Hollywood Puzzle Films

This is just a shameless plug for a chapter I have in a new book just out, Hollywood Puzzle Films edited by Warren Buckland (a new AFI Film Reader from Routledge). My chapter is one of several on Inception, in which I explore exactly how far the film departs in its puzzling narrative qualities from the Hollywood norm, how far this is balanced by other more mainstream qualities (such as spectacle, action) and how the particular balance of qualities offered by the film can be understood in its specific industrial context – especially the central role played by the writer-director, Christopher Nolan, as a figure with a repute for both indie-sector puzzles and Batman-scale blockbusters.

Hollywood Puzzle Films

Haven’t had a chance to read the rest of it yet, but should be lots of other interesting material on how aspects of the puzzle film – usually associated with the art or indie film sectors – have found their way into some studio films. Full details and to buy from Amazon here (although it’s a bit steep at nearly £30 in paper!)


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Ibsen’s gun, Llewyn Davis and White House Down

An odd mixture of elements, it might seem, but something I wanted to comment on in passing in Inside Llewyn Davis evolved somewhat after a viewing last night of White House Down. Comparing such films might seem a little spurious, given how obviously different they are, but the latter helped for me to underline one of the distinctively indie features of the former.

llewyn davis poster

What I really liked about the new Coen brothers film – and what marks it as distinctly non-mainstream – was its refusal at any stage to turn ‘feel-good’, or even to activate some conventional narrative expectations in relatively small details along the way. A characteristic example of the latter comes when Llewyn is on his way back to New York after a dismal trip to Chicago. Picked up hitchhiking, he’s driving through the night while the owner of his ride sleeps. Out of the window we see a sign for Akron, Ohio, which has been established much earlier as the home of the child from which he has become estranged. We’re encouraged, by classical convention, to expect that he will turn off the highway in that direction – maybe causing some amusing dissent from the occupant of the passenger seat, assuming that he will awake on arrival. But no. The expectation having been triggered, the film simply ignores it and moves on (as well as being a pleasing resistance of the obvious, for those who like such things, this might also be taken as one of many indicators of the character of Llewyn, one of his many seemingly less selfish roads not taken).

In Ibsen terms – from his advice on the construction of the classically structured ‘well-made play’ in Hedda Gabler – the gun is left firmly on the wall (as opposed to the guidance that, ‘if in Act I you have a pistol on the wall, then it must fire in the last act’). Nothing quite so dramatic as a gun appears in Inside Llewyn Davis, of course, but the same principle applies. Some devices activated earlier in the film are sustained later (the cat/s, to at least some extent, although this is also subject to arbitrary dropping during the same road trip) but we can’t be sure that everything will be. The effect is to create the impression of a somewhat less artificially confected world (even if this is only a difference of degree, which it is, rather than anything absolute).

The difference between this and a more thorough employment of classical norms is underlined by a comparison with Roland Emmerich’s latest attempt to trash the White House. White House Down might not be a critical favourite, but it’s a model of classical narrative concision in some key respects. Deploying much the same basic template as Die Hard (1988), with its lone hero (called John and soon stripped down to his vest) taking on a horde of heavily armed goons and psychos from various positions in the inner structures and bowels of a large building, White House Down also resembles its action predecessor in some of its classical narrative economy (one of many examples of evidence for the fact that such features, however much invested also in the spectacular, remain reliably classical in much of their structure).

white house down poster


Early sequences point to a veritable armoury of ‘guns on the wall’ (not literal in this case, although there’s no shortage of noisy weaponry in the film!) that will eventually be wielded. During a tour of the White House in which the central character John Cale (Channing Tatum) is accompanied by his daughter, we are given various details about the location that subsequently come into play (for example, the fact that there are tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool, all of which feature in a car chase during the thick of the action – a first maybe, in having such an action movie staple occur within the White House grounds).

