The Loneliest Planet: maximising the effect of minimalism

Low-key narrative is one of the most frequent characteristics of indie film, a tendency that sometimes veers towards the minimalist end of the scale in the kind of production in which, by conventional standards, ‘very little happens’. A good example of the potency that can be created in this domain is Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), which offers what feels almost close to a documentation – rather than dramatization – of the experiences of a couple trekking with a guide across spectacular landscapes in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. It’s not a documentation but a fictional piece, but the emphasis for most of the running time – at 113 minutes quite lengthy for this kind of material – is on evoking an impression simply of transition through the land, accompanied by occasional dialogue and various undramatized activities along the way.

loneliest planet poster

But there is one piece of what, in itself, seems more conventional ‘movie’ action – spoiler alert here, if you’ve not seen the film and want to experience it fully in its own right, do so before reading on. As we watch a film of this kind, depending on how exactly we’ve been prepared, what foreknowledge we have, we are inclined to wonder if something of this kind is going to happen. Early on, the central couple – Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) – are in a bar where a group of local men encourage them to join them in dancing. Nothing happens, but there’s a distinct feeling here of potential threat, the potency of which is in some ways greater for not being realised. They move on to hire a guide, Dato (played by a real local guide, Bidzina Gujabidze), and head into the vast empty, hills, the charting of their progress punctuated by extreme long-shot sequences in which their figures move across the screen, dwarfed by the vastness of place and the evocation of its textures.

Figures in a landscape

Figures in a landscape

Then, some 50 minutes in, comes an event of more movie-conventionally dramatic kind. Their paths are crossed by those of a small group including an older man who has a long-barrelled gun slung across his shoulders. After seemingly angry, untranslated comments by a youth, the elder member of the party suddenly points the gun at Alex. His first, seemingly instinctive move, is to pull Nica in front of him, as if to use her as cover, although the then pushes her behind him as the gun rests immediate in front of his face. Some seconds pass – slowly, filled with tension – before the gun is removed, the man offers an apology and his group continue on their way.

This dramatic incident does not become the basis of an obvious major plot point such as a robbery or kidnapping, as might be expected in a more conventional dramatic feature. But it casts a powerful effect across the rest of the film. Nica gathers up her backpack and continues the trek, the others following, Alex at some distance. We see them walking on in the following sequences, much further apart than they have been up to this point. Not a word is said about the event, their reaction to it, or any transgression Alex might be considered to have committed. The general tenor of the film remains the same, the experiences of the characters seemingly pushed largely to the margins. What the film demonstrates in this way is how less can, indeed, become more; how the very limited deployment of ‘dramatic action’ can add hugely to the effect that it generates, pound-for-pound, as it were. The only other notable event in the film is a lengthy kiss exchanged by Nica and Dato close to the end, after the pair have sat up drinking by their camp fire after Alex has retired. The Loneliest Planet closes with the packing up of tents the following morning, but there is no sense of closure – not even the completion of the journey, let alone any indication of what all this means for the relationship between the central characters (the only background information about which is the fact that they are due to marry in the near future).

loneliest planet 3

For some, of course, this might be rather unsatisfying, and such films tend to provoke very divided reaction, critically and more widely (see also, for example, the films of Kelly Reichardt, which I write about in Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film, due out soon!). Powerful poetic minimalism – or boredom? All just a matter of taste – although, of course, there’s no ‘just’ about it, but core articulations of varying forms of cultural capital of the kind that go to the heart of processes of cultural consumption more widely.

 

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‘Early electronic sell-through’, as studios continue to experiment with new release windows

Interesting piece in Variety on growing studio use of digital selling of films ahead of the DVD/Blu-Ray release, as Hollywood and indies continue to try to negotiate the increasingly uncertain relationship between the various post-theatrical windows – probably the biggest issue currently facing all parts of the film business.

