What is Independent Film?
The definition of Independent film is not something that can be easily explained and I would argue that there are many misconceptions about what entitles a film to be classified as ‘independent’ or ‘indie’. Prior to reading Michael Z. Newman’s “Indie: an American Film Culture” and before the viewing of examples in class, I am willing to admit that I had a pretty shallow idea about what it meant to call a film ‘independent’. I had hardly considered some of the major contributing elements that are mentioned in Newman’s book. Newman explains that ‘indie’ does not simply refer to a genre of film making, but rather is an encompassing term for the culture of independent film. At first, this seemed like a somewhat difficult concept to understand, but through Newman’s explanations it becomes obvious how essential it is to acknowledge indie as a culture.
Recognizing ‘indie’ as a culture allows for a better understanding of both the history and general aspirations of independent film and their creators. Due to the broad explanation of ‘indie’ that Newman offers it is discovered that classifying films as independent may be more difficult due to the lack of strict defining characteristics so to better our understanding, he offers us three slogans or exemplars of what distinguishes independent films from Hollywood films. These three exemplars are; characters are emblems, form is a game, and when in doubt, read as anti-Hollywood. Newman’s section on characters as emblems emphasizes the importance of characters in indie films and how they influence the meaning of a film. Characters in indie films usually appear to be truer to life rather than exaggerated and they are often used to assert uniqueness of identity. This is an important element of indie films because it brings awareness to social identities that otherwise don’t receive much attention from mainstream media. An example of bringing awareness to a social identity through indie films can be seen during the time of New Queer Cinema (1968) which was a time when homosexuality was being glorified and broadcasted to the world in order to bring attention to this social identity.
Newman’s discussion of form as a game is another crucial element of indie films. The section encapsulates the idea that the viewer is an active member during the time they are watching a film. It is not a passive process, instead the audience is often required to stay mentally active in order to dissect and understand the film. The way independent films achieve this active engagement is often through techniques of disjunctive narrative (which can be seen throughout Schizopolis by Steven Soderbergh), genre-play which includes the combining of different genres to create a unique style (this technique is exemplified well by most of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films), and also by using pastiche which is imitation of past films as a way to allow audience members to call on their knowledge of independent film history.
Lastly, Newman talks about reading indie films as anti-Hollywood and this tactic is helpful in acknowledging the uniqueness of independent films as they de-naturalize mainstream cinema. The ultimate goal of creating a film as anti-Hollywood is to subject the audience to new and different kinds of experiences than what they are used to seeing. Indie films are often unpredictable and defy Hollywood’s techniques by presenting unexpected characters and narratives. An example of surprising the viewer’s expectations can be seen in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it (1986) because the main female character (Nola) defies the gender stereotypes and typical expectations we may have for a women.
Newman’s three exemplars of indie film are very helpful to understanding what can be used to categorize films as independent, however there are many more elements to consider such as the budget of the film, and the industries that helped to produce and distribute. I think understanding independent film at a cultural level is a very interesting and effective technique and that Newman does an excellent job of explaining the characteristics of said culture.