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The Rogue Filmmaker

Nevermind Tarantino.  Forget Spike Lee.  Don’t even mention Kevin Smith or Sophia Coppola. Or Richard Linklater.  Fine filmmakers all of them, without a doubt, but they’re not the crown jewel of independent cinema (though, Xavier Dolan comes close). That crown requires the ultimate free mind, a person who doesn’t care about convention, and it quite possibly could require total ignorance of convention.  The current notion of independent cinema revolves around a dollar figure, or maybe even lack of studio distribution for those in the know. But for me the idea of independent film revolves squarely around the radical structure and raw quality of the images and story presented. There’s a feeling you get when you watch one. Many times these films feel pretentious for the sake of being ostentatious, which detracts from what could have been a truly enigmatic story. But still, for my dollar, I’d rather watch a Lars Von Trier feature, with all his strange obsessions and explicit themes, than fork over for a formulaic Penny Marshall rip-off captained by some hack music video director who got hired on the cheap (How are there still music video directors? When was the last time you got excited about a music video premier?). Even if Von Trier’s films are ultimately weird and melancholy (independent substitutes for pretentiousness), at least my mind is kept at attention for the majority of the running time. He’s odd, but God bless him, and I’ll see his flicks when they come out. 

So who takes the all-time independent cake?

Mr. John Cassavetes, come on down! I watched my first Cassavetes film less than a month ago, and I just finished my fourth (all part of the Criterion Collection box-set I might add ). I don’t see his films as overly artsy, they don’t feature obvious scenes of character enlightenment, or quiet moments where a character sits alone with a sad emo-rock song playing in the background as he/she thinks about their life and the choices they’ve made. No, no, no.  Melodrama? NONE!  In a Cassavetes film, the characters are already formed, they’re real people you witness living real life every day.  There’s no convention, no discernible structure, and believe it or not, no pretension. I know, wild stuff. Why do you think these films go through production on shoe-string budgets and spend months or years searching for a distributor? Because the  industry can’t categorize these kinds of films, and in that sense, they have no idea how to market it. Or make a profit. 

You know what? Screw convention!  Cassavetes’ films are about people: black siblings trying to carve out a life in the 50’s hipster scene, or a proud strip-club owner who cares more about  the club he built than about the bullet lodged in his sternum, or the emotionally distraught marriage between an old-school utilities worker and his mentally challenged wife, or the estranged couple who can’t survive living a normal life with or without one another. It’s people we see time and time again, in every facet of life and every corner of society. And some people might say “Well, what’s the movie about?”  It’s about living those lives. The life of a black family in the 50’s, the estranged couple, the torn family, a proud club owner. Rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight. Pride, lust, love, envy, desperation. 

These are human emotions and human feelings, and what Cassavetes puts on display is humans. His films are nearly impossible to delineate from documentary form; they’re starkly natural, not forced or contrived.  And the raw emotion? It could crush you like a ton of bricks. Independence is about doing things your own way, and in film, it’s about telling a story in your own voice. It’s the spirit of independent cinema, and I’ll be damned if John Cassavetes wasn’t the greatest independent filmmaker who ever took up the craft.

If anyone’s interested, here are the films I spoke of: 

Shadows (1959)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

A Woman Under Influence (1974)

Faces (1968)

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 5, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Holy crap, you really nailed exactly how I feel about the current state of indie cinema and, more importantly, the magic of John Cassavetes. When I watched my first Cassavetes film- “Faces”- I started digging a little deeper to see what he was all about and I found a quote from someone calling him “The Godfather of Independent Cinema”. I think that sums it up perfectly.

  2. August 5, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Definitely agree. I’m happy with/pissed at Netflix for removing his films from their Instant collection. If they didn’t put a timetable on it I might have waited even longer to watch a Cassavete’s film, but now it’s disk only if people want to see them.

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