The Aesthetics Factor

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As the industrial background of a film has become gradually an irrelevant factor in its claim to independence, questions of aesthetics have assumed an increasingly prominent position in the discourse of contemporary American independent cinema. Film historians have argued that an inclusive definition of the post-1980 independent cinema must consider not only 'the position of individual films or filmmakers in terms of industrial location' but also 'the kinds of formal/aesthetic strategies they adopt', not to mention 'their relationship to the broader social, cultural, political or ideological landscape.'58 As a matter of fact, even industry practitioners, like the co-founders of Phoenix Pictures, have been accustomed to phrases such as 'independent production style' and distinguish between films that are 'economically independent and artistically independent.'59 As film critic Emmanuel Levy has observed:

Two different conceptions of independent film can be found. One is based on the way indies are financed, the other focuses on their spirit or vision. According to the first view, any film financed outside Hollywood is independent. But the second suggests that it is the fresh perspective, innovative spirit and personal vision that are the determining factor.60

The emphasis on the personal vision and spirit that the second view prizes makes any effort to examine independent cinema as a form of filmmaking that is characterised by a unified aesthetic impossible. Unlike mainstream Hollywood cinema, which, for a number of film scholars and critics, has been exemplified historically by the relatively unified classical aesthetic, contemporary independent cinema defies such labels. According to Levy, this is one of the reasons why the term independent has survived as it is a 'sufficiently flexible term to embrace a variety of artistic expressions. Neither ideologically, nor stylistically unified,' Levy continues, 'indies have elevated eclectic aestheticism into a principle.'61

The available paradigms that independents could choose from were many. In his examination of contemporary American independent cinema Geoff King has mentioned several: 'the experimental "avant-garde", the more accessible "art" or "quality" cinema, the politically engaged, the low-budget exploitation film', and any other mode of filmmaking that differs from Hollywood cinema. On the other hand, though, very rarely has an independent film eschewed completely the narrative form, the very foundation upon which American cinema was built since the first decade of the twentieth century. This is mainly because the overwhelming majority of such films were made for the purpose of commercial exploitation, which means that they had no option but to - at least - adhere to the basic rules of narrative representation in order to secure exhibition in the screens of multiplex theatres and not be limited to exhibition in the few venues that screen non-commercial films. As a result, independent cinema could be seen as a hybrid form of filmmaking that mixes a number of elements associated with Hollywood filmmaking (especially its grounding in narrative) with a vast number of elements from alternative formal systems.

This characteristic of contemporary American independent cinema suggests a degree of kinship with the Hollywood Renaissance films of the late 1960s/early 1970s, the majority of which were produced independently but distributed by the majors. Peter Biskind has suggested that the 'independents' of the post-1980 period are part of the rich legacy left by the New Hollywood, 'a loose collection of spiritual and aesthetic heirs' to filmmakers like Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese and many others.62 If that generation of filmmakers was influenced mostly by European art-cinema and tried to expand the language of American cinema, contemporary independents, one could argue, have continued this project ad infinitum. They have borrowed elements from many more formal paradigms, tackled previously un- or under-explored subjects (especially issues related to minorities) and often offered challenging films at a time when mainstream cinema's emphasis on event films, franchises and remakes has reached unprecedented levels. Arguably the most characteristic example of the ways contemporary independent cinema has moved stylistic, narrative, thematic and cultural boundaries in recent years is what has come to be known as New Queer Cinema.

Although the commercial independent cinema of the 1980s had provided the platform for the release of a small number of films that dealt with representations of gays and lesbians (Lianna [Sayles, 1983]; Desert Hearts [Deitch, 1986]; Parting Glances [Sherwood, 1986]; Longtime Companion [Rene, 1990]), in the early 1990s there was an explosion of independently produced films that offered such representations. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991); Poison (Haynes, 1991); Paris is Burning (Livingstone, 1991); Young Souls Rebels (Julien, 1991); The Hours and Times (Munch, 1991); RSVP (Lynd, 1991); Swoon (Kalin, 1992); The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992); and Zero Patience (Greyson, 1992) all sprang from a vibrant independent film festival scene (with the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals at the forefront). The release of all these films within the 1991-2 period led film critics to approach them as a distinct body of work within the context of contemporary American independent cinema to which B. Ruby Rich attached the label 'New Queer Cinema'.63 As Julianne Pidduck has argued, the critics' 'reappropriation of the epithet "queer" [was] a conscious political strategy that rhymes with an aesthetic that celebrates the "abject," the criminal, the underworld of queer desire.'64

