Each summer, the same tired rants about Hollywood franchises and remakes bombarding the multiplexes arise with about as much originality as the current Hollywood fixation on remaking the eighties. Whether or not the latest iterations of "The Karate Kid" and "The A-Team" actually succeed on their own terms, the very existence of these movies proves that little has changed in the modern blockbuster climate, and media sarcasm can't do anything about it.
If studios are fated to repeat the same projects ad infinitum, the natural alternatives should flourish on a smaller scale. The question is which smaller scale: Specialty releases courtesy of smaller distributors, or perhaps the more particular options of online video? New media holds loads of promise for grassroots artistry, but the answer still lies with the former option. On the Internet, where storytelling can theoretically operate with the maximum degree of creative freedom, complacency has also set in.
A recent montage of online videos screened at the Webby Awards in New York championed the same rudimentary gags that defined the online video boom a few years ago: Have you seen the one with the Sumatran baby smoking two packs a day? (It's up to almost 4 million views on YouTube.) How about that interview with Andy Roddick where a couple of koalas bump uglies in the background? (84,372 views and counting.) In an arena supposedly defined by constant innovation, not much has changed. The jokes of the viral video age have settled into their own cycles of normalcy.
The idea that sophomoric viral media can easily attract a greater viewership than any number of new releases suggests the future holds even bleaker prospects. It's enough to make any number of independent producers expect the worst, much like the suicidal producer at the center of Mia Hansen-Love's recent drama, "The Father of My Children." But if that downbeat character represents a dour prognosis for the industry's contemporary state, then quietly engrossing, wise-to-the-world cinema like "The Father of My Children" offers a semblance of hope.
In fact, the latest collection of early summer counter-programming -- which includes Hansen-Love's film, a late May release -- provides a much sunnier perspective on the state of the art form. While blockbusters fight the same old wars, alternative June releases like the patient backwoods drama "Winter's Bone" (out now) and the Greek dystopian thriller "Dogtooth" (opening this week) represent the sort of intelligent, surprising narratives that are simply too advanced for the standards of the studio system.
The non-fiction options also bring strong alternatives to the dramas at the multiplex. "Gasland," Josh Fox's powerful first-person account of the debilitating effect that gas drilling has on water supplies in small towns across the country, airs on HBO this week. In early July, the same weekend that "Despicable Me" and "Predators" go head-to-head, a hilariously insightful documentary portrait of online infamy called "Winnebago Man" presents the ideal counterpoint to brainless escapism.
That's not to say I have no interest in "Predators," the first big project from Nimrod Antal, a director whose resume demonstrates a firm grasp on the tools of suspense. But once again, the franchise stigma of the project harkens back to twenty years ago, serving as another reminder that the Hollywood machine remains as immovable as ever. Even "Toy Story 3," an earnest Pixar movie with the above-average quality typical of the brand, bears the mark of this eternally repetitive trend.
Remakes and sequels are rarely the stuff of legend, but neither are many indies that deserve reputations as such. This year, "Breathless" and "Psycho" turned 50, and both movies retain an authenticity staked in the ways that they played key roles in film history. However, they also had significant industrial support to turn them into major phenomenons, an essential factor in their potential to survive the next several years and beyond. With the exception of the close-knit crowd of filmmakers routinely embraced by the film festival world, modern indies have little to sustain their long-term lifespans.
As a result, it seems unlikely that "Dogtooth," "Winnebago Man" or "Winter's Bone" can manage decade-spanning legacies a la the works of Alfred Hitchcock or Jean-Luc Godard. But they won't go away, either. These movies deliver a kind of sacred recluse from the mainstream -- because unless the industry undergoes some bizarre change, nobody will remake any of them.