Film: How indie movies lost the plot

Cruel, cold and sexually graphic, the latest crop of US independents betray a great tradition. Shame on them.
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The Independent Culture
The relationship between mainstream and independent cinema in America is a complex and shifting one. Sometimes they're like classmates from very different backgrounds, with the rich dumb kid sneering during school hours and then turning up late at night on the wrong side of the tracks, throwing pebbles at the window of the poor smart kid and begging for help with homework. And sometimes they're like siblings from the same dysfunctional family, one desperate to be liked and unable to make friends, the other perpetually scowling and setting fire to waste-paper baskets.

We're all familiar with the conventions of the Hollywood movie, the sheer level of contrivance, the targeting of adolescent values, the way issues are raised and then shelved. But there can be conventions to the independent film also, so that supposedly personal visions are constructed according to a set of rules. The result, typically, is a film that reverses the despised formulas of Hollywood, without having any superior contact with reality.

Evidence for this is supplied by the second films of two writer-directors whose debut work was acclaimed: Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute. Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, which won the 1996 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, told the story of Dawn Wiener, a homely, unpopular girl at a junior high school. Essentially this was a suburban version of "The Ugly Duckling" without the transformation (a false Dawn) and though Solondz's determination to avoid a happy ending was admirable in its way, he offered nothing that could take its place.

Neil LaBute's no-less-feted first feature, In the Company of Men, took a simple situation and followed it through: two businessmen conspire to worm their way into the affections of a deaf co-worker, raising her hopes to dump her with maximum destructive effect as a way of revenging themselves in the abstract for the damage supposedly done by women to men on a routine basis.

There was a plot twist of sorts - the nastier of the men is also trying to destroy his male colleague - but no let-up in the misanthropy. If there is really such a thing as the writer's writer or the designer's designer, then Chad, played by Aaron Eckhart, was the bastard's bastard, both entirely psychotic and perfectly functional. Chad was offered up to an audience's hatred like no character in the movies since Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

The psychology in LaBute's film was no less sensationalist than in Adrian Lyne's, but the critics took In the Company of Men at the director's valuation and found in it an unflinching exploration of the dark side of the male psyche.

LaBute's second film, Your Friends and Neighbors, aspires to a larger range, with a cast of three men and three women, and the subject is sexual rather than emotional manipulation, but the tone is familiar. At the beginning of the film we're presented with two couples in bed, either wrangling or failing to communicate. What is shocking, given that neither pairing has enough in common to justify a shared cappuccino, let alone a one-night stand, is that these jarringly incompatible people are supposed to be established couples. Labute posits a ludicrous situation, and then develops it with what we are intended to see as rigour. But to draw grotesque conclusions from a grotesque premiss is not an achievement so much as a law of logic. From a grotesque premiss no other sort of conclusion can be drawn.

In 20 years' time, people will watch Your Friends and Neighbors and ask, My God, was sex really like that then?, not realising that the question is unrhetorical, and that its answer is No.

The level of observation in the film is low to non-existent. For instance, the men in the film want to talk during sex, carrying on their seductive arias right up to the moment of orgasm, while the women want silence, one because she's interested only in the basic mechanics of pleasure, another because despite being a journalist she flinches from four-letter words. Sound familiar? I doubt it.

In the film's most emptily provocative sequence, Jason Patric's character (obvious heir to Chad in the earlier film), when asked to describe his supreme sexual experience, reveals that it was when he and some friends raped a boy from their high school for revenge. He romanticises the assault, as if there were deep communication within violation. It has never been like that with a woman, or so he says - and yet he has never doubted his heterosexuality. The camera meanwhile slowly zooms in on his handsome face, as if this were the sequence in a Hollywood movie where a character thinks back to the summer when they were eight, their dog got ran over, and nothing was ever the same again. It's a retread of a Company of Men theme, the hollowly scary notion that psychotics can be well-adjusted at the same time. Yes, and cannibals are often vegetarians.

Any claims that Your Friends and Neighbors can make to providing a portrait of modern mores are supplied by that flatly generalising title, and by the annoying way that none of the characters call each other by name - as if no other effort were required to make them representative.

Todd Solondz's follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse is less mechanical than Your Friends and Neighbors, although it shares a certain hatefulness. The screenplay is something of a mess, but then mainstream and independent films differ sharply in the way scripts are developed. Before a screenplay can be accepted for production by a major studio, it is likely to have had so many nips and tucks that any original features are all but obliterated. A writer-director, on the other hand, one who has received a prize for his first film, is unlikely to take a script to a doctor even if it has broken bones and internal injuries.

The structure of Happiness seems to be a numb variant on Hannah and her Sisters - except that Woody Allen knew better than to make a film 140 minutes long. The sisters are a shy and unsuccessful singer-songwriter, a glamorous but secretly self-hating poet, and a housewife and mother who thinks of herself as the lucky one, the one who has it all.

The plot of the film is a succession of humiliating or degrading encounters and revelations. The singer-songwriter has a disastrous date with a man who then, after her rejection, kills himself. The poet, dissatisfied by the bimbo sexual athletes her celebrity brings her, seeks an encounter with a maker of abusive phone calls, but finds him too tame. The housewife discovers that her husband has been drugging and raping their 11-year- old son's classmates. The trademark act of sex in this film seems to take place between a conscious and an unconscious party (an obese woman brokenly caressing a dead-drunk man, for instance, before he comes to and throws her out) - necrophilia without the sincerity.

The big scene in Happiness, counterpart of the romantic rape-reminiscence in Your Friends and Neighbors, shows young Billy asking his father what exactly his father did to those boys, whether he'd do it again, whether he'd do it to Billy. All very heart-rending - except that America is hardly a country where accused paedophile rapists are left alone to have heart- rending conversations with their sons.

The last scene of Happiness demonstrates that a work of art can remain inert even while doggedly breaking taboos. Little Billy achieves his first ejaculation on the balcony, while watching a sunbathing neighbour rub herself with cream. The family dog licks up this offering from the railing where it has landed, and Billy's mother promptly nuzzles the affectionate animal, unaware of the freight on its tongue.

The mission statement of the independent film is to explore areas from which the mainstream excludes itself. These days, it's true, that's not so easy. The look of independent film is no longer as immediately identifiable as it used to be in the days when the starkness and intimacy of every frame marked the films of John Cassavetes as an antidote and a reproach to Hollywood gloss. These days a mainstream film may affect rough edges of technique, and technical breakthroughs in affordable equipment mean that even low-budget films don't need to look raw unless they want to. Nor is it necessarily subject matter that sets independents apart. Even the male fluid used in Happiness featured in The Silence of the Lambs (flung at Jodie Foster by a prison inmate), and last year's There's Something About Mary proved, if nothing else, that visual jokes about semen need not put people off their popcorn.

The thing that American independents still do well is to portray intimate relationships without romanticism or reflexive cynicism. The men and women in a film by Whit Stillman or Hal Hartley are engaged in mating dances and rituals that are shot through with awkwardness and uncertainty. Behaviour that in Hollywood would be the province only of minor characters is moved from the edges to the centre.

It's this that makes films such as Your Friends and Neighbors and Happiness, with their callow determination to be unflinching in matters of sex, seem like betrayals of their tradition rather than merely failures. A reaction against cosmetic prettiness produces merely cosmetic ugliness, and the hollow "heartwarmingness" of Hollywood is answered by a faux nihilism for which there is no excuse.

`Happiness' is released 16 April