Another seemingly minor detail is reactivated in similar manner, the substance of which marks a point of similarity with the Coen brothers’ film, although the handling is characteristically different. Cale has recently missed a talent show performance by his precocious 11-year-old daughter – a child who, like that of Llewyn, lives with the mother from which he has become estranged. This is a marker of his failure to act properly as a father figure, like Llewyn, but in this kind of treatment such a failure exists primarily in order to be righted. The performance, we are told, involved a display of flag twirling, something not accorded very high status in the narrative. But it is exactly such a routine that is situated as finally helping to save the day in the film, the daughter enacting a similar performance with the presidential standard in order to prevent a climactic levelling of the premises by the air force. In terms of plausibility, this is extremely silly, but the point is that it ‘makes sense’ in that broader way of knitting together a certain kind of self-sufficient narrative fabric. This isn’t even to mention the very obviousness of the fact that Cale, initially refused his dream job in the secret service, is clearly going to demonstrate through the film qualities that will result unquestionably in such an appointment, at the same time creating a unbreakably solid bond with his daughter. That the not taking of the road to Akron in Llweyn Davis signifies a complete refusal to enter into sentimental territory of this kind – even if the outcome might not have been expected to be a positive one – is a marker of just how different such films are in some of their central dynamics.

White House Down, then, solidly fulfils every initial narrative expectation (with room for the odd twist, here the fact that the seemingly most likeable of the other political figures in the diegesis turns out to be one of the bad guys). Llewyn Davis refuses to. Or does it, really? It depends what our expectations are, in such a case. In indie territory, and/or in that of the Coens, we might be encouraged exactly to expect such departures. These still remain matters of degree, however, and Llewyn Davis seems to go further that many indie equivalents in its determination never to accentuate the positive or to pick up or fire the gun. The effect that results remains dependent to a large extent on our sheer familiarity with classical convention, one that long predates its employment in Hollywood.

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Filling the speciality gaps?

Interesting to see who is stepping in to fill some of the gaps in the speciality distribution market after the contraction of studio divisions, including the likely pull-back of Focus Features discussed in my last post. CBS Films, for example, is distributing the new Coen brothers production, Inside Llewyn Davis, in the US. This is the latest incarnation of the film division of the CBS broadcast network, created in its current form in 2007 (previous ventures into the theatrical feature business by CBS include a brief venture in the late 1960s, one contributor to the overproduction of that period that resulted in a financial crisis for the studios)

inside llewyn davis poster

Most of the films it has handled today seem broadly to lie within speciality domain, previous examples including Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), although its website seems to suggestion an intention to include a wider range, including more genre-oriented material. Certainly seems likely that the reduced investment in this territory by divisions of the Hollywood majors is likely to open up more space for players of this kind, along with those not associated with such large other media interests. A space worth watching, I think.

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Focus pulled?

What, then, of the future of Indiewood, in the shape of the studio speciality divisions, now that Universal’s Focus Features has become the latest target for what looks like studio rationalisation? The news that James Schamus has been removed as head of the division and the closure of its New York office looks like another significant reduction of commitment to speciality work within the studio orbit. It’s particularly notable given how successful and stable Focus had appeared to be, alongside Fox Searchlight, as one of the two main remaining planks of this hybrid territory.

fig 20

Focus isn’t being closed, like some speciality divisions were in the major contraction that began in 2008. But these look like they could become steps along that route, or moves towards a considerably more commercial and less specialist-market oriented approach. The signals are very strong ones. The removal of Schamus appears to be a major blow to those invested in the indie tradition, given his status as one of the former heads of the almost-legendary Good Machine, and his record of established relationships with major indie filmmakers. The closure of a New York operation is also more than just a practical cut back – a relocation of the headquarters to Los Angeles also signifies a reduction in autonomy and closer absorption into the studio landscape.

Schames is replaced by Peter Schlessel, head of the distributor FilmDistrict, the associations of which are largely with more mainstream-oriented genre productions, a point emphasized in initial reactions to the news. Indiewire’s Anthony Kaufman concludes that “you can bet that the mid-sized art film is in more trouble than it already was”, adding in reference to Schlessel: ‘Yes, he can claim ownership of driving Nicholas Winding Refn’s bang-up noir “Drive” into the marketplace, but much of the company’s slate is heavily geared towards genre titles (“Red Dawn”, “Parker”, “Dean Man DOwn”, “Olympus has Fallen” – all yuck).’

