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Indie jones
In the wake of Star Wars, can serious cinema strike back?

Last week, the world’s most successful independent filmmaker opened his latest movie in 3661 theaters; it grossed a record-setting $158.5 million in its first four days of domestic release. Next week, one of America’s most respected independent filmmakers will open his new film at the Brattle Theatre. There are five prints in release.

You might say there’s a big gap between George Lucas and Hal Hartley, but there are some similarities as well. Both filmmakers have total control over the production and distribution of their product. Both have inspired imitation. And both Star Wars and Hartley’s new The Girl from Monday are science-fiction epics that reflect both the world outside and the world of the filmmaking process.

Lucas, of course, has had the greater impact. The success of the original Star Wars in 1977 made the blockbuster the model for the film industry. Whether he meant to or not, he all but eliminated the individual creator from the film-production process. High concept, special effects, corporate marketing, and merchandising replaced inspiration, originality, and artistry. Corporate profiteering, like the Evil Empire, threatened to wipe out the force of individual creativity.

As in his film, though, pockets of resistance remained. Independents staged a comeback in the late ’80s. Films like Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape and independent studios like Miramax led the charge. In 1996, all five Oscar Best Picture nominations were more or less independent productions.

Now, a decade later, the direction of independent filmmaking has gone at best Sideways. Most of the indie studios have folded or been sucked up by the majors, who have learned that if you can’t beat them, then let them join you. Miramax’s troubled marriage with Disney has ended in a messy divorce, and the newly single studio’s future, to judge from its upcoming release schedule, is uncertain.

Still, there’s hope in the resurgence of independent filmmakers at Cannes this year. Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, starring indie favorite Bill Murray, won the festival’s second-highest honor, the Grand Prix. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days earned critical acclaim. Whether American audiences will get to see these films is another matter. Anne Thompson in the Hollywood Reporter reported that the studios showed little enthusiasm. "They’re challenging," says Mark Urman of ThinkFilm, one of the few remaining independent distributors. "And people don’t want to be challenged to the degree they used to be."

Hal Hartley, for one, seems undaunted by opening in the wake of the latest Lucas juggernaut, even though his film’s $300,000 budget is probably less than that of a single Star Wars Burger King ad. Neither does he expect to recoup even that amount very soon. "Maybe I should have Girl from Monday action figures," he quips.

Nonetheless, he has his audience, which has responded to his deadpan irony and his knack for recording the surreal absurdity of the everyday in such films as Amateur (1994) and Henry Fool (1997). With his most recent effort, No Such Thing (2001), he might have overreached. An ambitious "horror" film set in Iceland it, it did not meet the expectations of the distributor, MGM/UA. Hartley found himself afterward with diminished commercial credibility and fewer financial resources.

But he had an idea. He had long been annoyed by ads using classic rock-and-roll songs to sell SUVs and the like. "I heard the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ playing over a Nike commercial," he recalls. "There seemed something wrong about that. Overhearing people’s casual conversations with each other, I notice how everyone’s saying the same things. People give the impression that they’re expressing themselves individually, but they’re all talking like some character on a popular sit-com. We feel like we’re being flattered all the time for being original, but in fact we’re all just buying into the same things."

He started writing a story about a not-so-future dystopia where a "revolution" has imposed a "dictatorship of the consumer" overseen by MMM, an all-powerful corporation. It’s Lucas’s Evil Empire, except this time the enemy is much like the system that Lucas represents. A small band of "terrorists" resist, abetted by visitors from another galaxy, such as the girl of the title.

To make this film fast and cheap and to achieve its hyper-real style, Hartley used digital technology. Making the film available to viewers proved more difficult. "It’s much less expensive these days to make movies, but distribution is much more conservative, so it’s harder to get films out there. It feels a lot like it did in ’84, when I first came to New York. By ’88, things had totally changed, but I when I first got here, everyone was talking about how movies are not very interesting because you have to pack them with big stars in order to get a film even financed. Well, you hear that same kind of talk now."

This old situation called for new tactics. Hartley decided to do something he had never done before — distribute his new movie himself. "When we finished the film, we realized we had something that was considerably outside the mainstream, and somewhere along the line, the boundary between producing a movie and distributing it dissolved. We’re not making a ton of money. I’m happy we just finished the New York run and the theater made money. We’ll have to sell something like 300,000 to make our money back. I don’t think that’s very likely."

In the meantime, Hartley has left the United States, taking root in Berlin, where he’s preparing for his next film, Fay Grim, a sequel (his first) to Henry Fool. Is Berlin an escape from the dictatorship of the consumer he lampoons in The Girl from Monday?

"I do feel more comfortable in Berlin. They’re more welcoming to the arts, I find. It’s easier to work in Berlin than in the US. But the same sort of consumerist mentality is everywhere. I think there’s an escape in finding smaller communities and having to forgo your participation in popular culture."

Back in Boston, another independent filmmaker also finds support in a smaller community and trying to distribute his films on his own. Andrew Bujalski won critical praise for his first film, Funny Ha Ha (2002), the deceptively simple story of a twentysomething woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life. As it turns out, no distributor has yet figured out what to do with the movie.

"We finished the film way back in 2002," he recalls. "The first public screening we ever did was at the Coolidge Corner in 2002, and from there it traveled around to a bunch of festivals, and I kept thinking that the thing was going to die out. But something would always come along and there’d be some spurt of energy for it. Finally we just decided to jump in whole hog and back this little private self-distribution for the film."

Whole hog, at this point, means two prints. Meanwhile, Bujalski has completed a second film, Mutual Appreciation, which also has been applauded at various festivals (last month it screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston) but as yet has mustered no interest from distributors. Lawrence, a young musician in New York seeks success with a little help from his friends. They fantasize about forming a "cool and inclusive club" of like-minded creative types to support one another and fulfill their dreams.

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Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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