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Because independent film is independently financed, several of its characteristics, such as visual art, theme and background, make it different from any other type of film.

An independent film, indie film, or underground film, is a film that is produced mostly outside of a major film studio. Today’s big six major film studios are Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Sony, The Walt Disney Company and General Electric/Vivendi Universal. Technically, Independent film does not belong to any major film studio or film company; both the funding and film-making are done independently. The funds of making an independent film were originally mostly from the funding that director has found by himself or even that the director personally contributes to the film. But nowadays, independent films are usually produced or distributed by subsidiaries of major studios so that, if less than half of a film’s financing comes from a major studio, it can be considered independent film.

Where Does Independent Film Come From?

The concept of independent film came from Hollywood in the last century.

At that time, the Hollywood oligopoly replaced the Edison monopoly. Within this new system, a pecking order was soon established which left little room for any newcomers. At the top were the five major studios, MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO, Warner Bros., and Twentieth Century Fox. Beneath them were Universal Studios and Columbia Pictures. Finally there was “Poverty Row,” a catch all term used to encompass any other smaller studio that managed to fight their way up into the increasingly exclusive movie business. It is worth noting that though the small studios that made up Poverty Row could be characterized as existing “independently” of any major studio, they utilized the same kind of vertically and horizontally integrated systems of business as the larger players in the game. Though the eventual breakup of the studio system and its restrictive chain-theater distribution network would leave independent movie houses eager for the kind of populist, seat-filling product of the Poverty Row studios, that same paradigm shift would also lead to the decline and ultimate disappearance of “Poverty Row” as a Hollywood phenomenon. While the kinds of films produced by Poverty Row studios only grew in popularity, they would eventually become increasingly available both from major production companies and from independent producers who no longer needed to rely on a studio’s ability to package and release their work (wiki).

So at the time, the studio system had brought large amounts of money to the film industry, but it also extremely limited the themes of film that a scriptwriter would be allowed to write about. Because of this situation, many filmmakers wanted to get out of the studio system so they collected money and directed the film by themselves, sometimes even writing the scripts by themselves. Therefore, a large number of the independently funded and directed films were totally different from the commercial films that had been made. It is these films that became the first independent films.

Backgrounds of Independent Directors

A film can be called an independent film for two reasons. The first reason is that most of the financing is not from a major studio. The second reason is that the theme of the film is unique.

From the beginning, independent film is different from the major studios: its purpose is not to earn money. Although production is small (low cost and simple technology are the symbols of the independent film), this does not mean that the film itself is crude or unprofessional. Because there are fewer influences from sponsors, the independent films can be involved in more themes that commercial films cannot write about, it also shows the unique of the director. Basically, the themes of independent films in the U.S. have no limit as they include politics, violence, sex, science fiction, crime and even indescribable fantasy. So it is really hard to classify independent films the same way one does for Hollywood commercial films.

The unique characteristics of independent film can be proved by the backgrounds of the director of an independent film. It is not hard to find out that these directors usually have their own unique backgrounds, not only their race, but also their social status and the area that they come from. Each director is skilled in his own way and wants to show this in his film through the use of complicated structure.

Take John Cassavetes, for example, who is basically called “the father of the independent film” in the U.S. He is most notable as a pioneer of American independent film. John was born into a Greek-American family, so his Greek family values extremely influenced his creativity in film. So, in his films, it is clear to see his observations of and questioning on American family life. They also show self-examination in the relationships between families.

Woody Allen, another famous director, was born in Brooklyn, New York City, in a well-educational Jewish family. From “Annie Hall” to “Melinda and Melinda,” we can see that Woody Allen’s background caused him to criticize reality in his films.

Another director, Spike Lee, grow up in the same neighborhood as Woody Allen, but he has a totally different angle in directing films. Because Spike Lee was born into a middle to low class, African-American family, his films are full of a fearlessness to corruption and violence and tended to show the darkness of society.

Even when dealing with the same theme, different directors usually show a different point of view. For example: sex. In Woody Allen’s film ” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask “, he describes traditional sex using jokes instead of serious discussion. Allen even played the role of a sperm in his film for emphasis. Steven Soderbergh, however, also dealt with the theme of sex. In his opinion, sex became a symbol of danger. In his film, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, sex is abnormal and makes people feel restless. This is totally different from Woody Allen’s humor. Thus, independent film directors each have their own style and skilled theme, causing a unique structure of theme in independent film.

Black humor In Independent Film

The black humor in independent film is a kind of humor that makes people feel sad. One way is to describe the compassion to nobody; another way is to sneer at somebody. Woody Allen is a representative man to use the second way in his films. Woody is good at directing his films in an exaggerated funny way, and most of his films are against tradition and authority, for example his early films “Bananas” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid to Ask” and “Sleeper”. These films were meant to poke fun at Hollywood’s politic film, sex film and science-fiction film at that time. Most importantly, these mocks were definitely valuable and were not sleazy jokes, but always make people think about more. And after people laughing at these jokes, they will feel a little bit sad about this reality. After Woody Allen’s early films, his skills has developed and used it to make fun of all society and human nature itself. In “Stardust Memories” “Everyone Says I Love You” “Bullets Over Broadway”, human nature, love, violence, happiness, etc, these ideas has instead of Hollywood, became his targets. Although it sounds impossible to make fun of these things, Woody Allen can always give us surprise, he has ability to make people laugh. Even in “Stardust Memories”, has been thought it was greeting to Ernst Ingmar Bergman, it is still easy to see Woody Allen’s self-mockery. In this film, he used a lot of skills from European directors, because of this, he has been criticized by critical circles, but he still treated it as his best film. Of course, Woody Allen can never forget to make fun of Hollywood, the typical one is “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. This film poked fun of that Hollywood made huge contrast between the reality and film world. Because of the big differences that Hollywood made in film world between realities, he criticized the Hollywood film industry. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” is one of Woody Allen’s most importantly films, it criticized film industry itself make it became a landmark in independent film history.