In typically rhetorical style, Schamus’s former Good Machine partner Ted Hope suggests that: ‘With his bow tie no longer the Focus brand, we can firmly say that the corporate suits see no business in art.’ He adds: ‘Where does James’ exit leave us?  Sure we have Sony Picture Classics.  Won’t we always have Sony Picture Classics (thank the cinema gods!!!)?  And we have Searchlight and The Weinsteins, sure…  at least for now.  And yes, there are the VOD driven entities, and the small true indies too, but do we have a corporate culture that has any place for ambitious artistically driven work?  I think not –at least not as the focus of their strategy.’

But was it ever accurately described as the focus of the strategy of corporate culture? Of course not. The question here is of the existence of some degree of space for speciality/indie ‘art’ type cinema within the broader orbit of the studios – a position in which it has never been more than a small minority strand. The removal of Schamus and relocation of Focus to LA does appear to constitute a potentially significant reduction of such space, but it’s not best put in such black and white terms as those used by Hope if we’re really to understand the nature of the equation that’s involved, one that seems to be subject to periodic shifts of balance that are sometimes hard to keep up with. It’s somewhat frustrating to me, personally, I have to confess, that this happens just as my new book Indie 2.0 is about to be published, in which I suggest that suggestions that the studios have withdrawn from the speciality sector have been exaggerated, largely on the basis of the continued thriving presence of Focus and Searchlight.

It will remain to be seen exactly what happens to Focus from now onwards. Variety reports that its future had been looking ‘very murky’ before the 2011 takeover of its parent, NBC-Universal, by Comcast: ‘Universal Pictures had planned on putting the distrib on the sales block but reversed course when Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, a well-known fan of independent film, said he wanted to keep the operation in the fold.’ That’s encouraging, but perhaps not the basis for a long-term future. We’ll see. But what Kaufman terms ‘the mid-sized art film’ is not going to disappear, we can be sure of that. It’s often seen as an endangered species but has a habit of demonstrating longevity, even if often in an embattled state, whether in the territory of speciality divisions or from within the studios themselves – the latter being the subject of my current book-in-progess, previously mentioned in this blog, on the nature and status of ‘quality’ film in Hollywood.

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The Loneliest Planet: maximising the effect of minimalism

Low-key narrative is one of the most frequent characteristics of indie film, a tendency that sometimes veers towards the minimalist end of the scale in the kind of production in which, by conventional standards, ‘very little happens’. A good example of the potency that can be created in this domain is Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), which offers what feels almost close to a documentation – rather than dramatization – of the experiences of a couple trekking with a guide across spectacular landscapes in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. It’s not a documentation but a fictional piece, but the emphasis for most of the running time – at 113 minutes quite lengthy for this kind of material – is on evoking an impression simply of transition through the land, accompanied by occasional dialogue and various undramatized activities along the way.

loneliest planet poster

But there is one piece of what, in itself, seems more conventional ‘movie’ action – spoiler alert here, if you’ve not seen the film and want to experience it fully in its own right, do so before reading on. As we watch a film of this kind, depending on how exactly we’ve been prepared, what foreknowledge we have, we are inclined to wonder if something of this kind is going to happen. Early on, the central couple – Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) – are in a bar where a group of local men encourage them to join them in dancing. Nothing happens, but there’s a distinct feeling here of potential threat, the potency of which is in some ways greater for not being realised. They move on to hire a guide, Dato (played by a real local guide, Bidzina Gujabidze), and head into the vast empty, hills, the charting of their progress punctuated by extreme long-shot sequences in which their figures move across the screen, dwarfed by the vastness of place and the evocation of its textures.

Figures in a landscape

Figures in a landscape

Then, some 50 minutes in, comes an event of more movie-conventionally dramatic kind. Their paths are crossed by those of a small group including an older man who has a long-barrelled gun slung across his shoulders. After seemingly angry, untranslated comments by a youth, the elder member of the party suddenly points the gun at Alex. His first, seemingly instinctive move, is to pull Nica in front of him, as if to use her as cover, although the then pushes her behind him as the gun rests immediate in front of his face. Some seconds pass – slowly, filled with tension – before the gun is removed, the man offers an apology and his group continue on their way.

