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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