[EDITORS NOTE: The following editorial is solely the opinion of the author, and does not neccessarily represent the views of indieWIRE LLC, or any of its editors.]
EDITORIAL: There Goes the Indiehood, Blair Witch's Bottom Line
by Jon Jost
I don’t know quite how I landed on the list getting the notice about the latest hot item in the U.S. indie world, but I thought I’d toss in an acrid comment. Certainly “The Blair Witch Project” epitomizes the trajectory of the so-called American independent (feature) scene, condensing into one glorious ball of big money the victory of $$ “uber alles.”
I remember way back once, I think it was 1979, the founding little convention of the Independent Feature Project, in NYC, in which the slightly Stalinist lefties who organized it sought to tuck under one big umbrella the whole non-Hollywood film world that existed then, albeit when it came down to it their real interests were in rather hum-drum conventional things, though they gave a terse bit of lip service to the more arty end of the spectrum (Mark Rappaport, Jim Jarmusch), but it was clear the aesthetic and other inclinations were a bit more – or a lot more – mainline.
The irony of the day was there, in the opening flush of Reaganite shifts to Market Economies and the blazing first flush of 1980’s Wall Street mania, these folks wanted to slip these diverse folks into one big blanket and go knock on the door of Uncle Sam and following the now long defunct example of various Euro-socialist-style government film funding agencies, ask for a handout, nevermind if the presence of Hollywood in-country made for a lousy argument that filmmaking was somehow a down-trodden profession in the good old U.S. of A.
Well, the IFP which was corruptly born (in a very fixed and most decidedly undemocratic meeting) of that week, blossomed (as I predicted) into a many-winged creature, composed mostly of bureaucratic sorts dreaming of Hollywood. A look at the IFP roster will show that many indeed migrated into the arms of the business from which they claimed independence. In the intervening decades (two of them now), the banner of the American Independent cinema has marched out, world-wide, with precious little nodding to creativity, art, or other such not-so-marketable commodities, but rather increasingly to the blare (yes, blare) of box office mumbo-jumbo, the shrieking Eureka that “This Makes Money!!!”
Back perhaps a decade or so ago it was the likes of a Rick Linklater or Robert Rodriguez, who made little regional items of some real quality, or mythically cheap ones, that went out and had modest audiences, for modest shifts from the Hollywood norms, and made mostly modest money (but got invites from Hwd. and Vine honchos to come play there, usually to not such wonderful results). Some went on to the natural Hollywood move, for better and most often for worse.
The critical prism also shifted, from pretenses to thoughts of artfulness, to being bought lock-stock-and-barrel into the ethos of the times in which one and only one thing was deemed of value, and that was bucks bucks and more bucks. Presto: “The Blair Witch Project,” of which the cinematic values I know not, except sounds like a bottom of the barrel B-movie done by and aimed at sophomores, uncertain if college or high school, and likely with no particular visible artistic quality. But no matter, a kickoff at the Sundance Festival where purported “independence” comes under the aegis of that most independent soul, Robert Redford, then sprouted a million-dollar pickup of a $60,000 film, the absolution of true value certified in the only important thing on the agenda, NUMBERS, and the Net grapevine coupled to allegedly $300,000 in promotion has beaten the Industry at its own game, and there is little Blair Witch nudging $35,000,000 flicks off the Variety top ten list. Huzzah and hurrah.
Well, it was said long ago that “the business of America is business,” and here’s a nice warped example of the twisting of words, like “independence” originally related to aesthetic and perhaps content concerns, wrapped around a sub-budget B movie, suddenly anointed by the gods of the market as the archetypal success of the supposed American Independent Cinema.
The art here is in the con, the market-ploy, the clever use of the Net, the hype-machine, in which such things as the IFP, the Sundance Festival, and other heavy signifiers put out the pretense of art and its concerns and go straight for the commercial jugular. The critics, most long since prostrated to the requirements of the industry that they treat garbage as if it were culture, go along, and now we will be greeted with a generation not dreaming of being the next, oh, George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, but makers of the next-highest-profit-margin-in-terms-of-percentage-of-return-on-investment film on the block.
We will exit the century with the full blast triumphalism of America’s Thatcherite-Reagan Markets Mean the Most, and if a torrid summer hints at the future world of Greenhouse Planet Hollywood Inferno, what the hell, the Cinemax around the corner is air-conditioned, and we can sit in our virtual cocoon while the world goes up in the consequences of our dimly blinded actions. The devaluation of values hits some terminal point of debasement here, (one could have some pun right there) and little wonder I hear that some young people wax nostalgically of that lousy time, the 60’s.
Back in the fifties the guy on the cover of Mad Magazine asked, “What, Me Worry?” Indeed.