This dramatic incident does not become the basis of an obvious major plot point such as a robbery or kidnapping, as might be expected in a more conventional dramatic feature. But it casts a powerful effect across the rest of the film. Nica gathers up her backpack and continues the trek, the others following, Alex at some distance. We see them walking on in the following sequences, much further apart than they have been up to this point. Not a word is said about the event, their reaction to it, or any transgression Alex might be considered to have committed. The general tenor of the film remains the same, the experiences of the characters seemingly pushed largely to the margins. What the film demonstrates in this way is how less can, indeed, become more; how the very limited deployment of ‘dramatic action’ can add hugely to the effect that it generates, pound-for-pound, as it were. The only other notable event in the film is a lengthy kiss exchanged by Nica and Dato close to the end, after the pair have sat up drinking by their camp fire after Alex has retired. The Loneliest Planet closes with the packing up of tents the following morning, but there is no sense of closure – not even the completion of the journey, let alone any indication of what all this means for the relationship between the central characters (the only background information about which is the fact that they are due to marry in the near future).

loneliest planet 3

For some, of course, this might be rather unsatisfying, and such films tend to provoke very divided reaction, critically and more widely (see also, for example, the films of Kelly Reichardt, which I write about in Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film, due out soon!). Powerful poetic minimalism – or boredom? All just a matter of taste – although, of course, there’s no ‘just’ about it, but core articulations of varying forms of cultural capital of the kind that go to the heart of processes of cultural consumption more widely.


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‘Early electronic sell-through’, as studios continue to experiment with new release windows

Interesting piece in Variety on growing studio use of digital selling of films ahead of the DVD/Blu-Ray release, as Hollywood and indies continue to try to negotiate the increasingly uncertain relationship between the various post-theatrical windows – probably the biggest issue currently facing all parts of the film business.

The latest example, Iron Man 3, is to be available for high-definition download purchase (as opposed to rental) three weeks in advance of its release on disc or digital rental/VOD, a practice that’s been dubbed ‘early electronic sell-through’ (EST) and that is reported to be becoming the rule rather than the exception for blockbusters. The aim of this particular strategy, Variety suggests, is to encourage a move into the sphere of digital ownership by those who have been buyers of discs, to maintain this lucrative sector of the market in the face of declining disc sales (sales that remain a very important part of the overall studio economy). The risk, it seems, is that a general move towards the digital is seen as threatening a loss of sales in general to the sphere of rentals (download, VOD, etc), in which margins are lower.

iron man 3 poster

Be interesting to see how this works – whether digital ownership really has the same appeal as its physical equivalent as far as film is concerned. Is this different from the way the same transition has worked for music, I wonder? Will as many people buy digital copies for keeps in the same way that they buy music that’s perhaps more likely to be listened to repeatedly (not that everyone pays for music that way either, any more, what with the advent of subscription-based channels such as Spotify)?  There probably aren’t any simple answers to such questions, but they’re going to be crucial to the future shape of this part of the business.

Not surprising, then, that the studios are experimenting with different strategies of these kinds. One of the most notable points made in this article is that all but one of the studios (Disney) have changed their operational structures, combining previously separate digital and disc divisions in order to encourage a more integrated approach rather than having them compete against one another. This suggests that they are, as usually rather belatedly, seeking to get their act together, to come to terms with changes in broader media usage in the era of broadband internet. Historically, the studios have tended to be slow to adapt in such ways, and much remains yet to be sorted in this instance, including which will be the most effective/popular and user-friendly (not to mention, appropriately priced) channels through which to access movies online other than via the temptations of high-def illegal download.

Smaller indies have so far been far more prone to innovation, if only because they have less of a stake in the prevailing system and so much less to lose and more to gain. Will we end up with a new system that’s more or less consistent across the spectrum, I wonder, as has broadly been the case in the past as far as the relationship between theatrical and various forms of post-theatrical distribution has been concerned? Maybe, but it’s equally possible that we’re heading for a more diverse landscape that’s likely to be as full of challenges all around as it is of opportunities.

