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There is Really No Such Thing as Independent Film

There is really no such thing as independent film. Just a thought, but what a thought.

This thought is a bit puzzling, coming from a man who is touring the country personally promoting two films that he spent his own money to make, telling stories that no big studio would risk telling, in a way that few audience members can handle being told. It’s not the first thing that Crispin Glover has said that has left me scratching my head, but really, to hear Crispin Glover say that there’s really no such thing as independent film is a bit puzzling, indeed.

Crispin Glover has been acting in Hollywood since he was a child. With a tall frame, long limbs and angular face, he is perhaps best known for nutty roles like Michael J. Fox’s father in Back to the Future and “the Creepy Thin Man” in Charlie’s Angels. But he has been creating his own art for just as long – often as angular and creepy and disjointed as the image that we have of him as a person. And it’s this art – including independent films – that he is most proud of. So why is he intimating that there’s really no such thing as independent film?

“That common vernacular of independent vs. studio, I don’t really agree with. To me, an independent film is just a smaller corporation, going through the same distribution channels, for the most part, that big studio films are going through. So I feel like the elements that they’re reacting to are very similar. The structures that are controlling them are very similar.”

Glover goes on to point out that the term “independent” implies being alone. And in any film, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are shooting, recording, editing, costuming, designing, writing and so on. Even the smallest film is the product of many people’s efforts. That’s a lot of jobs, a lot of passion, a lot of education. Even the smallest film is indeed a little business.

Yet, for one who doesn’t really see independent film as existing, Glover is going to great lengths to stay independent and say what he wants to say, in the way he wants to say it. But why should we care?

Before looking closer at the daring – and at time confusing – work of Glover, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at some of the extreme fringe art that is not only considered mainstream now, but has utterly changed the way we look at art and the role it plays in our society.

Some of our most popular art and artists have played the role of political protest. Picasso’s cubism was rebellious and confusing to the art world, but embraced on the fringe as daring and innovative. He used his popularity and colorful deconstructed shapes to not just create art, but also create dialogue. When discussing his painting Guernica, which illustrated the bombing of Guernica, Spain by the Nazis, Picasso said, “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art.” Needless to say, Picasso is no longer considered “fringe,” and is one of the most important figures in the history of visual arts.

Likewise, art has often served as a lens through which we can look at the human struggles we share as a society. When Verdi was writing operas, Opera was reserved for telling stories of the Gods. Verdi, ushering in the era of Opera Seria, defied tradition and wrote operas about real people – courtesans even – dying of the real diseases of the day. He too created dialogue about real struggles through which people could look at their own lives, but he also ushered in the next stage of Opera that brought us such “hits” as La Traviata, and paved the way for operas like La Boeheme and even the “layman” operas like The Three Penny Opera, cementing musical theater as popular art form for the people.

Art has always been one of the ways that we explore our struggles and our potential as people. However, the way we digest art has changed.

We still go to art galleries, we still go to the Opera and the Ballet, but film has really become the most pervasive art form absorbed by the masses. And it’s no wonder, since in many ways, film combines every other art form. It is story telling, it is photography, it can be dance and music. And it is right there in front of you with people walking and talking. It is the ultimate voyeuristic experience. It speaks our language. The question is, what is it saying? What are we learning from it?

Some would say, “not much.”

Glover is currently touring the country and festivals with two films that he produced. Both films are an iconoclastic orgy of images featuring actors with disabilities, graphic sexuality, taboo symbols like swastikas and black face, all strung together in a macabre poetry that is neither clear nor comforting. (Not unlike Picasso’s use of disjointed imagery in Guernica and other cubist painting.) Glover is using these films to explore issues that are generally ignored by polite society, such as the “real” lives and passions of the disabled. (Not unlike Verdi introducing us to prostitutes and the diseased and dying.) As discomforting as it may be, it is precisely this opportunity to grow and learn that Glover is offering us, very intentionally.

