Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The original dimensions of an independent film

Independent film, like independent music, was once quite marginal. It goes without saying that you'd have to specifically seek it out, but more likely than not, you'd even have to seek out any discussion of it. Year-end top ten lists would frequently be limited to studio fare, and if you did end up learning about one of these movies it would usually be by accident.

Both independent film and independent music crossed over to the mainstream at some point, and of course, it was probably at different times for both, if you could even pinpoint a specific moment. For film, which is what we care about today, I'll call that moment the 1990s, when movies made by Miramax started to get regularly nominated for Oscars. The whole era was probably shepherded in by something like sex, lies and videotape in 1989, if you want to focus it down to an exact movie.

Before independent film came knocking on the door of even mainstream cinephiles, it had a certain perception, which was probably not unwarranted. Those old-school independent films usually dealt with people at the fringe of society who did not play traditional roles of hero or villain, and often had no satisfying narrative arc to speak of. A satisfying narrative arc was too bourgeois, or something.

In other words, basically exactly like Josh and Benny Safdie's Heaven Knows What.

Heaven Knows What is the adaptation of the unpublished memoirs of a junkie named Arielle Holmes, who courageously plays herself in the film -- even more courageously because people she knows and cares about have died from drug use, and not too far in the past. The directors discovered Holmes in New York City while working on another film and encouraged her to write the memoirs, paying her by the page. At some point it was determined that she'd have the chops to play herself, which would certainly bring authenticity to the project -- even more authenticity than the Safdie brothers usually bring to their projects (I assume, as this is my first exposure to them). However, professional actors played some of the other key roles, including Caleb Landry-Jones.

I watched it on Monday night as the unplanned second half of a homeless double feature, the first being Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, in which Richard Gere plays a homeless man. And though there were certain things about it I found pretty captivating, including the commitment of the actors and an early 80s synth-influenced score, I ultimately came around to the notion that the Safdies are just trying to deliver pretty much exactly the kind of independent movie that once made the form so inaccessible.

The movie really has no beginning or end. It's all middle. Every character is some degree of unlikable, and their motivations usually defy the need to conform to something that can be logically explained. Characters will begin and stop appreciating one another for no reason that can be determined. And through it all, grim events will bleed into one another until they are just one blurry continuum of grim.

I mean, that's a movie about drug users at its core. The difference is that nowadays, a movie that stares at this life without blinking also gives us at least a loose three-act structure and a moment of catharsis. Heaven Knows What does not.

I realize the stance I'm taking is somewhat problematic. I don't want to box filmmakers in, especially if that can be construed as an attempt to make them more digestible to the mainstream. In a day or two you will be seeing films in my top ten that are not mainstream at all, so that's clearly not what I'm going for. But I do think that just presenting a series of unfortunate episodes without comment, without much connective tissue and with only the slightest hint of readily identifiable motivation, is an approach that belongs to another time. A time when these movies were sidelined from public consumption for good reason.

Josh and Benny Safdie want to get back to that time. I don't, particularly. I don't need a film to end with either explicit tragedy or explicit hope, and some of my favorites are the ones where you can't tell which way it might go. But I do need to feel like there's something that's in some way instructive in the films I see, and I just don't find that in Heaven Knows What.

Heaven knows why.

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