Companion to American Indie Film out soon; plus Indie Reframed

A new collection I’ve edited, A Companion to American Indie Film is out soon from Wiley Blackwell (due 6 December). I’m really pleased with the way this has worked out. You can read the intro and find a full list of chapters and contributors on this site here.

final cover

The aim of this collection, for me, was to offer a more concerted approach to the territory than is the norm for many edited collections. That’s always quite hard to pull off, given the various different orientations and interests of any group of contributors, but I think it does generally succeed in this (it starts with an emphasis on broader aspects of indie culture before examining various individual manifestations that can be situated within these kinds of frameworks). I am, of course, hugely grateful to all of those who have contributed. Editing any collection can be quite a slog, and this one is larger than usual (more than 500 pages), but it went really smoothly and has been more of a pleasure than I’d expected.

The only downside is that the book’s eye-wateringly expensive: just under £125 in the UK for the Kindle edition ($152 in the US), with the hardback going to be even more. So looks like a library-only prospect for now.

It’s clearly the season for indie collections, as my book is joined by the excellent Indie Reframed: Women’s Filmmaking and Contemporary American Independent Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, Claire Perkins and Michele Schreiber (Edinburgh University Press). This is the first volume to address the specific role of women in the indie sector in a sustained manner. I’m delighted to be one of the contributors, details of all of which are available here.

cover from amazon

Nice to see also that this one is immediately available in paperback at an affordable price (not exactly cheap at £25), something that seems ever-rarer these days. I haven’t had the chance to read all the chapters yet but this looks like a really useful addition to the field (and I love the cover image).

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Interview – in Portuguese

There’s a quite lengthy interview about indie film I’ve done for a Portuguese film website available below – although it’s in Portuguese, so might not be accessible to many!

Geoff King: “o interesse da noção de independência resulta de ser algo sempre contestável”

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Quality Hollywood cover

The final cover has now been agreed for my new book, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film, which of course necessitates a plug! Will update when it hits the shops, which shouldn’t be too far away.

Quality Hollywood

Below is the cover blurb. A slightly longer and more personal description of the book is available on its new entry in the list of my works in these pages, here.

What defines ‘quality’ in contemporary Hollywood film? Although often seen as inhospitable to such work, the studios of the blockbuster-franchise era continue to produce features that make claims to higher status. Films such as The Social Network, The Assassination of Jesse James and Mystic River are marked as distinctive from the mainstream norm. But how exactly, and how are such qualities mixed with more familiar Hollywood ingredients, as found in larger doses in other examples such as Blood Diamond and the blockbuster-scale Inception?
Quality Hollywood is the first book to address these issues, featuring close analysis of case study films, critical responses and the wider notions of cultural value on which these draw. Geoff King argues that such films retain a presence as a minority strand of studio output. The reasons for this combine factors relating to economics, the power of certain filmmakers and Hollywood’s investment in its own prestige.

I’m grateful for Prof. Tom Schatz for providing a kind endorsement for the cover, as follows:

With Quality Hollywood, Geoff King provides yet another astute assessment of contemporary cinema and contemporary culture. In incisive case studies of films such as Inception and The Social Network, King demonstrates how issues of authorship, style and storytelling still matter – and how quality filmmaking has somehow persisted – in the current age of formulaic blockbusters and dumbed-down billion-dollar franchises.
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Chantal Akerman

Sad to hear of the death of Chantal Akerman. Her films constitute a major contribution to and influence on international art cinema, particularly in its minimalist realist strands. They’re also an obvious reference point for some types of indie films that lean in such a direction. I can’t do better than to offer a link to a tribute on the excellent Film Studies for Free website.

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A balanced account of ‘quality’ in Hollywood – and a shameless plug!

Here’s something of a novelty, a journalistic piece about contemporary Hollywood that for once adopts a balanced approach to the subject of whether or not the studios still make any of the kinds of films that are still critically lauded for broad notions of ‘quality’ status. I’m referring to a ‘state of the industry’ piece in The New York Times by its two main critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O.Scott, one which expresses plenty of personal reservations about the nature of many Hollywood films but that combines this with a more than usually level-headed approach to the picture overall.