“The first film [What Is It?] is my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 or 30 years, when anything that could possibly make an audience member uncomfortable is necessarily excised, or that film will not be corporately funded or distributed, which I think is a negative thing,” explains Glover.

If one is looking for film that truly challenges our perceptions, that is a true departure from the standard films of the day, one is dependent on film that is being produced and distributed outside of the mainstream mechanisms of corporate film. That is in no way an indictment of mainstream cinema – surely there is a time and a place to just be entertained, and that’s important.

But it’s also important for the boundaries to be pushed. It is that innovation that trickles down and shapes the future of the art form – in the same way that Picasso and Verdi left their mark. It is those glimpses that expand our view of the world around us.

However, as Glover points out, the corporate film model precludes “shocking” films. Some of it is philosophical, and some of it is logistical. But it all gets back to the fact that mainstream film producers need to make money. Filmmakers like Glover would like to make money, but what they NEED is to make art, they NEED to say something.

“You hear a phrase often said in the corporately funded and distributed film industry,” explains Glover, “which is ‘well, we really wouldn’t want to say that.’ It sounds innocuous enough, but when it’s said at every single step of the process, it comes to a point where nothing is said. Nothing is questioned.”

In his film What Is It?, the entire cast – except Glover himself – has severe physical disabilities. Most of them have Downs Syndrome, which was a controversial decision to some. But Glover didn’t see it that way. In discussing it with him, it was an almost pragmatic decision, more of a “why not?” than a “why?” After all, people without disabilities are often cast to play people with disabilities – right? Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump. Daniel Day Lewis turned in an incredible performance as a man with Cerebral Palsy who could only move his left foot. Why couldn’t someone with a disability play a character who is not disabled? Although there is no real answer, we instinctively know that it is not likely to happen in mainstream cinema.

But Glover feels that there’s a larger point to be made. It’s not about just looking at people with disabilities, but looking at them doing all the same things ‘normal’ people do, so that they are perceived as ‘normal.’ “On some level it makes them almost more like just people, as people with Down Syndrome are,” he explains. ” I feel most corporately funded and distributed films that deal with people with disabilities, there’s been a way that it’s put, that kind of ‘cuteifies’ or ‘puppetizes’ them in such a way that I feel is condescending, and I feel that this film is not.”

It’s an important point to make. But it’s not likely to be a profitable one, so the very real business of corporate film might inherently limit the otherwise expansive flexibility of film as a medium. It doesn’t matter what people “want” to do if it is a losing business proposition. Which gets us to the question, “what is an independent film?”

Speaking with Crispin Glover left me with a clearer understanding of the forces at play. Like many people, I had always thought of an independent film as a film that was produced outside of the corporate studios. I had not thought about distribution at all. But, as Glover pointed out, distribution may have as much to do with the constraints as anything else.

Imagine, for a moment, a child walking – accidentally – into a film like Glover’s. A film with graphic depictions of sex, unusual depictions of people with physical disabilities doing puzzling things, a barrage of images that make no sense. None of us wants that. Even Glover says, “I think that it’s proper to have laws that protect minors, they should have films that are for them.”

But what does that mean for those of us who want challenging films? Films with adult themes that we don’t want our children to see? “Unfortunately what’s happening is because of the multiplex theaters, it makes sense that the people are very concerned that minors, say a 10 year old, could walk down the hall and walk into a movie that’s like this, which is not for a 10 year old. But what’s happening, unfortunately, because that is the main way that films are distributed, and producers need to recoup their investment, they can’t do it because there are not single screen distribution elements anymore. Which consequently means that there are no films being corporately funded and distributed, at this point in time, that are just for adults. Which I think is a very negative thing for the culture.”

We need to be careful not to create a polemic that implies that corporate entities don’t want innovative and artistic films that push the boundaries and challenge both imagination and soul. Instead, we should understand that there is time and place for both corporate and independent film.

Independent film is utterly dependent on independent distribution. Specifically, single-screen theaters that can eliminate the fear of a child walking into a film that is not made for them. “Adult film” has come to mean pornography, which is a shame, because it virtually eliminates the possibility of a film that is simply inappropriate for children.