The latest example, Iron Man 3, is to be available for high-definition download purchase (as opposed to rental) three weeks in advance of its release on disc or digital rental/VOD, a practice that’s been dubbed ‘early electronic sell-through’ (EST) and that is reported to be becoming the rule rather than the exception for blockbusters. The aim of this particular strategy, Variety suggests, is to encourage a move into the sphere of digital ownership by those who have been buyers of discs, to maintain this lucrative sector of the market in the face of declining disc sales (sales that remain a very important part of the overall studio economy). The risk, it seems, is that a general move towards the digital is seen as threatening a loss of sales in general to the sphere of rentals (download, VOD, etc), in which margins are lower.

iron man 3 poster

Be interesting to see how this works – whether digital ownership really has the same appeal as its physical equivalent as far as film is concerned. Is this different from the way the same transition has worked for music, I wonder? Will as many people buy digital copies for keeps in the same way that they buy music that’s perhaps more likely to be listened to repeatedly (not that everyone pays for music that way either, any more, what with the advent of subscription-based channels such as Spotify)?  There probably aren’t any simple answers to such questions, but they’re going to be crucial to the future shape of this part of the business.

Not surprising, then, that the studios are experimenting with different strategies of these kinds. One of the most notable points made in this article is that all but one of the studios (Disney) have changed their operational structures, combining previously separate digital and disc divisions in order to encourage a more integrated approach rather than having them compete against one another. This suggests that they are, as usually rather belatedly, seeking to get their act together, to come to terms with changes in broader media usage in the era of broadband internet. Historically, the studios have tended to be slow to adapt in such ways, and much remains yet to be sorted in this instance, including which will be the most effective/popular and user-friendly (not to mention, appropriately priced) channels through which to access movies online other than via the temptations of high-def illegal download.

Smaller indies have so far been far more prone to innovation, if only because they have less of a stake in the prevailing system and so much less to lose and more to gain. Will we end up with a new system that’s more or less consistent across the spectrum, I wonder, as has broadly been the case in the past as far as the relationship between theatrical and various forms of post-theatrical distribution has been concerned? Maybe, but it’s equally possible that we’re heading for a more diverse landscape that’s likely to be as full of challenges all around as it is of opportunities.

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Spring Breakers: exploitation/art cinema

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers offers a fascinating combination of elements of exploitation and art cinema, two key ingredients often found in the mix that constitutes indie film but employed here in a blend that’s somewhat jarring and uncomfortable – but also thought-provoking.

spring breakers poster

One the one hand, there’s lots of classic exploitation material. Initially, this involves much footage of what appears to be almost the ultimate in youth-sex-drugs-and-drink excess: groups of scantily clad college students in close physical proximity, with booze being poured via tubes down gullets and smoking of bongs – the apparatus for all of this preferably being of lewd appearance. This seems like the acme (or nadir) of such terrain, the early stages of the film seeming to promise something like a non-stop wallow in such forms of excessive indulgence. Later, after the four bikini-clad principals fall in with an over-the-top rapper/gangster figure, the above mix is enrichened (in exploitation terms) by the trappings, again excessive, of the requisite generic terrain: a fetishistic panoply of guns, pimp-style motors, piles of cash and luxury-camp settings (there’s also an earlier, nicely-stylized robbery sequence).

Through all of this, however, the film employs quite radical formal strategies, departing sharply from mainstream norms particularly in its denial of any of real sense of emotional proximity to the central characters. Imagery is quite heavily stylized, in bright colours and a disjointed sense of shifting backwards and forwards in time. Dialogue is often repeated, sometimes on multiple occasions, as the film veers sometimes further in the direction of the more overtly poetical style familiar from Korine’s most noted  feature Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), including some sequences shot in a swirling-pixellated format. The soundtrack is also similarly mixed in resonances, combining thumping rap that seems to buy into the aesthetic of party-excess with the coolly distancing impressions created by a typical Cliff Martinez score (as per his work on Soderberg titles such as Traffic [2000] and Solaris [2002]).