The way to make fun of nobody is used by a lot of directors, Coen brothers become the best of these directors since they began direct the independent films. Their tender humble but a little bit weird black humor became their symbol. Especially their first film “Blood Simple”, it became one landmark in independent film history, this film has influenced a lot of films after, especially large number of 90s independent films, its style and theme became the fashion in independent film industry. But “Blood Simple” was just their first one, Coen brothers’ second film “Barton Fink” won the reputation for them. The same as Woody Allen, in “Barton Fink”, it full of taunts to Hollywood, and their thoughts has showed in this film. The boss of the film company in “Barton Fink” stands for those Hollywood big shots. Money can make them kneel down, and can also make them became animals without any humanity and of course they do not care the art of films. After this film, “O brother, Where art thou?” became another landmark, this film was adopted from “Odyssey”. It discussed the changes of American politics and religions make it became more like an epic for independent film history.

Quentin Tarantino, are also famous for his black humor in his films. From his first famous film “Reservoir Dogs”, poke fun of mafia, crime, violence and etc, it became his mark. In his film “Pulp Fiction”, all the members of mafia has been described stupid, dirty and has no brains. They bully the weak and fear the strong, make people cannot stop laughing at them. “Kill Bill” extremely showed his black violent aesthetics, the female role in this film fight with Japanese mafias, killing people is just a little thing, this scene is also poke fun of Hollywood that used Chinese kung fu whenever they want to.

The most typical black humor independent film must be Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”, this film just cost $27,000, and it was a miracle to Hollywood in 90s. This is a really simple story about two salesclerks. They open for business, but there is no business. They go to funeral, but the coffin has been overthrown by them, etc. All these stories happened in the same day, it has no directly connections but it is well-organized. The story is simple, but it full of philosophy, makes people try to think. At the end, it tells people a simple truth but usually been ignored by people, which is be nice to your friends and family.

In independent film, usually need wonderful actors to play out the black humor. Like Tom Cruise in “Magnolia”, Dustin Hoffman in “I Heart Huckabees”, Samuel L Jackson in “Do the Right Thing” and etc. These good actors are really important to any good independent films.

Freedom, Revolt & Violence in Independent Film

For independent film, freedom is the most important characteristic. This freedom not only means the freedom of funds, but also means the freedom of minds. From some point, independent film can also be called freedom film. If independent film want to be freedom means have to break the tradition rules, which also means have to revolt the rules. So the spirit of independent film should be called the revolt of freedom.

So it is not hard to find that the characters in the independent films are usually uninhibited. Take David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” as an example. In this film, a couple cannot be together because of several reasons, but they use a lot of lurid ways to try to get together. This film shows people’s restless though bloody violent scenes, it full of Freud style analysis. But this film also shows a little bit romantic, the other extremely way to love each other. “Wild at Heart” is also a typical rock film, the main character in the film usually drives a car on the high way and show up in the public like a rock singer. After “Wild at Heart”, “Lost Highway” basically continued the story has been told in “Wild at Heart”, the style, characteristic and even the main actor Nicholas Cage has not been change. But this time, a lot of videotapes about privacy have been instead of abstract of pressures from society. This experimental film described the darkness side of people, it is the most strange and inscrutable film in all his films.

Compare with Oliver Stone’s films, David Lynch’s films are really tender. Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” can be called the most violent film in all the 90s American independent films. In this film, he broke all the rules that had been showed on the screen, he did not even care about the audiences, just showed the extremely violent to audiences. This is not only an irony to Hollywood, but also it is an irony to the darkness of American cultures. And this counterattack is hopeless, to the whole society: just a person can do nothing. So the character in the film just can kills people to release his anger and against the society. “Natural Born Killers” actually has some similarities with Quentin Tarantino’s films, which is that they all used violence as the clue in their films. Especially in “Kill Bill”, the story itself is very simple, but Quentin Tarantino described violence in details, he even makes people think that violent is kind of aesthetical. But in fact, what he wants to tell is the same as “Natural Born Killers”.

Hollywood’s Banishment or Incorporation of Independent Film Directors

Since independent film was born, Hollywood always tries to incorporate the independent film directors. Usually, an independent film director will be incorporate into Hollywood after some of his films got successes. For example, Steven Soderbergh, after he directed his independent films “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” “Traffic”, he directed some commercial films like “Ocean’s eleven” “Ocean’s twelve”. But unfortunately, for audiences, he is one of the best directors of independent film, but for commercial film, he is not the best.

But still there were a lot of directors have successes on commercial film, such as Oliver Stone and Gus Van Sant, they are both good at independent film and commercial film. Oliver Stone not only has commercial films like “Born on the Fourth of July” “Heaven and Earth” but also has famous unique independent film like “Natural Born Killers”. Gus Van Sant is much clever, he used the theme of the independent film to do it in commercial film way, “Drugstore Cowboy” “To Die For” “Good Will Hunting” these films are the typical.

Of course, money is everything for Hollywood, if they think the independent film director can earn money for them, they will become animals. Even the film has done, if they do not think it will earn money, they will kill it without thinking. So this is why such a lot of independent film directors do not want to direct any Hollywood films. Because their films are like their babies, if Hollywood will kill their babies sometime, who will work for Hollywood? I do not think there is one.