Ironically, there are plenty of shows on television that are unfit for children, but we assume parental control in homes. I know that I wouldn’t want my child watching Rome, Dexter, or The Wire – shows that I love.

But film doesn’t really have the equivalent of the late-night pay channels. There are very few large-scale distribution channels for filmmakers like Crispin Glover. As a result, he tours the country with limited engagements in theaters. And he is utterly dependent on finding an audience that understands the value of experimental art pushing boundaries.

In the end , however, it’s up to each of us to decide that we want art in our lives, and decide for ourselves what we want it to do. There is no wrong answer. Art can soothe, heal, invigorate, enrage, engage, explain, illuminate. It can be visual, musical, frenetic, dance, theater, art. But one thing it can’t be is absent.

As long as there have been people, there has been art. It was drawn on cave walls as a way to explain everything from the location of water to the best way to appease the gods. Art has stood as a sentinel by which we track and protect our own development of a culture. And on the fringe of it, way outside the norm, there have been artists who are not just redefining their art, but helping us define ourselves.

Sitting through Crispin Glover’s films, and talking with him, I am fairly certain that I have seen glimpses into the future. I can’t say that I understand it, and I’m not even sure I like it really, but I know that we need it.

When we first sat down to chat, I thanked Crispin for knocking me off balance. I can’t remember the last time a film knocked me off balance. For me, it was looking at disabled people as sexual beings, as beings capable of anger, rage, fear, love. Sure, intellectually I knew that was the case, but I had never seen it before. It really did seem to me that this must have been what it was like when the first Opera patrons went to the Opera and saw not gods, but rather prostitutes dying of tuberculosis.

Picasso, Verdi, Mozart – they all had patrons who ensured their financial well being and continued ability to create their art. Independent Cinema has a different sort of patron. It’s more like a community of patrons. In cities across the country you will find independent theaters. Some of them are literally single-screen theaters owned by individuals. There are smaller chains like Landmark that are mostly separate from the big studios. These venues make it possible for independent films to reach audiences, and as such generate the revenue necessary to keep making films.

It’s not a question, so much, of whether or not the art is “good,” or we “like it. It is more about understanding that, as a society, we need art. And it is all around us. Whether we identify it as art or not, media is serving us a steady flow of images that we use to define ourselves, via TV, movies, music videos and more. In order to keep that definition fluid, there need to be voices challenging the norm, asking us to maybe take another look, maybe see something different.

Glovers films are the first films of which I am aware that ask us to look at people with disabilities in this way. And that is important. He’s certainly not alone, there are thousands of filmmakers out there making films that challenge our perceptions. I’m lucky to live in Seattle, which has a really vibrant independent film community, supported by organizations like the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) and it’s many members.

But groups like NWFF – and they exist in most major cities – can’t do it alone. We need to support independent film. It can be as simple as finding your local single-screen theater and going to films there so that that distribution channel stays available. You can take a film class at some place like NWFF. You can challenge yourself to go see these puzzling films, and talk to your friends about them. As far as supporting social change goes, this is a pretty fun way to do it!

I did ask Glover what the “magic wand” was, what we could do to ensure the future of independent film, and art that challenges us. He just looked at me, (with gorgeous green eyes) as if I had asked him to explain to me why the moon was not striped. It occurs to me that there may not be an answer to that question. Glover’s suggestion? “In terms of what the culture has to do, it’s difficult; people are going to adhere to, on some level, what’s put before them. I have to continue to explore how to put things before them. I have to do it in whatever logical fashion that I can, if there is a certain kind of education that comes through with it, and it continues to spread, then that’s a good thing.”


This was originally written for the Seattle Weekly, in 2008. However, my good friend Mark Lipsky (Who Roger Ebert referred to as a “legend” in a recent tweet) just started a blog about independent cinema, and it reminded me of this old piece….  And how much I love, and we NEED, independent cinema.


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