What should we make of this combination? It’s certainly a film that would be expected to attract very mixed reactions. Anyone attracted by the main poster image – the four scantily clad  principals, as reproduced above – and expecting a typically mainstream ‘raunchy youth’ movie is likely to be puzzled by the distance of the film’s overall feel from anything more conventional – while those receptive to the more arty dimension are liable to be discomforted by the volume of near-naked display of exploitation standards. The best of both worlds – or, maybe for more viewers, exactly the opposite, satisfying neither? Does the arty material undercut what might otherwise be straightforward ‘cheap’ exploitation, or does it seek to legitimate it and provide cover? I don’t think there’s a simple answer or that it’s so clear-cut.

Maybe there would be no reason for the latter – cover for exploitation – as anyone who wanted to treat this territory in that manner would be far better off (literally, in financial terms) playing it more straight. The trailer, unsurprisingly, emphasises the obviously commercial, exploitation dimension. Personally, I found the film grew on me the longer it progressed and has seemed more interesting the more I’ve thought about it, and in retrospect. Which is often a marker at least of something more thought-provoking than most. If combinations of exploitation and artiness are usually somewhat smoother in the indie sector, an example such as this offers a good illustration of the different pulls that such dimensions can effect on the text and the kinds of responses it’s likely to encourage.

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Spielberg and speculation

Far be it from me to doubt Steven Spielberg’s understanding of Hollywood, but his widely-reported prediction of a future in which we could shift to a system in which viewers pay much higher prices for blockbuster releases and pretty much everything else goes to pay-TV (or has lower ticket prices) seems distinctly unconvincing. More the stuff of rather typical industry doom-monger hype than any real analysis of likely future scenarios, I think.

Spielberg’s suggestion, during the opening of a new facility at USC, is premised on a situation in which a bunch of expensive blockbusters fail, bringing down the current release system. That’s a large assumption in itself. However much it might be disliked by many, the current studio blockbuster-led regime has proved consistently reliable for a few decades now and we shouldn’t expect it go to away anytime soon, whatever adjustments might come in the handling of post-theatrical release. Every now and then there’s a dry blockbuster season, provoking predictions of demise. But so far this has always been followed by a bounce-back, typically characterised by another round of non-inflation-adjusted ‘record-breaking’ openings, etc.

The idea that ‘Going to the movies is going to cost you 50 bucks, maybe 100. Maybe 150’ seems, frankly, somewhat nonsensical. This is based on a suggested parallel with high-end stage theatre or sporting events. But such a parallel doesn’t work and misses the fundamental nature of the blockbuster business, which is an appeal to very large numbers and especially to younger people who’d never be able to afford such rates. That’s nothing like the situation with, say, Broadway theatre or live sporting events with limited capacity for attendance. Does anyone seriously think Hollywood is going to jeopardise its ability to reach its core audience? The Guardian newspaper in the UK suggests that there are already signs of this kind of change, citing a posh, upmarket Odeon in London – but this seems like a red herring. Sure, places like London will have such venues, with extras for the wealthy who can afford them, but these are niche theatres that are in no way a viable alternative to those which serve the main audience.

The flip side of Spielberg’s comments relate to the fate of less commercial fare such as his recent Lincoln. It struggled to get theatrical release, he says. I’m somewhat doubtful about that, but then Spielberg is arguably in an exceptional situation as far as being able to get funding and release for almost anything he wants to do. The real question here is the space that exists in contemporary Hollywood for less-obviously commercial material, what’s historically been known as the ‘quality’ film (a term that requires lots of unpacking, of course). This is what I’m currently writing about, and it’s striking how similarly hyperbolic is much of the commentary on these kinds of films, along with blockbusters and ‘the fate of cinema as we know it’ more generally.

Lincoln poster

The ‘death of serious/adult/quality films’ in Hollywood is a subject of regular reporting (as is the suggestion that ‘the only place’ to find such material these days is on pay-TV). As is an expression of amazement every time one or a few such films does appear – or, especially, if it/they do well or relatively well commercially. There’s definite hype-cycle here: it’s dead; wow, it’s come back to life. The less headline-friendly reality is that a limited space for such films has always existed within the studio realm and continues to do so, even within a system dominated by franchise-oriented blockbuster production. The nature and degree of this space (limited), and factors that might explain its existence, are what I’m currently writing about.