Indeed, compared to their 1980s predecessors, which featured gay and lesbian characters who tried to 'fit in' within the structures of a heterosexual universe (Parting Glances) and who had to deal with the 'problems' that their alternative sexuality entailed (Lianna) within straightforward narratives, the new films were remarkably different. First, many celebrated 'homosexuality' as a deviant practice in an attempt to shock mainstream audiences and 'challenge more forcefully [their] preconceived notions about gay culture and society.'65 Not surprisingly, such an approach rendered some of the films (like Poison and The Living End) instantly controversial and provided them with notoriety that has increased their cachet as truly representative texts of a particular culture. Second, and as an extension of the above, this group of films has put forward a political agenda. Although this agenda, which revolves mainly around the problem of homophobia and of the lack of equal rights for the gay community, existed a long time before the appearance of these films, in the 1990s it was reshaped by the sweeping influence of the AIDS pandemic. As a result these films were characterised by a directness of subject that certainly reflects the changes effected by AIDS.66

Third, all films were exemplified by a diversity of narrative and style, which, according to Jose Arroyo, was a product of the films' struggle 'to represent a new context against the legacies of both dominant cinema and a previous history of gay representation.'67 From the cinéma-vérité style of The Times and the Hours, to the different visual styles Haynes employs for each of the three segments of Poison, to the black and white still photography style of Swoon, to the mock Beverly Hills 90210 aesthetic of Araki's films (especially The Doom Generation and Nowhere), the films of New Queer Cinema invented a language of their own (often referred to as 'homo pomo') that made them representative texts of an emerging queer identity.68 Equally the emphasis of many of these films' narratives on 'desire, death and criminality' differentiates them from the films of the 1980s and 'illustrates a historical refusal of positive image strategies by new queer film-makers.'69

The New Queer Cinema is not the only example of a group of films within the independent sector that pushed a number of boundaries and provided a voice for a cultural minority group. At approximately the same time, there was another group of films that this time re-invented black cinema. In 1991 alone, fifteen films by black filmmakers (not all independently financed and/or distributed) found their way to the theatres, a number that was higher than the number of such films released in the 1970s and 1980s together.70 Led by independently financed Straight Out of Brooklyn (M. Rich) and Hangin' with the Homeboys (Vasquez) and the studio-produced and -distributed Boyz N the Hood (Singleton) and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles), black cinema broke into the mainstream and quickly established itself as a category of filmmaking with its own codes and conventions.

These two categories of American cinema illustrate perfectly the important role aesthetics has played in co-defining contemporary American independent cinema, especially in the 1990s. While all the films associated with the New Queer Cinema were produced, financed and released by independent companies, many of the new black films were produced, financed and/or distributed by the majors or major independents (besides Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City which were distributed by Columbia and Warner respectively, one should also add Jungle Fever [Spike Lee; distributed by Universal] and A Rage in Harlem [Duke; distributed by Miramax]).

Despite their different locations of production, however, in terms of formal and stylistic choices, content, ideological disposition and cultural viewpoint the Columbia financed and distributed Boyz N the Hood is much closer to the independently produced and distributed Hangin' with the Homeboys than to any of the other films Columbia (or Columbia/ Tristar) financed and/or released in 1991, which include such mainstream productions as: Bugsy (Beatty), The Doors (Stone), Hook (Spielberg), The Hudson Hawk (Amiel), Mortal Thoughts (Rudolph), My Girl (Zieff), Prince of Tides (Streisand) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron). Even though this means that the label 'independent' becomes virtually meaningless, it nevertheless prescribes a particular type of film regardless of its production/finance/distribution background. As James Schamus, producer of a large number of independent films and one of the most vocal advocates of the low-budget independent cinema in the 1990s, remarked, independent films can now be 'found both within the studio system, within the mini-majors and major independents, as well as "outside" the system.'71

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