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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Indie 2.0 cover design

Now got a cover design for my new book, Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film, due out early next year:

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‘How to fake being an indie auteur’: indie and the notion of the contrived

I like this tongue-in cheek article from Suzanne Ballantyne, head of programming of the Raindance Film Festival: How to Fake Being An Indie Auteur part one and part two. It’s a witty satire of a number of indie cliches, but painfully close enough to the reality also to provide quite a useful portrait of a number of established indie qualities.

As Ballantyne suggests: ‘This is not about how to make Hollywood films, made-for-tv films or even low budget films. This is not about making films whose purpose is to entertain. This is about a different species altogether – the indie auteur film, short or long – the darling of the latest “it” festival – with city names likes Gotenburg, Hamburg, Kerala and Rotterdam in their title. The kind of film that press people, pretentious programmers, art house proprietors and film academians piss themselves for. The kind of film that might just launch your career.’

How could anyone resist (even an ‘academian’, if that’s what I am; not a term I’ve come across before)? Advice ranges from the style and content of the film (e.g. minimal dialogue, ‘wafer-thin’ plot but retold from several perspectives to add an impression of weight) to PR strategies including advice to flirt with junior festival programmers, journalists and bouncers at parties – but at all costs to avoid business cards because: ‘There’s no way any self-respecting indie auteur should appear to have put such forethought into his career).’

This is more evidence, some might argue, to support the suggestion that ‘indie’ has become little more than a cliche by now, something that’s become contrived or deliberately manufactured, rather than just an umbrella term for a variety of non-mainstream feature production. I’d still argue against that view in general, as I do in my forthcoming book (yes, another plug!), Indie 2.0.

Indie can become a contrivance in some cases, for sure. But I think it would be wrong ever to reduce it only to that, as there’s still plenty of striking work being produced – and even, sometimes, making it to audiences – that’s much more than the sum of some of the more consistently identifiable traits. I finally got around to seeing Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse a couple of nights ago, for instance, an example that demonstrates that he’s still got interesting new places to go, even while still dealing with characters that seem familiar inhabitants of his fictional universe. I haven’t unpacked all my thoughts on that one yet, but the way the film embraces aspects of dream and fantasy – alongside the predictably uncomfortable nature of his protagonists – seems very fresh.

The act of identifying elements of contrivance – generally or in particular cases – often occurs within a discursive context that’s really about the implicit articulation of some more ‘pure’ realm of indie (or ‘independence’, often the preferred term here) that’s untainted by such fabrications. This division might stand up to some extent and in some cases. But the reality tends to be a good deal more complex and multi-faceted than such oppositions suggest.

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Indie strategies: Cheesecake Casserole

Always interesting to read accounts of particular strategies that have enabled indie films to get made and out into distribution, particularly in these difficult times. See for example co-writer and producer Jamie Stein’s account of the production and distribution of the coming-of-age comedy Cheesecake Casserole on Cultural Weekly.

Examples such as this show how much remains unchanged in recent decades as far as some of the best ways to get a low-budget indie film together are concerned, particularly the basic strategy of designing the work around sources of budgetary limitation. In this case, a source story that spanned a whole college year was squeezed into a single weekend, which made a virtue out of the fact that only a single main location was available. A less familiar element of this production story, though, is the importance Stein attributes to the fact that it was decided to hire a proper casting director for the production – not something always very high on the spending list of indies. The benefit was that the filmmakers gained access to ‘a wide middle-ground of professional, working actors who have name recognition and also a willingness to build their body of work by taking a chance on independent features.’ This rather than relying on unknowns or reaching for big names who are unlikely to be interested. A deal was done according to which the size of payment to the casting director was contingent on the scale of those cast, which reduced initial costs and made them proportionate to the real value brought to the production.

Other dimensions of the strategy further confirm some of the basics, such as the fact that actors (here, in Los Angeles) really are hungry for decent roles – thus the benefit of writing parts that will appeal to actors and making this a priority in scripting rather than aiming for eye-catching gimmicks. There’s also some useful material about sales online and by DVD. Details of how to access the film are available here.

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New move towards equity in crowdfunding

Attempts by the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to enable funders to gain an equity stake in projects to which they contribute have taken a step forward in an announcement by its co-found Danae Ringelmann that it might introduce such a possibility for projects located overseas if they continue to remain illegal in the US, as reported here by the business/tech focused blog GigaOm.

A key feature of crowdfunding ventures at present, on Indiegogo or other major platforms such as Kickstarter, is that donor payments don’t have the status of investments in projects. That is, the donors don’t own any part of the project. This makes the whole process much simpler and more informal in many respects, which is part of the appeal of crowdfunding for many in the indie community, without the legal ramifications that might otherwise result – but it also limits the potential of this means of fund-raising, which has gained increased traction in low-budget indie film in recent years.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has this week delayed its consideration of new rules that would change the law, as part of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (or JOBS) Act – see here for a report on this by Reuters. The law passed Congress but concerns have apparently been voiced by regulators, including senior figures at the SEC.

Ringelmann is reported by GigaOm as saying Indiegogo ‘may use its global footprint to sidestep the issue in some cases’, already having a more international focus than Kickstarter. But she suggests that the practice will remain a ‘fundamentally social’ rather than a transactional experience.

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LES festival guide to filmmaking on the cheap

Nothing wildly original, but a brief guide to low-budget production is provided by the LES Film Festival, a new showcase on New York’s Lower East Side for films costing $200,000 or less. Unsurprisingly, good writing and actors are seen as key priorities. Also includes a comic ‘map’ of factors that might determine whether or not applicants are likely to be accepted for the event.

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