So, this intervention by Spielberg seems rather familiar. I’d suggest not taking it at face value, but as a manifestation of a particular kind of rhetoric that’s typical of Hollywood. Part of this, more generally, involves creating an impression of an industry in or barely short of being in crisis – and, thus, one that shouldn’t be subject to things like regulatory intervention. Can’t help also reading a bit of personal bitterness in some of the comments (particularly the contribution from George Lucas and reference to the limited release enjoyed by Red Tails; could that simply have been because, beyond Star Wars, most of what he’s done has not exactly set the box office alight?).

How should academics respond to these kinds of claims? My view is not to play the speculation game on these terms, which has a tendency to lead to large-scale over-statement and hype of its own kind (see anything with a title that contains phrases such as ‘the end of cinema as we know it’). Better to seek to situate the nature of such comments within more familiar discourses within the industry and to measure past examples against the realities that actually exist or followed. We shouldn’t rule out possibilities for future change, of course, but these tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary in kind and degree. That doesn’t make such good headlines but is the stuff of the kind proper sober analysis that’s needed if we’re really to understand the way the business works.

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The Sessions and indie ingredients

I liked The Sessions but when you step back at look at it, like so many indie films, it seems comprised of a number of components rather familiar to the territory. First, it offers us something marked as distinctly ‘uncomfortable’, in comparison with the norms of the mainstream, in its focus on a central character who is very seriously disabled – and, then, more so, for many sensibilities, in its focus on the sexual life of such a character. Discomfort, in various forms and to various degrees, is a frequent indie characteristic. But the sexual component also gives it a distinctively more commercial skew, sex of course tending tending to be a major ‘selling’ ingredient that has long been drawn upon in art and indie film, and here involving plenty of nudity.

the sessions

I found much the same characteristically indie/Indiewood balance (the film being a Fox Searchlight release, although independently produced) in the handing of different elements of the denouement (spoiler alert if you’ve not seen the film). At one point, it seems as if a  more ‘real/normal’ relationship will develop between the protagonist, polio-stricken Mark (a largely horizontal John Hawkes) and the sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), he employs to  help him to get over his anxieties and to lose his virginity. The two clearly start to develop ‘serious feelings’ for one another, but the film withdraws from the relationship, briefly sketching the outlines of what will clearly be a fulfilling tryst with another woman.  The most obvious romantic cliche is thus avoided – very much indie style – but a happy resolution is implied in this dimension. No sooner has this been done, though, than we find ourselves at Mark’s funeral. So, he’s died (it was previously more than hinted that his lifespan was likely to be nearing its end, hence the desire to achieve consummation), which is not most people’s idea of a happy ending. All in all, a mix of up- and down-beat factors that works nicely but that again seems quintessentially indie in the careful working out of the balance.

the sessions poster

Does this make the film contrived or guilty of being some kind of boiler-plate indie? Such accusations of this kind are often levelled at indie films, and might have some purchase in some cases. But there’s always a danger in such suggestions of implying the existence of some ‘pure’ and unsullied version of indie to which such films can be opposed. There are, of course, many varieties of indie and differing degrees to which they depart from the norms of the mainstream – but notions such as the ‘true’ indie tend to involve rhetorical over-simplication. They buy into a ‘purist’ notion of indie – or, often, ‘independent’, these discourses often tending to see ‘indie’ itself as some kind of sell-out construction – that is far more the stuff of myth than reality. Powerful myth, nonetheless, and a key component of some of the prevailing discourses of indie/independence – something I discuss at greater length in the introduction to my forthcoming book, Indie 2.0.

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Quality Hollywood, and beyond

My current project is a book on the notion of the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood, for which I now have a contract, titled Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Production. I’ve posted some thoughts on issues relating to this already, but will be adding some various musings on the topic now and in the future. This isn’t strictly about indie film, but the quality issue is one that’s clearly relevant to that territory as well. Some definitions of ‘indie’ tend also to use the term ‘quality’, for one thing. And what I’ll be doing in this project is also broadly connected with some of my previous work on indie and Indiewood, which has increasingly focused on understanding films from these sectors to be offering various kinds and degrees of marking of distinctions textually and in offering particular kinds of appeals to viewers.

