Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's Wrong With Independent Film?

Netflix is great.  Web streaming is the single best technological innovation of the past several years.  Before Netflix, I have no idea how someone used to watch independent film.  Maybe you went to Blockbuster and walked up and down the rows until you saw something interesting.  Maybe you were lucky enough to have an idea of a title to look for.  Otherwise, you might need to pack a lunch into the store, because you could wander around for hours before finding something you might like.  It’s a big decision, picking a movie, a big commitment, and without a solid recommendation, I can understand how one would just end up grabbing the first big budget studio release they came across.   Netflix, though, makes it easy to access indies.  And with the instant streaming, there’s no commitment—don’t like it, just click to something else.

But there’s something I’ve realized, thanks to Netflix—it’s a damn good thing it’s easy to change from film to film, because indies are pretty terrible.  For every Requiem for a Dream, there are dozens of:

Sure, not every independent feature is that bad (seriously, have you seen Eagle vs Shark?  No?  Count yourself very, very lucky.  Imagine Napoleon Dynamite, but written by, and starring, New Zealanders).  Most are usually at least watchable, and a good many are well produced and decently acted.  No, the problem isn’t their quality, not really.  The problem is that these independent pictures are bad for the same reason studio pictures are bad:  they’re formulaic and familiar.  While the plot itself may be strange (again, eagles and sharks what?), the story moves along with the same predictability and tired set pieces that you find in most studio pictures.  They’re basically cheaper versions of studio films, but with less attractive actors.

The most recent flick to find its way into my queue, Ted Mosby Josh Radnor’s directorial debut happythankyoumoreplease, doesn’t exactly shake things up:

Haven’t heard of it?  Don’t worry, have you seen Garden State?  You have?  Cool, then you’ve seen happythankyoumoreplease.  The film, in which Ted Mosby Josh Radnor portrays writer Ted Mosby Sam Wexler, checks every box on the must-have list for the indie romantic semi-comedy/semi-drama.

Sam Wexler is an aspiring novelist (creative type job—check) living in Williamsburg (hipster setting—check).  In the opening scene, we see an attractive pair of legs sneak out of his bed to escape silently.  This is important, because it shows that while Sam is obviously single and has no problem sleeping around, it’s not his fault, because the girls are the ones sneaking out in the morning.  That’s all I’ve got.  Over the next ninety minutes, I’m actually not sure what happens.  I mean, I know what happened on screen, but I’m not sure why it happened or what it meant.

The plot centers around Sam, his love interest Mississippi (girl with a unique name who works as a waitress but wants to be a singer—check), Sam’s cousin (an artist—check) who is arguing with her boyfriend about moving from New York to L.A., and his best friend Annie, a girl with who has no hair due to alopecia (obscure but non threatening disease—check).  Essentially, these three separate groups of characters go through the movie complaining about their love lives in, as best as I could tell, three different stories that were not connected in any way other than that the characters know each other.  It may as well have been three different thirty-minute movies.  Oh yeah, and Ted Mosby Sam meets and kidnaps a child on the subway.  That’s presumably the driving force of the story, but, again, I don’t know what it had to do with anything.

Movies are predictable because producers want to copy other movies that audiences liked.  This copycatting has been going on for so long that audiences find comfort in the familiarity and predictability, so they go see movies that look familiar, continuing the cycle.  That’s fine, I understand that.  But the thing is, independent films have an advantage over their more expensive, better looking step-siblings from the big studios:  indies don’t have to make money.  No one funding an indie really expects to make a profit.  The independent film is mainly an exhibition, a tryout of sorts for the actors and crew involved to move up to the big leagues.  As a result, indies don’t need to be predictable; they can afford to push the envelope.  So why don’t they?