Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream
Reviewed by Lara McKenzie on
Hollywood films tell lies. They are unreal, fake, entertaining. Independent films tell the truth. They are dark, depressing, angry, violent, edgy. Hollywood films represent America’s dominant culture. Independent films critique this culture.
This, Sherry Ortner writes, is how those involved in independent filmmaking understand their work. They describe their role as one of devastating, assaulting, beating up—even raping—their audience. As Ortner shows us early on, this sense of darkness and violence is pervasive in American independent film.
Ortner’s book comprises both film analysis and ethnography, each of which is emphasised in alternating chapters. Her analyses of independent films focus on their narratives in relation to films’ broader social, cultural and historical contexts (Ortner 2013: 7).
The ethnographic component of the book includes participant observation at film festivals and on film sets, as well as observations from Q&A sessions or panel discussions with filmmakers, interviews with those involved in filmmaking and, finally, published interviews with filmmakers.
The scale of the study is enormous: She watched around 650 (mostly) independent films, attended more that 100 live, close-up discussions between filmmakers and interviewers and interviewed 75 people for her research.
Incorporating all these sources, “Not Hollywood” explores the intersection of the media, neoliberalism, generation and class in contemporary America. Ortner shows that independent film emerged strongly in America beginning in the 1980s, as a critique of both neoliberalism and the (increasingly unrealisable) American Dream.
The films have a “fuzzy morality” (Ortner 2013: 143), reflecting the similarly fuzzy morality of neoliberal capitalism, where “amorality, immorality, and often illegality have come to seem ‘normal’.” (Ortner 2013: 145)
The independent filmmakers Ortner discusses are largely members of Generation X. She defines this generation loosely, as anyone born in the 1960s or later, who grew up in a climate of economic instability, decline and fear, and who bore “the brunt of the new neoliberalized order.” (Ortner 2013: 270)
Yet although deteriorating conditions of work have in many ways characterised Generation X—who have repeatedly been told that they will be the first generation to do worse than their parents, economically speaking—Ortner makes it clear that “the process of making a film remains a zone of relatively unalienated, or anyway less alienated, labor.” (Ortner 2013: 199)
Work can be highly unstable, however, and it tends to require a financial cushion—particularly for producers. In discussing the working conditions and financial resources of filmmakers, as well as the economic conditions as portrayed in films themselves, Ortner’s work highlights the enormous shifts in the American class system over the past several decades (Ortner 2013: 264).
These shifts, she argues, have clearly registered in independent film, where they are often reflected as forms of violence (Ortner 2013: 264).
All this might give the impression that independent film is characterised by a sense of hopelessness. Yet that is not what Ortner takes away from her study. Rather, she finds that independent film people “believe, in the best spirit of American individualism, that you can get out there and make something happen.” (Ortner 2013: 271)
She also suggests that the popularity of these films, in mainstream theatres, on television and as rentals, is “one of the best indications that many people are waking up intellectually, emotionally, and politically, to the urgent need for action in these times.” (Ortner 2013: 272)
Overall, “Not Hollywood” is an expansive work, which should interest almost anyone. I would have liked to have heard more about her participant observation on film sets and at festivals—which made up some of the most fascinating parts of her discussion—and to have become better acquainted with some of the people she interviewed.
Furthermore, some of the short summaries of films tended to be repeated, word for word, in several places. These are minor points, however. The major accomplishment of “Not Hollywood” is the way Ortner seamlessly pulls together her analyses of independent film, neoliberalism, generation and class. The result is a timely and insightful book.
When the class structure starts moving in any major way… the impact is enormous for everyone. Independent film is one of the sites in which these seismic shifts have registered, often as forms of violence, which they are.
Sherry B. Ortner