What is meant by ‘quality’ here is a certain kind of positioning within prevailing cultural hierarchies, often the result of the creation of associations with work that is conventionally located ‘higher’ in such schemas. I’m using the term that way, rather than to suggest an actual value-judgement about ‘how good’ certain kinds of films or other material might be judged to be – although there’s often much slippage here and that’s an issue I’ll be seeking to explore further in the book, along with the deeper cultural and historical roots of these processes as they function today (it’s also a question raised in my previous post about Game of Thrones.

Here, I plan to offer occasional thoughts related to this project, including the identification of some of the things that tend to be taken as markers of quality of this kind, often in areas that aren’t the immediate focus of the book, including contemporary TV series that seek to claim quality status to one degree or another.

One issue that seems of significance here is the pacing of certain plot/character developments. A marker of quality is to give certain lines plenty of time to develop. The Sopranos offers plenty of examples of this, where a development involving a particular character might be built over many episodes and thus have all the more impact when it comes to fruition some time later. A counter-example would be The OC, which is pitched as a more ‘popular’ series, although also making some quality claims in certain aspects of its writing, I think. I recall episodes of The OC in which a previously unknown relative of a central character would turn up, threatening all kinds of ramifications to the plot, only to disappear again about two episodes later. (SPOILER ALERT here re. the next paragraph for anyone watching or planning to watch series 2 of The Walking Dead or not up to date on the latest Being Human.)

Walking Dead

A similar distinction struck me between two episodes of series that I’m watching at the moment (Sopranos and The OC having been some time ago). In series 2 of The Walking Dead, a child goes missing in the first episode, cueing plenty of angst that lasts until episode 6, when she suddenly turns up undead, an effect that’s quite shocking in its immediate context but also because of the slow-burn with which this strand was treated. In the current series of Being Human, by way of contrast, two interesting new characters were introduced in each of the last two I watched but both were disposed of within the same episode. That seems to be a marker of relatively lower quality, in these hierarchical terms, and it’s interesting to me to try to draw out the basis of such a judgement.

Being Human

To give a particular plot strand or character situation a longer arc is, it seems, to position a text as more ‘restrained’,  ‘disciplined’ and ‘subtle’ – the kinds of terms that tend to be implied, among others, in judgements of ‘higher’ quality. To move through plot elements very quickly, or to bring in what appear to be significant new characters and to finish with them rapidly, is to lack such markers of quality; to risk being labelled as ‘impatient’, ‘lazy’, ‘disposable’, or the like. (See here, also, my earlier post on the dubious notion of ‘reduced attention span’, as criticised in a similar context by Michael Newman). These terms clearly need a great deal of unpacking and situating in particular contexts, especially via the use of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. To appreciate the subtle and restrained, it seems – to be more ‘discriminating’, as it’s implied – greater resources of cultural capital are generally required (inherited and learned resources that enable and encourage us to make such distinctions and to feel in some way superior through being able to do so).

 

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Zero reference to The Colonial Present

Been meaning to post something about Zero Dark Thirty for some time and Oscar-eve seems as good an excuse as any. Even if it’s not an indie film, it has some characteristics of the ‘quality’ or Indiewood end of the spectrum, it seems to me, particularly in its generally dour and low-key approach to the dramatization of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. I found myself rather torn about the film in several respects. I’m not going to get into the ‘does it justify torture’ debate so much here, as that’s been quite well rehearsed elsewhere. First saw the film the same weekend as Lincoln and was struck by how similar the two are in one central respect: that they’re both pitched primarily as ‘procedurals’, focusing on head-down procedures (of investigation or political manoeuvring) rather than more action-led routines.

zero dark poster

I was also struck by the largely non-triumphalist nature of the climax of ZDT. Although the night-vision green-tinted scenes at the Bin Laden complex have been compared by some to images from a video game – which they do loosely resemble in some ways – the whole exercise creates the impression of rather non-heroic, one-sided slaughter, which I found in its way admirable (pitching it that way, rather than the slaughter itself). This is unusual, for Hollywood, where the preference is to try to find room for the reassertion of more traditional varieties of action-heroics (I’m writing something at the moment on how this process works in three examples: Body of LiesGreen Zone and Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker).

