Irony enters the soul

As Hollywood gets dumber, Adam Mars-Jones escapes to Barcelona and the pleasures of the new American cinema
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The Independent Culture
Once upon a time, an American "independent" film was likely to offer darker, fiercer pleasures than a Hollywood product. Narrative might be fractured, and taboo subjects confronted more directly. But now all that haschanged: now the fringe is mild er than the mainstream. While Pulp Fiction, with narrative fractures aplenty and a narcissistic extremism of subject matter, makes a killing at the box-office, the new independent film-makers like Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman - whose excellent second fi lm Barcelona opens this week - go quietly about their business.

It is only in the work of these independents that you are likely to find the things squeezed out of mainstream projects by the tyranny of the big budget, and the resulting compulsion to strap a special-effects pod or a violence module on to more or less any screenplay. There is irony here for one thing, a quizzical cast of mind inherently congenial to British taste (unless we feel that we should not, as a matter of policy, be importing irony while surplus stocks of domestic irony lie in warehouses across the EC).

Strangely enough, it is only in the presence of irony that idealism can properly be considered, so that an unironical film like Forrest Gump ends up unwinkingly offering America a national identity of benign idiocy. When huge audiences in a superpower really want to be told that they may be dumb but they mean well - and dumb is the true smart anyways - then we'd better hope the film-makers are laughing behind their hands. And if they aren't, that sacred duty falls to us.

Another subject that the independent films have the luxury of treating without compulsory distortion is sex. Sex need not be oversold or trivialised, drooled over or spat on or both at the same time. It is even possible, in these films, for grown-up people still to be baffled in a low-key way by the basic workings of attraction. The stiff but vulnerable males, in particular, in the films of Hartley and Stillman would not survive their first Hollywood script conference.

Film-makers with no designs on the mainstream can also escape the malign effects of the star system. Most film casting these days is thermal casting - actors getting roles on the basis of being "hot", parts being rewritten to suit their heat. The actors in independent films are blessedly free of that known glow. Even in independent films, admittedly, female characters who are referred to as homely are played by actresses who cannot be so described, but if that rule is ever relaxed it will be relaxed here first.

Whit Stillman's first feature, Metropolitan, was an unusually poised comedy about privileged young people in New York, its tone critical but not doctrinaire. Rich kids were not shown to be shits simply by virtue of being rich kids. They had to enact their shittiness or demonstrate its opposite. Barcelona takes the brave step of dealing with Americans abroad, feeling their way in a spectacular but sometimes hostile city, and the rather less brave step of a recent period setting - "The last decade of the Cold War", in fact the early and mid-Eighties.

If there is a fault of the new independent cinema it is quirkiness by numbers. Ted, the hero of Barcelona (Taylor Nichols, bearing some resemblance to our own dear Nigel Havers), is a salesman who takes American business culture on the level of almost religious revelation. Disappointment in love leads him to a more venerable source of advice, "some of it very tough": the Old Testament. In a scene that does not quite come off he starts dancing while reading Ecclesiastes, at first quietly then with increasing abandon, to a Glenn Miller tune. This nerd is trying to come to terms with his inner disco-bunny. Luckily, "Boogie Oogie Oogie" is still considered a happening tune in the dance bars of the city. Into Ted's life bursts Fred (Chris Eigeman), his cousin in the navy, who has been posted to Barcelona in advance of the Sixth Fleet to soothe any tiny international tensions there may be. This is not a good assignment for Fred, who is tactless, malicious and corrosively cynical abut everything but America and its armed forces. The idealistic businessman and the twisted patriot were good friends for a while when they were 10 years old, but that was before Fred borrowed Ted's kayak without asking, and sank it.

The pleasures of Barcelona are largely in the dialogue, which is memorably witty and resourceful. Ted tells Fred that Spanish women are promiscuous and Fred calls him a prig. Ted explains that he was not using "promiscuous" in a pejorative sense, and Fred replies that he was not using "prig" in a pejorative sense. Even here the dialogue touches on a serious theme of the film: whether it is ever possible to perceive without prejudging. The Spaniards in the film judge America on the basis of bad fast-food burgers and reported crime statistics, and are not enthusiastic.

This tension is resolved on the level of romantic comedy, and turned into a positive advantage. Spanish women with American lovers see their men's virtues as specific to them, their bad habits as national vices, and so misunderstanding makes for better understanding. Not everything in Barcelona quite works - its melodrama quotient is somewhat higher than Metropolitan's and the film comes to something of a halt with a vigil round a hospital bed. But it is still a bit of a triumph set against the extremesof cynicism and disengenuousness that are now the rule in Hollywood - the simultaneous popification and Gumpification of modern American cinema.

n On release from Friday