine photographic eye; I'm talking about the fact that none of his movies mean or say anything. Ever.

And sometimes, I need a movie to challenge me - not with an inability to bear the lack of quality onscreen, or poorly-executed dialogue, plot, and character, but to be encouraged or even required to think about a picture after I've seen it.

The easiest example of what I'm getting at is that 12 Monkeys was not a cheap movie and it did star Bruce Willis at his height, and yet it did not feel like "a Hollywood picture," despite having Bruce Willis in action scenes. David Cronenberg is one of my favorites, yet I despised Crash - but that pic did have a visceral impact on the audience, and it was a different sort of repulsion than you would feel while watching The Island, or a Rob Schneider film.

Cronenberg, on the other hand, can't waste my time or money, and he (as well as some others) always retains an artistic focus in his works. When he and Soderbergh and PT Anderson and Aronofsky go mainstream, I still approach their work with an indie mentality. I'm always expecting to have to observe a lot and think about what I'm seeing. I am always ready to accept some small weaknesses, and I always wonder what the flaws indicate. My reaction is never just "this movie sucks!"

Even among Hollywood films, I judge the movies with larger budgets more harshly than other works. When I saw Harry Potter 1, I was stunned by Chris Columbus' direction and lil' Daniel Radcliffe's acting - not in a good way; the version I saw in the theater also had odd edits and one bit of bad visual fx. Considering the finances available for that franchise, I thought these flaws were pretty unforgivable. It didn't ruin the performances of Smith or Harris, or how well-handled some moments were, but I couldn't give the pic my support, not at all.

Or look to Star Trek Generations, if only so you can turn away in disgust. My brothers were huge ST fans, and we used to watch reruns of the first series together, often in theaters. I couldn't understand why the ship that blows up at the end of STG is the exact same special effect as was used at the end of Star Trek V. I noticed this, even though I was just a kid, long before Red Letter Media cleverly pointed out this hack-tastic mistake (at the 18m45s mark).

In part, my feelings are based on the fact that indies have tighter budgets and constraints. A lot of times, adversity makes artists improvise and come up with choices that are really clever and effective. Though Aliens was clearly a studio film, the budget wasn't terribly high, and James Cameron worked brilliantly with that limitation - hell, he even paid a few grand for the laser in the opening scene. And, for his earliest films, Peter Jackson improvised steadi-cams rather than spend the extra money to purchase the finished product.

More importantly, I think it's the artistic aspects that influence me the most. A major movie might have an awkward transition from one scene to another - or a clear continuity error - and that might just mean that people got sloppy, or I'm seeing a spliced-together mess of scripts and/or studio cuts. In an indie pic, it's not only more forgivable, but it might actually be intentional - something to shake up the audience or that will pay off later.

Genuine artistry can involve missteps and mistakes. If you're lucky, they don't undermine the value and quality of the overall piece, its tone, or its intentions. Indie pictures are more likely to display such failings on purpose or because real effort was put elsewhere, not because the filmmakers simply didn't care enough. While I have no problem accepting when an artist makes a big effort and produces a flawed result, I have less patience for cash-cow features that can't manage to be engaging or even interesting.

And although some high-profile movies have been made with lots of care and attention (e.g., Looper), many pictures display too little concern for things like character, dialogue, and well-filmed action scenes. Films that operate under restrictions, as indie movies generally do, tend to focus on what the artists are actually trying to express, while large-scale productions often (a) drop the ball, artistically, and/or (b) try for such a broad appeal that they fail to say much of anything.

What's the point of sitting through a two hour art work if you get nothing from the experience? These kinds of thoughts and ideas lead me to approach indie film differently than Hollywood productions, and if it seems like a double-standard, I can only say that I think they are two different beasts. And that I try not to have untenable standards - and, like a good writer or director, I care enough to ask myself these questions.

Delicatessen is an arthouse classic!

And with that said, let me add this: these last several weeks have been incredibly, freakishly busy. I've only just kept pace with my job, and I'm busy enough with other projects (mostly writing and photography) that I've had limited time. Just as importantly, I realized I should leave the Iron Man 3 review at the top of the page for a spell, and that's the main reason that I didn't break one consecutive year of Question entries.

So today, a Question post went up - dated for last week and not quite finished. I had several such entries ready, but this one related to all these indie reviews I've been doing, so I chose it to end out the anniversary month. Keeping the IM3 review on top meant letting my streak die, ready or not.

What went up earlier today was the nearly-complete draft, not the finished work. I have now made all the needed changes and it's ready for everyone and I hope to never have OCD so badly that the actual date matters under these circumstances. It's dated for the week it should've appeared in, even though it cam out in this week (and this week's question goes up over this weekend).

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