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ciprianisCiprianis, Wall St., NYC

I don’t recall quite how long the word “independent” has been hung like an albatross across the neck of a certain realm of filmmaking, but somewhere long ago this became the all-purpose label to cover everything from wild (dull boring academic “taught”) avant-garde/experimental to anything not funded by a Hollywood studio, to something with (uh oh) subtitles from some furrin place far away. I do recall back in the late 1970’s (!) attending what became the founding conference of the Independent Feature Project, one called by a cluster of ex-New Lefties in NYC. Centered around Sandra Schulberg (related to Bud Schulberg, depending on your tastes one of the snitches of the McCarthy era – boy are we going back to prehistoric times) and her then boyfriend John Hanson (Northern Lights) and his then side-kick Rob Nillson, this orchestrated week-long meeting gave a fraudulent birth to the IFP. I say fraudulent because on the closing day, a conference manipulated with heavy neo-Stalinist hands emanating from those New Lefties organizers, was in such revolt that they were unable to get any consent from the souls gathered to establish any organization, or if so, who might run it. However, like any Stalinist rubber-stamp congress, the decision had already been made by the organizers, and hence, on the next Monday they held a press conference – location unannounced and from which, among others, I was excluded – and falsely claimed that their conference had unanimously voted to set up an organization, the IFP, to represent the interests of “independent” filmmakers, and had chosen none other than themselves to run it. And the IFP, soon to tentacle out to many cities, was off and running, the spawn of a totally illegitimate birthing. As I predicted at the time, in a mailing sent out to their own mailing list, the kinds of hard-knuckle poli-biz folks running it would doubtless show up later in the boardrooms of Hollywood. And indeed, not long afterward some did. And now, some 30 years later the IFP chugs on, with branches in NY, LA and a few other places I think. A look at the NYC branch website, currently touting their upcoming Gotham awards shows a cheezy and cheap graphics interface, with NY Times lead film critic A.O. Scott announcing their picks for awards for “independent” filmmaking. The list includes Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, Katheryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker and similar such films, including the obligatory subtitled one. None of these films wanders remotely from standard by-the-numbers filmmaking – actor-oriented plot-driven theatrical filmmaking of the standard sort that is business-as-usual.   But, in New York, at a fancy place on Wall Street, Ciprianis, these films will be celebrated as being “independent.”  From what, I don’t know, but certainly not from the basic premise that films are made to make money first, and hence must hew to strict formal guidelines dictated by film-as-business thinking.

beverly hills hotel 2Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Hills, Ca.

For me this is all “deja vu all over again” as Yogi Berra famously once said. Back in 1991, I think it was, I was invited to the IFP (West)’s first such ceremony, to receive the first (and perhaps last) John Cassavetes’ Lifetime Achievement award at the tender age of whatever I was back then, late 40’s something.  Along with me getting this placard was Ed Pressman, producer of this list of films

* Thank You for Smoking * The Beautiful Country * Owning Mahowny * The Cooler * Judge Dredd
* Year of the Gun * Reversal of Fortune * Talk Radio * Conan the Barbarian * Das Boot (executive producer, director’s cut) * Phantom of the Paradise * The Crow * Wall Street * Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps * American Psycho * Street Fighter * The Revolutionary

[I note that missing from this list is a Charles Burnett film which Pressman also produced.]

The place for this, demonstrating the IFP’s one decade social ascent, was the Beverly Hills Hotel, and in attendance were luminaries such as Kevin “Dancing with Wolves” Costner, and his agent, at the time known as Hollywood’s “most powerful man” Michael Ovitz.  Ovitz since has tumbled to earth, and Costner seems to have been cut down some notches. Costner immediately preceded me on the rostrum, giving the keynote speech, extolling the wonders of tinsel town, and stating that the secret to making “a good film” was to have a “good script” and that “any good script got made.”  Like Dancing with Wolves.  I followed, an unknown, and said in my modest little thanks (for nothing) that I had to differ with Mr Costner, and that one of the problems with Hollywood and the film business in general was the thought that everything comes out of a script, and that in my view (and practice) it was perfectly possible to make a film – even perhaps a “good one” – with no script at all, as I had with the film, All the Vermeers in New York, which had catapulted me momentarily into the realm of the Hollywood mighty.   Prior to receiving my award I had been assured by the potentates of the IFP that surely studios would come knocking at my door in consequence of their anointing me my 15 minutes of fame.   Need I say, no studios ever sent a word, and just as well.

It was clear those decades ago that the trajectory of our special word “independent” was already corrupt, like the culture which coughed it up.  The herd was stampeding (again) for the big bucks.  Along the way any real sense of creativity in the film world was shunted aside, and now these decades later the “art houses” are shriveled to almost none, and those that still exist  mostly show commercial films with subtitles or so-called “American Independent Cinema” which might run from last years Gotham candidate, Frozen River or Ballast, both fine utterly conventional films done outside the fiscal, if not the aesthetic, box of humdrum film-as-business.  Or the Coen brothers latest.

What you won’t find are the scattering of films you might find at a more adventurous film festival, or that once would have been found at an art house – films like Alain Resnais’ Muriel, or an early Godard (or a later one), or anything showing a flicker of creative spark that hasn’t been worn to death in lame imitations and now celebrated as really going out on an aesthetic limb.   That kind of cinema has been bludgeoned fiscally to death – no big money in it hence no money in it at all.   So what we get is a corpse of cinema, usually state supported, the odd European or Asian film, floating free of the financial demands (ah, but the reality is another story, a small pile of corruption masquerading as an alleged artistic concern of the State to support an indigenous film industry) that govern our dear Hollywood.

And what we get are costly parties celebrating celebrity, thrown at Ciprianis and the Beverly Hills Hotel (or where ever the IFP West branch throws their just-bef0re-the-Oscars so-called Indie Awards thing).   From some people’s viewpoint it’s a demonstration of  just how far “indie” has come;  from my jaded one it shows just how corrupted our culture has become such that we honor cinematic necrophilia in the name of Mammon.


One Comment

  1. Jon,
    It’s small consolation, but posts like this and films like yours are worth more than the whole damned ‘industry’ of ‘independent’ cinema.

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