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Spring Breakers: exploitation/art cinema

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers offers a fascinating combination of elements of exploitation and art cinema, two key ingredients often found in the mix that constitutes indie film but employed here in a blend that’s somewhat jarring and uncomfortable – but also thought-provoking.

spring breakers poster

One the one hand, there’s lots of classic exploitation material. Initially, this involves much footage of what appears to be almost the ultimate in youth-sex-drugs-and-drink excess: groups of scantily clad college students in close physical proximity, with booze being poured via tubes down gullets and smoking of bongs – the apparatus for all of this preferably being of lewd appearance. This seems like the acme (or nadir) of such terrain, the early stages of the film seeming to promise something like a non-stop wallow in such forms of excessive indulgence. Later, after the four bikini-clad principals fall in with an over-the-top rapper/gangster figure, the above mix is enrichened (in exploitation terms) by the trappings, again excessive, of the requisite generic terrain: a fetishistic panoply of guns, pimp-style motors, piles of cash and luxury-camp settings (there’s also an earlier, nicely-stylized robbery sequence).

Through all of this, however, the film employs quite radical formal strategies, departing sharply from mainstream norms particularly in its denial of any of real sense of emotional proximity to the central characters. Imagery is quite heavily stylized, in bright colours and a disjointed sense of shifting backwards and forwards in time. Dialogue is often repeated, sometimes on multiple occasions, as the film veers sometimes further in the direction of the more overtly poetical style familiar from Korine’s most noted  feature Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), including some sequences shot in a swirling-pixellated format. The soundtrack is also similarly mixed in resonances, combining thumping rap that seems to buy into the aesthetic of party-excess with the coolly distancing impressions created by a typical Cliff Martinez score (as per his work on Soderberg titles such as Traffic [2000] and Solaris [2002]).

What should we make of this combination? It’s certainly a film that would be expected to attract very mixed reactions. Anyone attracted by the main poster image – the four scantily clad  principals, as reproduced above – and expecting a typically mainstream ‘raunchy youth’ movie is likely to be puzzled by the distance of the film’s overall feel from anything more conventional – while those receptive to the more arty dimension are liable to be discomforted by the volume of near-naked display of exploitation standards. The best of both worlds – or, maybe for more viewers, exactly the opposite, satisfying neither? Does the arty material undercut what might otherwise be straightforward ‘cheap’ exploitation, or does it seek to legitimate it and provide cover? I don’t think there’s a simple answer or that it’s so clear-cut.

Maybe there would be no reason for the latter – cover for exploitation – as anyone who wanted to treat this territory in that manner would be far better off (literally, in financial terms) playing it more straight. The trailer, unsurprisingly, emphasises the obviously commercial, exploitation dimension. Personally, I found the film grew on me the longer it progressed and has seemed more interesting the more I’ve thought about it, and in retrospect. Which is often a marker at least of something more thought-provoking than most. If combinations of exploitation and artiness are usually somewhat smoother in the indie sector, an example such as this offers a good illustration of the different pulls that such dimensions can effect on the text and the kinds of responses it’s likely to encourage.

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Spielberg and speculation

Far be it from me to doubt Steven Spielberg’s understanding of Hollywood, but his widely-reported prediction of a future in which we could shift to a system in which viewers pay much higher prices for blockbuster releases and pretty much everything else goes to pay-TV (or has lower ticket prices) seems distinctly unconvincing. More the stuff of rather typical industry doom-monger hype than any real analysis of likely future scenarios, I think.

Spielberg’s suggestion, during the opening of a new facility at USC, is premised on a situation in which a bunch of expensive blockbusters fail, bringing down the current release system. That’s a large assumption in itself. However much it might be disliked by many, the current studio blockbuster-led regime has proved consistently reliable for a few decades now and we shouldn’t expect it go to away anytime soon, whatever adjustments might come in the handling of post-theatrical release. Every now and then there’s a dry blockbuster season, provoking predictions of demise. But so far this has always been followed by a bounce-back, typically characterised by another round of non-inflation-adjusted ‘record-breaking’ openings, etc.

The idea that ‘Going to the movies is going to cost you 50 bucks, maybe 100. Maybe 150’ seems, frankly, somewhat nonsensical. This is based on a suggested parallel with high-end stage theatre or sporting events. But such a parallel doesn’t work and misses the fundamental nature of the blockbuster business, which is an appeal to very large numbers and especially to younger people who’d never be able to afford such rates. That’s nothing like the situation with, say, Broadway theatre or live sporting events with limited capacity for attendance. Does anyone seriously think Hollywood is going to jeopardise its ability to reach its core audience? The Guardian newspaper in the UK suggests that there are already signs of this kind of change, citing a posh, upmarket Odeon in London – but this seems like a red herring. Sure, places like London will have such venues, with extras for the wealthy who can afford them, but these are niche theatres that are in no way a viable alternative to those which serve the main audience.

