“The Film That Put the Capper on One Decade and Jump-Started the Next One”

This week’s reading, Indie, Inc., discusses the evolution of the independent film, specifically the role of Miramax in the 1990s. Perren references in the second chapter the “meaning of independence” through the release of the film sex, lies and videotape.

tumblr_mn4umhdnF01qcyrmyo2_1280This is a film I have seen a number of times before since it first appeared on one of my latest movie lists. As Perren discusses the cultural and industrial significance of this film in the independent world of the 1990s, I decided to check back to my Tumblr blog to see what I had written.

Sure enough, it was one of those flighty and vague reviews that requires extensive editing, but one thing was clear. I had no idea what independent films actually were. I kept saying things like, “I had very low expectations for this one, since I saw that it was listed as an independent film…” I’ll admit it, I’m still a sucker for the A movies, I love the star system, and I love the predictability of the plot. I live for that small satisfaction of everything working out in the end. We each have our own taste, but it was foolish of me to so quickly dismiss what ended up being a fantastic film just because I associated it with unsatisfying films I had seen in the past.

As I continued this week’s reading, I found myself wondering if the term “independent” has the same definition as it once did in the “independent film golden age of the 1990s.” Perhaps my film vocabulary doesn’t span to such lengths. I now know that independent films, at the surface, are simply defined by their budget and affiliation (or lack thereof) with a larger conglomerate. I had always seen “independent” as more of a genre, rather than a monetary technicality. My original, judgmental opinion of the independent film was that they were low-budget, unpredictable, B movies without any stars to add to the archives of classic film history. What a snob, I know.

Let me be clear and say that there are countless films out there that match that criteria, while being innovative, edgy, and inspiring to millions of film fans. While I still have my preferences, I have learned now to not discount them.

I’m still questioning whether this film even matches anything close to that criteria, however. The difference lies in the marketing. Perren says in regards to this film:

In other words, he depicts these movies as special films rather than industry products. More important than the actual industrial circumstances within which a movie such as sex, lies, and videotape was produced was how it was constructed by the company and the press. Companies such as Miramax were capable of using terms such as “independent,” “quality,“ “specialty,” and “sophisticated” as points of distinction. They could do this because, in the late 1980s, the studios were so frequently portrayed in the media as ever-expanding monoliths cranking out cookie- cutter sequels with excessive action, minimal character development, and undeveloped story lines. (Perren, 39).

42My one question is still beating heavily on my mind, however. sex, lies, and videotape didn’t feel like an independent film to me. While the themes of impotence and sexual paranoia were rarely so blatantly discussed on the silver screen, the film still featured Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher. However, I assumed they were stars, but it turns out this was the film to provide both of them with some real revenue in Hollywood. The shots were simple and the mise-en-scene seemed low-budget, but the bad guy still got what was coming to him, and the two protagonists lived happily ever after. I could be wrong, but that seems pretty predictable to me.

Is it the subject matter? Is it the shot sequencing? Is it the music or the actors? Is it simply about the small size of the production company? I still don’t really know what makes an independent film an independent film. In this case, I think the only thing that really could classify sex, lies and videotape as independent is it’s association with the term at its simplest level: defining the financial support and mode of exhibition. I am thinking purely in terms of the film’s general “craft.”

Perren discusses in the reading that Miramax marketed this film as an edgy work with a sophisticated quality. They were attracting the film fans who were worn out by the epics, the car chases, and the drama. Perhaps it’s about the simplicity – where there is no need for epic music or special effects to distract the audience from poorly written dialogue or a paint-by-numbers plot. The independent film is about the raw underbelly upon which every film is made. The only difference is that they can still speak to audiences without a grand charade.

With the success of sex, lies, and videotape, the seeds were sown for a shift in strategy: a strong script with an “edge” could attract established talent, and this talent, combined with a savvy sales campaign and some good reviews, could bring in solid box office (Perren, 40).

This reading has really altered my sheltered perspective. Independent film, I’m sorry I judged you.

Image from hollywoodreporter.com

Perren, Alisa. “Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s” Austin: University of Texas Press. 2012. Print.

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Comments

  1. Early on you write:

    I found myself wondering if the term “independent” has the same definition as it once did in the “independent film golden age of the 1990s.” Perhaps my film vocabulary doesn’t span to such lengths. I now know that independent films, at the surface, are simply defined by their budget and affiliation (or lack thereof) with a larger conglomerate. I had always seen “independent” as more of a genre, rather than a monetary technicality.

    The ambiguity you identify is an important one, and one that Perren tries to address periodically throughout her book. Interestingly, despite the care she takes to differentiate “independent” from “indie”, the question persists as to whether these terms reflect the film’s financing, style or some combination.
    Near the end of her chapter on The Piano and Pulp Fiction, Perren writes that by 1995, “‘indie’ had transformed into a convenient catchphrase—a term that could be used to refer to an industrial and aesthetic transformation difficult to assess yet very much in progress” (111). One suspects this would apply equally well to the “independent” cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
    Perhaps one of the reasons this issue is so difficult to nail down is that it forces us to wrestle with something that, as moviegoers, we are often content to leave well enough alone: namely, that the economics of production invariably affect cinematic style.

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