Independence Years |

Independence Years

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When Aspen Filmfest first appeared in 1979, it made its allegiance with the world of independent filmmaking immediately known. “Independent by Nature” was the slogan, and the tag has survived for a quarter-century; the words “Independent by Nature” are featured prominently in all of the fliers and advertisements for Filmfest’s 25th annual festival, which begins Tuesday, Sept. 30.What has changed over 25 years, on the other hand, is exactly what Aspen Filmfest is embracing. The independent cinema that Filmfest championed in the late ’70s was a far different creature from today’s indie film scene. Budgets for indie films have skyrocketed. Veritable movie stars, once practically unknown in the indie world, frequently venture into the territory. Perhaps most significantly, savvy distributors with eyes on promoting their products have become a major cog in the machine. In fact, independent filmmaking has never steadily paralleled the more commercially driven Hollywood mainstream. Instead, it has intersected with Hollywood, influenced it, disrupted it, been influenced by it and reconciled with it. Independent cinema, which has been around as long as the studios, has included everything from the pioneers who made films on rented equipment and schlepped their prints from town to town – as ski film king Warren Miller did in his early days, for example – to stars like Burt Lancaster and James Cagney, who operated their own fiefdoms inside the studios to make financially and socially riskier movies.In the 1970s, the stage was set for independent filmmaking to come into its own. The Hollywood studios were struggling to connect with an audience as they watched huge-budget extravaganzas like “Cleopatra” and “Hello, Dolly!” flop horribly. The first crop of film-school graduates, attuned to more artistic European filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard, were itching to make their marks. The enormous expansion of drive-in theaters led to a demand for more product, wherever it came from. Critics had unprecedented influence and could spread the word about a film as well as an expensive advertising campaign could. And technological advances made equipment more accessible to filmmakers without a studio affiliation. “The studios hit a major slump in the ’60s, and you have this whole revolution in American filmmaking that was director-driven,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest. “And the studios welcomed it, because they were having trouble making films that found a big audience. As the means of production became more accessible – lightweight cameras, portable sound packages – in the ’60s and ’70s, it helped people become more independent.”The studios gave independent-minded directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson and William Friedkin small budgets but an unusual amount of artistic freedom. The result was a spate of films made within the studio system but with a distinctively non-Hollywood feel: “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The French Connection,” “Mean Streets.” The commercial and critical success of such groundbreaking works proved there was an audience for gritty, honest, character-driven movies that came from the singular vision of one filmmaker rather than the collective mind of the studio. “People had access to cameras and sound, and they were able to tell their own stories,” said Thielen. “And that was huge.”What began to emerge were filmmakers telling the kinds of stories that had been ignored or caricatured by Hollywood. Women, blacks and gays took the director’s chair to turn out personalized takes on issues that had never been effectively handled in mainstream films. In 1975 came “Hester Street,” director Joan Micklin Silver’s film about a young Jewish woman (played by Carol Kane) immigrating to New York City at the turn of the century. Three years later, Claudia Weill turned out “Girlfriends,” about a young woman coping with love and career. Gus Van Sant’s “Mala Noche” and Donna Dietch’s “Desert Hearts,” both from 1985, marked the rise of “queer cinema.” And the arrival of Spike Lee, with his landmark 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It,” signaled a shift in African-American storytelling. “Most significantly, these are films made outside the studio system completely,” said Thielen. “They are financed independently, shot independently. They’re not even marketed. They’re labors of love. Queer cinema – that’s something Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.”Hollywood was doing big stories. What independent filmmaking was doing were like miniatures, microcosms. And then it went into identity politics – women, African-Americans, gays, all telling stories because they felt their stories weren’t being captured, even in the very rich American ’70s period. Independent filmmaking opened up this incredibly rich terrain of stories that hadn’t been told. Or not told with any truth and honesty.”The film fest crazeThose honest, personal, untold stories, however, had little way of getting out into the world. Distributors focused on studio films with major stars. Outside the biggest cities, there were few art movie houses that specialized in independent films. “Here were these films being made, and no one knew how to distribute them,” said Thielen. Enter the age of the film festival. “Film festivals had been around,” said Thielen, who had been program director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, one of the country’s oldest festivals, before taking over in Aspen in 1995. “But the whole phenomenon of the film festival, and the popularity of film festivals for the consumer market, is tied to these independent films. Because Hollywood wasn’t distributing them, and they were the only ones who knew how to do distribution.”But there were a few specialty distribution arms. [It was] young film buffs who worked in these specialty branches, usually distributing foreign films, and they saw an opportunity. They found a strategy and adapted it to independent films.”To Thielen, the early years of the film fest craze were vibrant and new. “Festivals in the ’80s and early ’90s were incredibly fertile grounds for discovery,” she said. “It was an amazing point in recent film history, where an audience was composed of film lovers, critics, distributors, all discovering a film together. And that was magical. People were making discoveries unmediated by marketing campaigns and a five-star, thumbs-up, thumbs-down mentality.”Indie film or mainstream movie?With distribution systems in place, independent films had a chance of widespread success. “She’s Gotta Have It,” John Sayles’ “The Brother from Another Planet,” Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies & videotape” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” all caught fire and became indie-world blockbusters. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice such success and grab for it. Most every major studio now has a branch – Universal’s Focus Features, Sony’s Sony Picture Classics, Disney’s Miramax – that specializes in smaller films with a more independent feel. Though the sophisticated distribution system has made independent films more commercially viable, it may have taken something away from the indie spirit.”What you have is this codification,” said Thielen. “You have movie stars in independent movies. Financially, it has changed completely, from no budget to a million dollars plus. Back in the ’70s, independent was an adjective. Now it’s a brand.”Independent filmmaking in the ’70s was writer/director-driven, very much an auteur kind of filmmaking. The biggest change in independent filmmaking is that it’s not the director, it’s the star. There was a time in independent filmmaking where every film had Harvey Keitel taking his clothes off. That’s where it became more similar to studio filmmaking.”While Thielen believes the risk factor in indie films has been lowered in the past decade, she doesn’t think the changes have been all detrimental. The mainstreaming of indie films has meant that movie stars are more willing to step into smaller pictures: Aspen Filmfest `03, for example, will screen John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys” – distributed by IFC Films, an arm of the Independent Film Channel – which features a heavyweight cast of Rita Moreno, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lili Taylor. And the improved distribution means that indie filmmakers can make actual careers out of their passion.Overall, though, Thielen thinks something has been drained out of independent filmmaking. “The downside is you lose the risktaking,” she said. “If you suddenly have Dustin Hoffman in your film, do you have to change the character because it doesn’t fit Dustin Hoffman’s screen image? That’s a risk, where you’re dealing with a big, recognizable talent. There might be a certain compromise that comes into play.”While the involvement of studios may have altered the films, it has had an even bigger effect on how the films are presented. With the marketing muscle of the studios at work, it’s harder for an audience to come to a film with completely fresh eyes, unassaulted by reviews and ads. “The distributors are now really the intermediary between the film and the festival audience,” said Thielen. “I think audiences have become less adventurous. They want to know about the plot; they want to know what their favorite critic said about the movie.”Even more dramatic is how festivals have changed due to the presence of distributors. “Twenty years ago, a filmmaker would have brought her film to the festival. There was a more direct contact between the filmmaker and the festival,” said Thielen. “Now that distributors are a key player in how a film plays, there’s a lot more negotiation between the distributor and the festival. The distributor has to think: Does this festival make sense for my film? They’re looking at strategy.”Thielen adds that now that many independent films have distributors, festivals no longer represent the only chance audiences have to see many of the films. Thielen has combated this by having filmmakers present at the festival screenings, making the festival experience a unique one. Still the right stuffWhat hasn’t changed much is what kinds of stories are told in independent film: documentaries, character studies, offbeat narratives, regional flavors. “There’s a certain regionalization to it,” said Thielen. “They are stories that are tied to a certain place and time. There’s more attention to character and psychology than plot and special effects.”Despite the changes in independent cinema, Aspen Filmfest has stuck to its guns and remains true to its slogan. The program for Filmfest ’03 gets to the heart of whatever it is that defines independent film.There are new films by two indie icons: Robert Altman’s “The Company,” a fictionalized look behind the curtain at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, starring Neve Campbell and showing as the opening night presentation; and John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys,” about a group of women waiting to adopt babies from a Mexican orphanage. Another American feature is “The Station Agent,” starring Peter Dinklage as a loner seeking seclusion at an abandoned New Jersey train depot. Dinklage will be presented with Filmfest’s first Emerging Artist Award.Foreign films include “Some Secrets,” a Czech film about a family road trip; “Stander,” based on the true story of a South African policeman in the apartheid era; the animated French film “The Triplets of Belleville”; the suspenseful Italian drama “I’m Not Scared”; and “Valentin,” a coming-of-age tale set in the Buenos Aires of the ’60s. Documentaries include “Breakfast with Hunter,” Wayne Ewing’s portrait of Woody Creeker Hunter S. Thompson; the Vietnam examination “Be Good, Smile Pretty”; the snowboarding film “Pipe Dreams”; and “The Same River Twice,” about the participants in a 1970s rafting trip.Filmfest’s Salute to the ’70s will include a panel discussion featuring Richard Dreyfuss and Sydney Pollack, and moderated by William Friedkin, as well as screenings of ’70s classics “Shampoo,” “The French Connection” and “Paper Moon.”Aspen Filmfest 2003 runs Tuesday through Sunday, Sept. 30 through Oct. 5, with programs in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. For a complete program, see the special section in this edition of The Aspen Times.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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