Normal journalistic practice is to exaggerate this kind of ‘trend-spotting’ – either to proclaim the death of such films, or to express wonder when a few seem to come along at the same time. The truth is, indeed, that there’s very much more continuity than is suggested in that kind of reporting.

Which, of course, brings me on to the subject of my new book (surely not a plug?), which is due out soon, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film. The argument about the continuity of production of what are defined as ‘quality’ films is something I make here, along with digging down quite a lot into what exactly is meant by a term such as ‘quality’, one that, in this use, entails a particular kind of position in a prevailing hierarchy of value, and how exactly this tends to be manifested in studio features. More news on this soon, including the cover, once the text on the back page has been finalised.

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marketing departments in film and academic publishing

I’m working on a new book project that’s an analysis of the various ways in which art cinema is positioned as something of special cultural value. Among various other perspectives, I’m considering the marketing of such films. While marketing devices – posters, trailers, etc. – often include elements designed to highlight the particular quality of such films, they also have a habit of being, well, less than entirely honest. A common tendency is to ‘bend’ the way a film is presented towards the commercial mainstream. That is, to single out components that are most commercial in nature, to obscure ones that aren’t, and so on. This happens to various degrees, some subtle some very misleading.


An example that leans more towards the the latter is one trailer for Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (A londoni férfi, 2007) for the English-language market (see below) which cunningly included only English-language dialogue from the film – which is a tiny proportion of the whole. Surely not a deliberate intention to mislead? Er, yes, it seems so, although other aspects of the trailer do emphasise the more distinctive qualities of Tarr’s work.


It came as something of a heavy irony to me, then, when one publisher I’d approached with this project was unprepared to take it on with my original title – because their marketing department didn’t like it (and it’s not something wildly obscure). The title made this clearly primarily academic book seem ‘too academic’, I was told. That is, it accurately reflected the nature of the book. Sort of like accurately reflecting the nature of one of the films it’s about. Rather than trying to grab a wider audience by being a little bit misleading. So, yes, very ironic, I thought (and I’ll be taking it elsewhere as a result).

Further irony – and another link between film marketing and this kind of publication – is something else I’ve encountered in my work on this project so far. One book that I’m looking at as an example of a particular academic way of positioning such films has endorsements on the back cover filled with the kind of hype usually associated with Hollywood trailers: the ‘in a world where…’ variety that could be imagined being voiced in familiar trailer intonation. So, there seem to be some interesting parallels here, which suggest that we’re all part of the same broader world of media-cultural production of one kind or another, governed to varying degrees by bottom-line commercial considerations. Maybe this is inevitable but it’s never quite been driven home so clearly to me as in these instances.

In cases such as my book title and trailers such as that for The Man from London, there seems to be an attempt to reach a wider audience than that for which the product is designed. This seems somewhat pointless, to me. I’m not convinced that burying the real focus in a subtitle is going to make any great difference to who is going to buy one of my books, any more than playing games with which aspects of a film to foreground in a trailer is really going to fool anyone – and if it does, it’s likely only to cause poor word-of-mouth reception from those who feel tricked.

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Two new indie collections

Just wanted to give a mention to two new edited collections either about or relevant to American indies (OK, I’m also plugging the fact that I’ve got an essay in each of them!).

Possible Films cover

First is US Independent Film After 1989: Possible Films, edited by Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis, from Edinburgh UP. This collection differs from most in having a particular focus on single-film chapters about generally smaller and lesser-known indies. My contribution is a chapter on Primer, which I see as in many ways a model example of the ultra-low-budget first-time indie feature. Haven’t got around to reading the rest yet, but it looks like a very useful addition to the literature.

Media Independence cover

The other is a volume with a broader focus on independence across the media, Media Independence: Working with Freedom or Working for Free?, edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange. My chapter in this is, unsurprisingly, about American indie film, but I’ve tried also to situate it within some of the broader dimensions of media independence around which the book is organized. Other chapters range across a wide variety of media terrain and dimensions of independence.

