Labels are misleading. This is as true in the world of film as it is in the grocery store. "Avant-garde cinema," for instance, is used to describe a now-classic -- and not very experimental -- 60-plus-year-old movement. And "independent cinema" is supposed to refer to films that are made by, and represent, the outsider.
But these days it doesn't seem like independent filmmakers are outside of much except the Hollywood system. Self-taught directors who max out their credit cards and sell their souls to medical research to finance their low-budget masterpieces are a rare breed. Today's independent filmmakers are often graduates of topflight film schools costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"With few exceptions," says author and Variety senior film critic Emanuel Levy in his book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, "there is not much edge, formal experimentation, or serious challenge to dominant culture." What is there, according to Levy, is a sense of the "personal vision" of an individual auteur. He'll discuss the visions of Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) and Alan Rudolph (Choose Me) in a weekend of screenings and seminars at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Levy's examination of the rise of American independent cinema begins in 1977-78, with the founding of the Independent Feature Project and the emergence of such directors as David Lynch, Charles Burnett, Victor Nunez and Alan Rudolph. Tracing the evolution of the genre to the late 1990s, Levy marks the commercial success of Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape and the significance of Sundance as turning points for indies.
Independent cinema today, Levy told Filmmaker Magazine, doesn't have an intellectual agenda, because its point of reference is Hollywood. It does, however, have trends, embracing all that is amoral and taboo, from nihilism to extreme violence. Perhaps this is the indie filmmaker's last stand against the mainstream.
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Levy will introduce the "Cinema of Outsiders" series, which runs Friday, February 25, through Sunday, February 27, and will lead a free seminar, "Writing About Film," on Sunday at 1 p.m. Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. Call (713)639-7531 for more info.