The real problem I have with the film is the extreme one-sidedness of its general dynamics. We start with sounds of 9/11, which are clearly employed to give an impression of substantial justification to the torture scenes that follow. The main focus on the investigation is then mixed on occasion with inserted dramatizations of other Al Qaeda or AQ-related attacks, which add to the sense of motivation provided to the investigators. But there’s not one jot of anything to suggest that the attackers had any motivation of their own. There wouldn’t be a need to provide something as strong as ‘justification’ in order, at least, to give some suggestion that the people who do such things have agendas of their own that might have some points of legitimacy, even for those who don’t accept their methods. In this respect, the film seems much more firmly in line with the myopia of typical US foreign policy. Sure, it’s based on first-hand accounts, as the opening titles proclaim; but they’re the accounts of only one faction. This might be little more than we should expect from a studio product but I found it rankled to the extent that I spend the latter stages of the film hoping that the assassination mission would fail – a hopeless aspiration, of course, given the known facts (this reminded me of the experience of watching Spielberg’s Munich, in which we’re asked to align ourselves with an Israeli murder squad).

As for the legitimacy of such killings, well… Again, I don’t think one has to be a supporter of Bin Laden or AQ to feel that it had precisely the same degree as legitimacy as would be possessed by an imaginary scenario in which, say, Al Qaeda landed a couple of helicopters on the White House lawn and proceeded to work their way through the building and shoot dead George W. Bush. In other words, none, for any legitimate state. The same goes for the current incumbent’s use of extra-judicial killing by drone.

colonial present 2

For anyone who’d like to fill in the sort of background that doesn’t get even passing reference in ZDT, I’d strongly recommend Derek Gregory’s excellent book, The Colonial Present, the focus of which is on the historical background to contemporary situations in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. I won’t try to summarise his argument here, beyond the fact that the title, really, says it all: that recent American-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and American-supported Israeli activity in the occupied territories are of a piece with a whole colonial history in these regions; that they represent not just an imperial legacy, a hold-over from the past, but in certain respects an active and continued form of colonialism. As Gregory suggests, the relevant phrase is not ‘war on terror’, as supposedly dramatized by films such as ZDT, but the ongoing ‘war of terror’ pursued by the US and Israel, with plenty of complicity on the part of Britain and others. This is the presence that’s markedly absent from Bigelow’s film.

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Silver Linings Cop Out?

No great surprise that Silver Linings Playbook was the big winner at the Independent Spirit Awards, just ahead of the Oscars, taking best feature, best director and screenplay for David O. Russell and best actress for Jennifer Lawrence. I liked the film well enough, but thought it was a rather lazy cop-out as far as its address to the issues of mental health was concerned.

Silver linings poster

In the first half of the film, these were given reasonable substance, making for some elements of uncomfortable viewing. But they all seemed wished away, very Hollywood ‘feel-good’ style, in the end. Just dance your troubles away? Hardly the stuff of prickly indie fare. I wanted the song that drives the main protagonist crazy to turn up from one of the acts at the climactic dance show and for him to lose it; or, at least, something to reflect more honestly a sense that the issues are substantial and not so easily shrugged off in what ends up as a variety of indie rom-com. But, then, I suppose that’s the Weinstein end of the spectrum for you and maybe what should be expected. Can’t see it troubling the scorers too much tonight at the Oscars, however, even with its soft centre.

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Rachel Lister on indie narrative and the short story

Very interesting piece by Rachel Lister in the new issue of Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies on links between indie narrative and the short story. In ‘The Feature Film as Short Story: The “Little Disturbances” of Nicole Holofcener’, Lister cites various theorists and exemplars of the short story, drawing a number of close parallels with what she describes as ‘the poetics of economy and restraint’ found in Holofcener’s Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2001), Friends with Money (2006) and Please Give (2010). (1)

Holofcener adopts the narrative strategies of the short story, Lister suggests, ‘to explore themes of denial, alienation, and the challenges of communication in postmodern America.’ (3) The main argument here is very convincing, including many citations from writers about or of the short story, and examples of the form, to substantiate the claim in detail. I’d go further, in fact, and suggest that this model could very usefully be applied to a much wider range of examples of indie narrative, of which the work of Holofcener might be seen as in many ways typical.