One annoying feature of both books, however, is that they’re out initially only in hardback at eye-watering prices (£75 and £85 respectively – also Kindle edition for Bennett and Strange, but that’s £80) that seem designed to exploit academic libraries, which are their only remotely likely buyers at that extortionate rate. Hate this policy of some publishers, which prevents any normal individual from buying such titles when they come out. My inclination is not to order for my university library until out in paperback, to avoid complicity in such a rip-off.

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Sovereign Masculinity

Just finished a terrific book on issues relating to gender and American culture, particularly in relation to the so-called’ ‘war on terror’: Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror, by Bonnie Mann (Oxford UP, 2014). Mann offers a very convincing reading of the role of gender, especially as it functions as an underpinning discourse in American foreign policy and notions of the American state, in a book that ranges widely – starting with perspectives on the nature of gender rooted particularly in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and including readings of a number of films, including The Hurt Locker. It’s hard to do it justice in a brief review-ette, but I’d really recommend this for anyone seeking to dig into some of the underlying institutionalised discourses that play a huge part in shaping American policies, as well as the way they’re manifested in films.

sovereign masculinity cover

Mann begins with a very useful way of characterising the status of gender more generally, something that fits with the way I’ve recently being trying to put this in a chapter I’m writing for a collection about indie films by women filmmakers. What she stresses is what she, as a feminist philosopher, terms the ‘ontological weight’ of gender (as what I’d see as a social construct): an approach that avoids reducing gender to some notion of fixed biological essence while also seeing it as much more substantial, in its daily impact on our lives, that any construct that can easily be wished away.

The way this works in American culture, Mann suggests, involves a process of reassertion of national/sovereign masculinity through the denigration of women and all that is associated with them – including various forms of macho foreign policy posing. One of her central examples is the treatment of prisoners in the likes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, a process of sexualised shaming against which the constructed edifice of American/male power is articulated. If GW Bush represents one cartoon version of this – cowboy-style moronic direct action – Mann finds different aspects of the same syndrome in the positioning of Obama as more rational ‘father’ figure (and rampant deployer of murderous drones).

A book of real substance and depth, combined with a strong sense of outrage against the impact such discursive framings have upon the world.


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Indiewood riding high in Oscar nominations

Whatever assorted rows and debates might accompany this year’s Oscar nominations, they demonstrate again the continued strength of the Indiewood and indie sectors as far as scoring well in these commercially valuable prestige stakes is concerned. The nominees can be seen as representative of pretty much the full spectrum of commercially distributed contemporary indie/Indiewood film.

Birdman poster

Fully  half of the eight nominees for best picture are or were distributed by studio speciality divisions: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman for Fox Searchlight; The Theory of Everything for Focus Features; Whiplash for Sony Pictures Classics. Two more were distributed by established indie players, the relatively ambitious The Weinstein Company (seeking to handle very Indiewood type titles) with The Imitation Game and the smaller-scale oriented IFC with Boyhood. That left just two studio main division releases among the nominees,  American Sniper from Warner and Selma from Paramount, although the latter is an independent production with subject matter of the kind that might often be associated with Indiewood.

theory of everything poster

Overall, this is also a pretty typical bunch of candidates, although leaning towards the independent end of the spectrum a bit more than average – with the exception of the distinctly one-dimensional (and reactionary) American Sniper. Why that film could be rated as an example of ‘quality’ even within the studio context is something of a mystery to me (I’d struggle to find any way to include it on the basis of any of its textual qualities in the notions of ‘quality’ I’ve explored in my new book Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film, which is due out in the Autumn).  Otherwise, we have an obligatory dose of solid historical-biopic-worthy drama (as so often, with the quality patina of British historical settings), plus the similarly historical-worthy territory of Selma. Then a dash of  mid-market Indiewood titles and the two remaining indies, one more distinctly original in conception than usual.

Boyhood poster

What might we conclude from this? That not much changes here very greatly from year to year, despite some shifts of emphasis. But also, again, that the remaining studio speciality divisions continue to triumph in this arena, despite the number of times it seems to have been suggested by some commentators that this part of the sector’s days are numbered.

