"Fuck Hollywood," said host Andy Samberg at Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards, a tongue-in-cheek act of defiance that was met with a mixed reaction. The irony, of course, was that this Santa Monica beach gathering brought much of Hollywood together for a ceremony that constantly sends a message antithetical to its name. In the space of the two-and-a-half hour show, independent spirit declares war with Hollywood in a couple of categories where the little guys shine. But at the end of the day, Hollywood usually wins.
While many people reasonably adore "Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated romantic comedy, but its domineering presence at the Spirit Awards this year once again sent a confusing message. Attendees watched while Russell ventured to the stage on three occasions, as the movie won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and finally Best Film. Jennifer Lawrence's acceptance speech for Best Actress played like a rehearsal for her Oscar one. While not without its charms, in this context "Silver Linings Playbook" became something of a spoil sport: Here was a movie full of stars from an established Hollywood filmmaker who won his first Spirit award 20 years ago.
Its triumph may indicate a slight improvement on the process following last year's embarrassing series of wins for "The Artist," a French movie that cleaned up at an event supposedly designed to honor American independent film. But "Silver Linings Playbook" nevertheless steamrolled competition that deserved better. The Best Film category included audacious contenders like Richard Linklater's "Bernie," in which both star Jack Black and Linklater himself took on tonally risky material and delivered a peculiarly charming black comedy. The category also singled out Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," his best-received movie in years and an affirmation of his stylistic ingenuity. Ira Sachs' powerfully intimate relationship drama "Keep the Lights On" was made on the smallest of budgets among the nominees yet managed to maintain visibility on the raw power of its performances and quietly affecting mood. And then there was "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the underdog story of last year and a seeming shoo-in for Independent Spirit Awards attention that wound up winning only for its cinematography. Elsewhere, "Silver Linings Playbook" continually blocked the way.
As the ceremony came to a close, the director of one of the losing nominees was milling about when a friend put an arm around him and asked, "Are you disappointed?" He shrugged, sighed and nodded. This was an inevitable situation that even Samberg noticed, at one point joking about how the "Keep the Lights On" table was located in the way back of the room.
Once again, the irony cut deep: While those seated far from the front had to watch the proceedings on a large monitor, at a tableful of sponsors located directly beneath the stage, a marketer from a prominent company eagerly snapped photos of Salma Hayek at the table next to him. He couldn't stop staring: On one side of Hayek and her husband was Daniel Radcliffe (Harry-freaking-Potter!) and Bryan Cranston (Walter-freaking-White!); on the other, Jeremy Renner. Seated to his right, wearing a dazzling red suit, sat John Waters, but this particular sponsor had never heard of the guy. "I don't know this world," he said.
This was the epitome of the Independent Spirit Problem, which we will call ISP. Over the years, the Film Independent-sponsored event has been constantly assailed by figures in the indie sector perturbed by its tendency to allow big movies and names to take over the event -- not only its guest list but among the list of winners as well.
The organization isn't blind to the ISP and certainly has a reason to work around it. The Spirits form its biggest fundraising event of the year and in order to draw lucrative sponsorships, they need the glamour that name talent can bring. Still, it struggles to walk the line between bottom-line goals and integrity, alienating the exact facet of the community it's supposed to celebrate. The ISP frustrates many people each year, but it has many potential solutions. Over the course of a post-Spirits evening at various informal gatherings where ISP grousing percolated widely, I heard a lot of ideas. Here's a few ways the Spirits might be able to remove the paint keeping them in the corner.