The flip side of Spielberg’s comments relate to the fate of less commercial fare such as his recent Lincoln. It struggled to get theatrical release, he says. I’m somewhat doubtful about that, but then Spielberg is arguably in an exceptional situation as far as being able to get funding and release for almost anything he wants to do. The real question here is the space that exists in contemporary Hollywood for less-obviously commercial material, what’s historically been known as the ‘quality’ film (a term that requires lots of unpacking, of course). This is what I’m currently writing about, and it’s striking how similarly hyperbolic is much of the commentary on these kinds of films, along with blockbusters and ‘the fate of cinema as we know it’ more generally.

Lincoln poster

The ‘death of serious/adult/quality films’ in Hollywood is a subject of regular reporting (as is the suggestion that ‘the only place’ to find such material these days is on pay-TV). As is an expression of amazement every time one or a few such films does appear – or, especially, if it/they do well or relatively well commercially. There’s definite hype-cycle here: it’s dead; wow, it’s come back to life. The less headline-friendly reality is that a limited space for such films has always existed within the studio realm and continues to do so, even within a system dominated by franchise-oriented blockbuster production. The nature and degree of this space (limited), and factors that might explain its existence, are what I’m currently writing about.

So, this intervention by Spielberg seems rather familiar. I’d suggest not taking it at face value, but as a manifestation of a particular kind of rhetoric that’s typical of Hollywood. Part of this, more generally, involves creating an impression of an industry in or barely short of being in crisis – and, thus, one that shouldn’t be subject to things like regulatory intervention. Can’t help also reading a bit of personal bitterness in some of the comments (particularly the contribution from George Lucas and reference to the limited release enjoyed by Red Tails; could that simply have been because, beyond Star Wars, most of what he’s done has not exactly set the box office alight?).

How should academics respond to these kinds of claims? My view is not to play the speculation game on these terms, which has a tendency to lead to large-scale over-statement and hype of its own kind (see anything with a title that contains phrases such as ‘the end of cinema as we know it’). Better to seek to situate the nature of such comments within more familiar discourses within the industry and to measure past examples against the realities that actually exist or followed. We shouldn’t rule out possibilities for future change, of course, but these tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary in kind and degree. That doesn’t make such good headlines but is the stuff of the kind proper sober analysis that’s needed if we’re really to understand the way the business works.

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The Sessions and indie ingredients

I liked The Sessions but when you step back at look at it, like so many indie films, it seems comprised of a number of components rather familiar to the territory. First, it offers us something marked as distinctly ‘uncomfortable’, in comparison with the norms of the mainstream, in its focus on a central character who is very seriously disabled – and, then, more so, for many sensibilities, in its focus on the sexual life of such a character. Discomfort, in various forms and to various degrees, is a frequent indie characteristic. But the sexual component also gives it a distinctively more commercial skew, sex of course tending tending to be a major ‘selling’ ingredient that has long been drawn upon in art and indie film, and here involving plenty of nudity.

the sessions

I found much the same characteristically indie/Indiewood balance (the film being a Fox Searchlight release, although independently produced) in the handing of different elements of the denouement (spoiler alert if you’ve not seen the film). At one point, it seems as if a  more ‘real/normal’ relationship will develop between the protagonist, polio-stricken Mark (a largely horizontal John Hawkes) and the sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), he employs to  help him to get over his anxieties and to lose his virginity. The two clearly start to develop ‘serious feelings’ for one another, but the film withdraws from the relationship, briefly sketching the outlines of what will clearly be a fulfilling tryst with another woman.  The most obvious romantic cliche is thus avoided – very much indie style – but a happy resolution is implied in this dimension. No sooner has this been done, though, than we find ourselves at Mark’s funeral. So, he’s died (it was previously more than hinted that his lifespan was likely to be nearing its end, hence the desire to achieve consummation), which is not most people’s idea of a happy ending. All in all, a mix of up- and down-beat factors that works nicely but that again seems quintessentially indie in the careful working out of the balance.