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Happy Endings and markers of distinction

Indie films often mark their difference from the Hollywood mainstream through their resistance to the kinds of happy endings associated with studio films. That Hollywood films always have, or have had, such endings, or that they are as simplistic and/or socially conservative as has often been assumed, is questioned, however, in an excellent new book by James MacDowell, Happy Endings in Hollywood: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple (Edinburgh University Press, currently only in hardback but due out in paper in December).

happy endings cover

MacDowell’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the happy ending – as it is often characterised – does not exist. Hollywood often employs happy endings, but these are, specifically, plural in nature, and variable in character along numerous axes, he suggests, rather than conforming to the kind of singular Platonic ideal (an ideal generally denigrated in critical commentary) that is often implied. In fact, he argues, the exact nature of happy endings has rarely been examined in detail, so familiar is the notion of the form as a negative point of reference. To correct this, in a valuable contribution to films studies on several fronts, he demonstrates the existence of varying forms and degrees of ‘happiness’ and ‘ending’ in Hollywood, via a study that focuses particularly on these issues as they apply to the formation of the final couple in the genres of romantic melodrama and romantic comedy (along the way, he offers valuable consideration of a number of dimensions of film study more generally, including issues relating to the ideological implications, or otherwise, of textual features of this kind).

That non-Hollywood films should mark their distinctive character through denial of what is associated with the clichéd Hollywood version is actually little affected by this argument. The whole point is often to mark difference rhetorically from that which is associated with the mainstream, rather than necessarily from a closely examined notion of the latter. In its general currency as a cultural topos and reference point, MacDowell suggests, the notion of the Hollywood happy ending is precisely a taken-for-granted assumption – exactly the kind of assumption against which alternative forms are often defined or celebrated. For all its sins, one of the fates of Hollywood is often to be subjected to over-simplified criticism. The notion of the clichéd happy ending is one of many ways in which studio films – either individually or collectively – are often accused of degrees of aesthetic crudeness, standardisation or simplicity that are far from always substantiated by close analysis. It is one of many ways in which a notion of ‘the mainstream’ is constructed discursively, as a negative point of reference for other kinds of cinema.

This is part of a much broader process through which notions of ‘art’ and other forms of ‘higher’ culture – including, potentially, art and indie film – are articulated on the basis of the denigration of  other forms, those relegated in prevailing cultural hierarchies to ‘lower’ or ‘popular’ status. This underlying basis of the manner in which forms such as indie film are attributed cultural value is one in which I’ve become increasingly interested and is very much to the fore in the book I’m currently about to finish, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film (due out from I.B.Tauris in 2015). Hollywood itself contains a strand of films that mark themselves out as ‘superior’ to the studio norm, in culturally-hierarchical terms – the kinds of films likely to be on display in the coming months, during the build-up to next year’s major awards season. One key dimension of these can be an inclusion of less-than-entirely happy endings.

As MacDowell suggests, a dominant critical tendency has been only to consider non-happy endings in the context of what amounts to an active subversion of the norm. His argument is that the situation is much less black-and-white; that endings that depart from the fullest sense of the ‘happy’ need not clearly be marked as ‘alternative’ or ‘subversive’ but that the Hollywood ending itself contains a great deal of variety. It’s notable, though, that some of the examples he considers in these terms are marked by their location outside the Hollywood mainstream – principally, the Indiewood, speciality division, release Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and the more fully independent Shortbus (2006) – the latter, unsurprisingly, the most radical in the gender politics of its collective happy ending. What MacDowell demonstrates most convincingly, however, is that, despite differences than can be mapped, in this way, in terms of position across the industrial spectrum, a wide variety of nuances can still be found even within solidly studio productions and even, to a substantial extent, within those of the classical era made under the restrictive aegis of the production code.

The moral for those who study indie films (or others that mark themselves out as different from a notion of the mainstream, whether within Hollywood or in more radical forms of art cinema) is to beware of partaking in over-simplified characterisations of the Hollywood point of comparison. The manner in which such characterisations are discursively formulated more widely within our culture, however, and the historical roots of this, is a topic worth of further study, one key manifestation of which is very effectively identified in this book.


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