3 Defining Aspects of Indie Film (As Compared to Hollywood Film)

January 14, 2014 : 11:03 pm | by Zach Toll

It’s almost time for the Sundance Film Festival. Know what that means? Lots and lots of those groovy “independent” movies all the kids are talking about! But if you’re reading up on indie films, you may find yourself wondering just what makes one particular film “independent.” Independent from what exactly? Are some movies dependent on something? And what is that thing? Aren’t we all dependent on everything else around us, coexisting symbiotically in this big, beautiful organism we call Earth, unless, of course, you’re the subject of Kelly Clarkson’s classic song, Miss Independent?

Never thought Id see that pop-culture reference again.

Never thought you'd see that reference again.

Maybe. I don’t have all the answers. You could try asking that guy Jeeves, but my little Kelly Clarkson reference was still relevant the last time anyone went to that site.

A lot of people think of indies as movies that aren’t “mainstream,” but even that gets confusing. For instance, go by that definition and look at Jim Frater’s list of the top fifteen indie films ever on Listverse. American Beauty? Kevin Spacey won Best Actor for that, and the Academy Awards are about as mainstream as it gets.

If you want to get technical, an independent movie is any movie created outside the Hollywood studio system, but let’s exclude foreign films from that definition so as to sound less patriotic. (Wait, I meant “ethnocentric.”) What’s fascinating is that thinking about independent film this way allows us really to examine what’s going on in each of those films. Some crazy stuff starts happening when filmmakers aren’t beholden to major studios. Things like…

1. The Characters are more diverse.

As an impossibly handsome white dude, Hollywood films rarely alienate me. I mean, even if I were a goofy imbecile, in a mainstream film, women would still throw themselves at me so long as I throw a cool party like the guys in Superbad.

even if I were

"even if I were"

Hollywood loves to pump out movies centered around chick magnets. They treated us to not one, but two Alfies, the whole James Bond franchise, everything starring Burt Reynolds, Wedding Crashers, Van Wilder, 50 First Dates, What Women Want, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and countless other films in which a handsome white man gets every girl, or just the girl he’s got his eyes on, even when he isn’t handsome, or even much of a man *cough*John Hugh’s movies*cough*cough*.

If I believed that everything I saw in movies accurately reflected real life, I would expect to walk out the door every day and literally have to beat a mob of gorgeous, lustful women off of me using a foam-covered stick so as not to damage their delicate physiques and even more delicate feelings.

There are exceptions to that delicate feelings bit.

There are exceptions to that "delicate feelings" bit.

But seeing as how I have only had to do that once or twice (and once while I was abroad), Hollywood clearly gets it wrong. A lot.

The Indie Example: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

One of Spike Lee’s first “joints,” She’s Gotta Have It features Tracy Camilla Jones as Nola, a single woman with a healthy sex drive, juggling relationships with three men. She simultaneously dates Greer (John Canada Terrell), a male model who wants to buy her nice things, but treats her as more of a possession than a person, Mars (Spike Lee), a miscreant who is charming and good in bed, but unemployed and lacking in any drive, and Jamie (Tommy Hicks), who works hard and is super sweet until he, uhh, rapes her for not being his girlfriend. Yeah, it’s a good thing the MPAA didn’t review this one.

Unlike conventional Hollywood films, She’s Gotta Have It features an entirely black cast, and not even as a gimmick. They’re all fully developed characters, and have their own personalities, view points and desires. It also follows a female player, showing male characters struggling to accept that she’s just not that into them (zing). But there’s more…

2. Story Structure Gets Downright Funky.

Ever since humans started telling stories, we’ve been breaking down the finer points of how to tell them. Aristotle claimed that a good story must include a beginning, middle and end. Then we got the five-act story structure. The thing is, that usually flowed in a linear model of time. A story started at its beginning and finished at its end. She’s Gotta Have It actually starts at its end and is told through recollection by its characters in various flashbacks, which was pretty innovative at the time. But that’s nowhere near as crazy as Memento.

The Indie Example: Memento (2000)

Have you ever taken a road trip with that one friend who gladly spent the whole ride bugging you with bizarre questions like, “What if we made a movie, but told it in reverse, using forward running increments of no more than a few minutes to leave viewers in suspense while they try to figure out what brought them there in the first place?” No? Then I guess you aren’t friends with Christopher Nolan. That’s exactly how Memento unfolds.

Independent Cinema loves to play with unconventional narrative. Quentin Tarantino did this quite famously in Pulp Fiction (1994), the movie you have to keep explaining to your girlfriend while you’re in the middle of watching it with her (even though it’s not that hard to follow) until she gets too lost to understand it and starts playing Candy Crush on her iPhone and ignoring the film altogether.

Say what again.

Say "what" again.

3. Hollywood Gets Called Out.

What’s the one thing we can count on whenever we watch a big-budget motion picture? That’s right: the good guy wins! That’s just one example of a “Hollywood ending,” a term that refers to mainstream cinema’s tendency to give movies an ending that neatly ties the story together for the viewer, providing closure. But what happens when a film doesn’t give the viewer closure?

The Indie Example: Monty Python and the Holly Grail (1975)

Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and the whole Monty Python crew come from outside the United States, not just outside Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, their film is severely anti-Hollywood; it does nothing an audience accustomed to mainstream American film would expect, and points out as much repeatedly. I mean, Holly Grail ends abruptly, without any ending credits, and viewers have no idea what was even happening at the time.

I’m sorry, was I supposed to say “SPOILER ALERT” before writing that? That movie is brilliant, everyone knows it and talks about it, and it came out close to forty years ago, so if you haven’t already seen it, you’re obviously not a real person.

Perhaps youre really a witch.

Perhaps you're really a witch.

Okay, you want an American example, you ethnocentrist (I mean patriot)? Watch Stranger than Paradise (1984). I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that the ending isn’t really why you watch the film in the first place. You watch it to meet the characters, see what being like them is like. (You bet that was a feeble attempt at a Being John Malkovich reference.) They’re not typical Hollywood characters, so you would never get to see them otherwise. And that’s what really defines independent cinema: context. Without Hollywood and all of its conventions, there would be nothing special about the indie films that venture outside of those limitations.

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