the sessions poster

Does this make the film contrived or guilty of being some kind of boiler-plate indie? Such accusations of this kind are often levelled at indie films, and might have some purchase in some cases. But there’s always a danger in such suggestions of implying the existence of some ‘pure’ and unsullied version of indie to which such films can be opposed. There are, of course, many varieties of indie and differing degrees to which they depart from the norms of the mainstream – but notions such as the ‘true’ indie tend to involve rhetorical over-simplication. They buy into a ‘purist’ notion of indie – or, often, ‘independent’, these discourses often tending to see ‘indie’ itself as some kind of sell-out construction – that is far more the stuff of myth than reality. Powerful myth, nonetheless, and a key component of some of the prevailing discourses of indie/independence – something I discuss at greater length in the introduction to my forthcoming book, Indie 2.0.

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Quality Hollywood, and beyond

My current project is a book on the notion of the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood, for which I now have a contract, titled Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Production. I’ve posted some thoughts on issues relating to this already, but will be adding some various musings on the topic now and in the future. This isn’t strictly about indie film, but the quality issue is one that’s clearly relevant to that territory as well. Some definitions of ‘indie’ tend also to use the term ‘quality’, for one thing. And what I’ll be doing in this project is also broadly connected with some of my previous work on indie and Indiewood, which has increasingly focused on understanding films from these sectors to be offering various kinds and degrees of marking of distinctions textually and in offering particular kinds of appeals to viewers.

What is meant by ‘quality’ here is a certain kind of positioning within prevailing cultural hierarchies, often the result of the creation of associations with work that is conventionally located ‘higher’ in such schemas. I’m using the term that way, rather than to suggest an actual value-judgement about ‘how good’ certain kinds of films or other material might be judged to be – although there’s often much slippage here and that’s an issue I’ll be seeking to explore further in the book, along with the deeper cultural and historical roots of these processes as they function today (it’s also a question raised in my previous post about Game of Thrones.

Here, I plan to offer occasional thoughts related to this project, including the identification of some of the things that tend to be taken as markers of quality of this kind, often in areas that aren’t the immediate focus of the book, including contemporary TV series that seek to claim quality status to one degree or another.

One issue that seems of significance here is the pacing of certain plot/character developments. A marker of quality is to give certain lines plenty of time to develop. The Sopranos offers plenty of examples of this, where a development involving a particular character might be built over many episodes and thus have all the more impact when it comes to fruition some time later. A counter-example would be The OC, which is pitched as a more ‘popular’ series, although also making some quality claims in certain aspects of its writing, I think. I recall episodes of The OC in which a previously unknown relative of a central character would turn up, threatening all kinds of ramifications to the plot, only to disappear again about two episodes later. (SPOILER ALERT here re. the next paragraph for anyone watching or planning to watch series 2 of The Walking Dead or not up to date on the latest Being Human.)

Walking Dead

A similar distinction struck me between two episodes of series that I’m watching at the moment (Sopranos and The OC having been some time ago). In series 2 of The Walking Dead, a child goes missing in the first episode, cueing plenty of angst that lasts until episode 6, when she suddenly turns up undead, an effect that’s quite shocking in its immediate context but also because of the slow-burn with which this strand was treated. In the current series of Being Human, by way of contrast, two interesting new characters were introduced in each of the last two I watched but both were disposed of within the same episode. That seems to be a marker of relatively lower quality, in these hierarchical terms, and it’s interesting to me to try to draw out the basis of such a judgement.

Being Human

To give a particular plot strand or character situation a longer arc is, it seems, to position a text as more ‘restrained’,  ‘disciplined’ and ‘subtle’ – the kinds of terms that tend to be implied, among others, in judgements of ‘higher’ quality. To move through plot elements very quickly, or to bring in what appear to be significant new characters and to finish with them rapidly, is to lack such markers of quality; to risk being labelled as ‘impatient’, ‘lazy’, ‘disposable’, or the like. (See here, also, my earlier post on the dubious notion of ‘reduced attention span’, as criticised in a similar context by Michael Newman). These terms clearly need a great deal of unpacking and situating in particular contexts, especially via the use of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. To appreciate the subtle and restrained, it seems – to be more ‘discriminating’, as it’s implied – greater resources of cultural capital are generally required (inherited and learned resources that enable and encourage us to make such distinctions and to feel in some way superior through being able to do so).


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