The qualities of Holofcener’s work highlighted by Lister – including a the employment of variety of realism that involves ‘capturing the complexities and contradictions of situations and characters and not compromising them in the name of formulaic plot lines’ (4), the use of elliptical form to ‘capture the inner workings of characters in denial of their own behaviour’ (7), and the use of silences and failure of communication – place her work very much at the heart of what I’d see as one of the major tendencies of indie film. That wouldn’t be to deny anything more specific, overall, in her work, but to situate it as a notable instance of approaches that have much wider resonance in the indie sector. The identification of the source of much of this in aspects of the short story – or, if not direct influences, then notable parallels – is a very useful addition to our understanding of a key dimension of many indie films, and an interesting example of the benefits that can be brought to one field from scholars from somewhat different ones (Lister’s background being on the literary rather than film side).

Whether this is something specific to the ‘postmodern’ seems less clear, however. Such narratives, for Lister, ‘aim to capture the fragmented nature of postmodern, everyday life.’ (14). I’m not sure that the ‘postmodern’ is necessary here. Certain social trends often associated with notions of the postmodern (a term often used rather loosely as a descriptor of contemporary life) might perhaps exacerbate some of the kinds of  experiences charted in the work of Holofcener. But did ‘life’ ever embody anything very like the kinds of qualities (‘formulaic plot lines’) against which this is defined? I’m rather doubtful. Given that Lister traces her short story model back to the late nineteenth century work of Anton Chekov, the postmodern dimension seems less convincing (or, simply, perhaps not necessary).

Maybe we should associate these particular experiences more specifically with the lives of particular  social groups, rather than epochal concepts such as the postmodern? A point that’s often been made about indie films is that they tend, disproportionately, to concern the lives of characters from the middle classes, a fact that seems not unconnected with the primary basis of indie audiences in the same sorts of social sectors (I get into some similar issues to this one in examining the association of some recent indie films with generational notions, such as ‘The Net Generation’, which seem to risk rather sweeping over-generalization, in my forthcoming book, Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film). Something to this effect seems implicit in the distinction Lister notes between the characters of Holofcener’s films and blue-collar workers found predominantly in those of another of the figures she cites, Raymond Carver. That some similar approaches might be found in such a universe as charted by Carver perhaps complicates any attempt to limit such characteristics to a particular class-based niche but I’m not sure the postmodern is the best notion in which to ground any of this. None of which is to seek to undermine what remains a very useful contribution to our understanding of some of the contexts within which some key dimensions of indie narrative can be located.

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Cultural hierarchies and Game of Thrones

I’m very interested at the moment in cultural hierarchies – the ways in which cultural products are differently valued, in prevailing systems of taste judgement – and have been thinking about this in various ways, including how it applies to some of my own patterns of consumption. The TV series Game of Thrones is a case in point. Some friends of mine are quite avid fans, particularly of the source novels by George R. R. Martin, against which they measure the TV version. I’ve always been a bit snooty about these. Not really my thing. A bit downmarket. Those big fat sort of sword-and-scorcery novel series. Lord of the Rings territory, almost. And one of these friends is a huge fan of that, too, which is further grist to the mill. Stuff I can confidently distance myself from – without ever having felt the need actually to read it myself, of course!

I’m well aware that my disparagement of such material is based on a particular social class location and/or aspiration and notions of myself as a consumer of more lofty stuff. I mean, I just finished Will Self’s Umbrella, a work of serious literary fiction (and yes, look, I took the opportunity to slip that in here; gratuitously, perhaps, although the very gratuitous nature of this helps to make the point about how this kind of process works). A key insight of cultural studies into this kind of thing is that tastes are never just innocent opinions. Never ‘just what I like’ – especially not the ‘just’. No, they’re parts of much larger process of cultural positioning and sense of self that are profoundly socio-cultural and relational in nature.

Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste is the key text on the subject, pioneering an approach that’s been increasingly influential in my work on indie film and related matters, particularly from my book Indiewood, USA onwards. In a nutshell, this suggests that what we consume – or, more particularly, that from which we take pleasure in consuming – is shaped by our cultural background, particularly by the resources of cultural capital that we acquire, primarily through education and family background. The pleasurable consumption of material that’s ascribed a ‘higher’ position in cultural hierarchies is premised largely upon the sense of distinction it gives to the consumer: a feeling of superiority over those who consume more ‘lowly’ material, as well as a more positive pleasure in the activation of stored up reserves of cultural capital (all that learning about such things that makes them more accessible and that might seem like a waste of time if not given the chance to be shown off).

But the status of particular material can change, or its associations can shift from one iteration to another. The hierarchies in which cultural/artistic goods are located are enormously powerful and often appear unchanging – think, for example, of the enduringly ‘high’ position occupied by major names from classical music, literature, painting, and so on, and the institutional forms through which these are maintained. But the same source material can come to occupy a different position when combined with other associations.

So, I’ve been very pleasurably consuming the TV series of Game of Thrones, something I would not really have expected. How come? Certain pragmatic factors led me actually to experience the text in this case. My eldest is also a big fan of the books. She’s very bright and literate, but a product I’d consider rather lowly of this kind seems entirely fine to me as ‘relaxation’ reading for someone who’s still in their mid-teens (very different from my taste-hirearchical judgement of its suitability for an adult!). We bought the TV series as a birthday present and needed to watch it, at the start, at least, to make sure it was age-suitable. It sort-of, just about is, but we (the whole family) were grabbed by it and have kept watching.

I’d quite wanted to give it a go before this particular family-based factor came into play, despite my disparaging view of the source material. This wasn’t because I’d become less hidebound, but because the TV series – as opposed to the books – possesses certain ‘markers of quality’ that elevate its position in the prevailing cultural hierarchy. Most of all, and most influential as an up-front factor, is the brand with which it’s associated: HBO, the cable channel that has become a watch-word for what’s known in academic circles as ‘quality TV’ – that is, TV that aspires to a status superior to that usually associated with the medium. The HBO label creates associations with series such as The Sopranos and The Wire, programming that generates its own higher cultural standing through the associations it establishes in turn with qualities such as the ‘literary’ (complexity, nuance, depth of character, etc.). So, yes, Game of Thrones, can go surfing upwards in the cultural hierarchy and reaches a threshold at the point of which I’m quite happy to give it a go (rather than feeling like I’m doing this for reasons of ‘duty’ and with a sense of cultural slumming). And it does fit the bill quite well and has other signifiers of quality such as lots of good actors (lots of British performers, which also, in the US-media context, is usually a signifier of quality, if often mixed with that tendency to cast Brits as villains).

And, er, it also seems to be quite well written. Is the good writing from the TV series itself or from the book, I have to ask, somewhat anxiously, and am assured that it’s from the books, which is of course a disappointment to me. Not that I’m going to read them. I mean, they’re just too long – and I already know the key plot elements of the ones the TV series has covered and don’t want foreknowledge of those which haven’t yet been reached, do I? So I can safely leave the books alone. Not at all because they just wouldn’t feel right to me, of course. Maybe the shift up the hierarchy could carry the books along with it, but I somehow don’t think I’m going to put that to the test…

It is a useful exercise to see how these kinds of patterns shape our own personal tastes. I fully understand the wider social context and processes involved. They’re a core element in my current academic work, something I’ll write about more in future (a book contract is in the offing). But that doesn’t stop them still coursing through my own individual experiences in a manner that isn’t subject to personal control. I could make myself read the books, of course. But somehow I think I’ll find even more excuses not to. All those other books awaiting on my shelves, for example. And those ones are clearly superior – aren’t they?

 

 

 

 

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