He starts by noting Richard Corliss' observation that independent films these days tend to be pallid and predictable -- so much so that they have come to constitute a genre in themselves. But then he adds:
True, indie films are often pallid comedies and melodramas. But just as often, and sometimes at the same time, they’re desperately sensationalistic. In these the formal conservativism to which Corliss objects is wedded to hot-button content. We call a bland Indie film quirky, but there are others we call dark. They’re Indie Guignol.And, as he notes, this sort of sick crap has bled over into the mainsteam cinema. We are now treated to broad-release exercises in sadistic excess like Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.
The very distinction is suspiciously simple, I admit. I don’t deny that there are independent films that manage to be riveting without being either cutesy or stomach-churning. Recent examples are Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, Phil Morrison’s Junebug, and Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night. Some of these even won praise at Sundance. But most such films don’t get the sort of enthusiastic applause that darker efforts do, nor are their makers heralded as iconoclasts.
Where did Indie Guignol come from? As with most things Indie, sex, lies, and videotape was surely an important model, though I suspect that another template was furnished by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, that Hardy Boys mystery turned fetid. In any case, for a couple of decades the indie scene has taken on ever more provocative themes and subjects, from Suture and Boxing Helena through Happiness and Boogie Nights to Hard Candy and Little Children.
Reports from Sundance indicate that the trend isn’t flagging. There’s a docudrama about men having sex with horses. Hounddog, which Todd McCarthy portrays as a God’s Little Acre for the new century, is already better known as the Dakota Fanning Rape Movie. Reviewing An American Crime, a film about torturing a child, Screen International’s Mike Goodridge tells us that it centers on “unspeakable and repeated violence and abuse.” Needless to say, he’s full of admiration. “Although often excruciating to watch, it is so well-crafted and well-acted that its portrait of casual savagery in the ‘burbs resonates long after the end credits roll.” In this climate, no wonder that the MPAA is politicking to rehabilitate the NC-17 rating, which would presumably help indie films from studio boutiques get onto more screens.
The central conceit of Indie Guignol is that to be creative in cinema you have to be dangerous. James Mottram’s book The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood is an informative overview of Indiewood, but too often it equates being a “maverick” and having a “vision” with an adolescent naughtiness. He approvingly reports Fincher’s reaction to the ending of Se7en. “While it reinforced the notion that justice will prevail, Fincher takes a private goulish pleasure in imagining Mills being ‘carted off to be gang-raped by prison inmates.’” Mottram notes, perhaps unnecessarily, that Fincher has a “sour vision of humanity” (155). Likewise, Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot celebrates the fact that her “rebel auteurs” made movies that “combined their brutality with humor” (xi), as if violence and comedy didn’t ricochet off one another in virtually every student horror film ever made.
What is perhaps most disappointing is that the new "dangerous" films basically accept the twisted values and thematic conventions of the mainstream cinema.
[T]he daring indie film often trades on the same clichés that haunt program pictures and prestige items. Sunny small towns harbor nasty secrets, manicured suburbs conceal rot, sex is degrading and only an excuse for power plays, rural folk are racist peckerwoods, corporations grind your soul, siblings vie for parental approval, serving in the military makes you a hairtrigger bully, high school is hell, and so is grade school. Dark visions these films may have, but the landscapes and populations they reveal are pretty familiar.And that, coming from America's finest film critic, is a stunning statement. Not only does Bordwell put the indies in their place for expressing trite conventionality, but his description of the filmic convention is itself an indictment of the entire industry. Film-makers, both mainstream and indie, inhabit a conceptual universe that has almost nothing to do with American life as actually experienced.
I remember many years ago attending a screening of David Lynch's Eraserhead at The Living Arts theatre on South Street in Philadelphia. I was accompanied by two friends, both of whom at the time were "in the business." Lynch described his effort as "A Philadelphia Of the Mind" and this touched off a heated discussion as to whether Lynch's surreal vision of Philadelphia bore any relation at all to the city in which we lived and worked. One of my friends, then and now a Maoist radical, felt it captured perfectly the emotional response he had to the city in the Rizzo years. His disdain for American urban culture knew no limits. My other friend, a conservative Catholic, was absolutely repulsed and saw nothing there but psychological and cultural pathology. I struck a middle ground, arguing that the film was best understood as an attempt to create an alternative reality at a critical distance from the world of experience, similar to what SF and Fantasy writers did [at the time I was heavy into SF].
Lynch was in the vanguard of the new American cinema and in the sick, sadistic, infantile themes that now pervade the medium we can see his influence. Looking back over the decades and seeing what Lynch has wrought I can now stand at a critical distance from that experience and declare it to be unmitigated crap. Back then Lynch was making, and still makes, as do his "outlaw" imitators, what Truffaut called, and Bordwell repeats the term, "shitty films."
Read Bordwell's essay here.