Surely I’m not the only person in America weary of stylistic games and jokes. I can’t be the only one who wants a movie to teach me something, to change me—not merely to spin around chasing its own tail, no matter how stylistically virtuosic it may be. Narrative jokes, tricks, and surprises are easy, superficial ways of holding interest. This worship of empty stylistic virtuosity is Hitchcock’s cinematic and Pauline Kael’s lamentable critical legacy. Is that what art is about: thrills and chills? Surprises and winks at the viewer? Most of my production undergrads can do that before they arrive on campus—because it doesn’t take knowledge, thought, insight, or maturity. These movies whip up a frothy soufflé of zippy effects, but leave you hungry in the end. They don’t nourish our souls, just titillate our feelings. It seems like such a revelation at the time, but there’s really nothing to it. It’s all fake feelings.
Fake feelings are manufactured all the time outside of the movies. Look at the craziness that parents are persuaded to flip into, chasing after Beanie Babies or Nintendo games for their kids, or at what happens at a political rally, or the Gulf War patriotic frenzy that had all of America by the throat a few years back, or at what goes on at sporting events. You’d think civilization hinged on who won the Superbowl or the World Series. You’d think whether the O.J. verdict was correct really mattered to the future of the world. These emotions are not real; they are synthetic, made-to-order.
For an illustration of how films can whip up and exploit what I am calling pseudo-emotions, look at the whole thriller genre. There’s not a real feeling in it. The emotions are plastic. The only reason we fall for it is that it taps into some aspect of our evolutionary past, some section of our reptilian brain stems connected with fight or flight responses. I dare you to try to turn off a suspenseful thriller after you’ve watched 10 minutes. I can’t do it, either. But what does that prove? Suspense is the cheapest trick in the book, and it means nothing—no matter how gripping it may feel. Just because you feel an emotion doesn’t mean anything valuable is happening to your heart and mind. The emotions in most movies are about as deep as an experience at the circus or an amusement park (though a friend who read this told me that I am being much too hard on amusement parks and circuses).
Romance movies just use another set of tricks. Watching them, I get a lump in my throat; I get goosebumps and the hair stands up on my arms; sometimes I even cry; but it’s not deep learning, just gimmicks. My students always say that a particular movie “is so moving.” So what? If you want to feel emotions, go to a hospital emergency room on a Saturday night. Simply feeling an emotion about a scene in Shine or The English Patient proves absolutely nothing. You can get emotional hearing a baby cry, but that’s not art. It’s biology. It’s something programmed in us. Shine and The English Patient are cartoons for adults—no different from Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, or Bambi. They’re as simple-minded as a children’s storybook. To put it more bluntly, they’re a pack of lies. There’s not an original or truthful shot, scene, or line of dialogue in all of Shine. It’s a sign of how even our film festivals have been dumbed down to the level of the melodramatic mainstream that it played at Sundance last year. I think it even won some kind of award. Unbelievable. Thank you, Robert Redford, for bringing us works like Shine and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s nice to know that someone is out there fighting for the future of cinematic art, making sure that 19th-century melodramatic hokum will live on into the 21st century.
These films—Shine, The English Patient, Schindler’sList—offer lite experiences: not learning, but simulations of learning, with none of the trouble and pain and growth of the real thing. We go in not to be tested and grow but to have our prejudices confirmed. These movies are machines for mass-producing feelings, which roll off their assembly lines in one-size-fits-all form. The characters are generic; the dialogue is generic; the acting is generic; the ideas are generic; the emotions are generic. Shine is a series of emotional clichés—Rainman meets Mr. Holland’s Opus—one little heart-throbbing manipulation after the other: Feel this, feel that-click, click, click. Get it? Got it. It’s not real experience, but button-pushing—like the joke about the comedians’ convention: “Number 23, number 18, number 3. Ha, ha, ha.” These movies provide low-impact emotional workouts and knowledge on the cheap. If this is art, Norman Rockwell should be in the Louvre. It’s cooked up from a recipe as complex as an afterschool special on TV. As with Schindler’s List, when it works, the goal is to make us feel good about feeling bad. We can congratulate ourselves on the nobility of our emotions.
Are we that desperate to feel something? Are our lives that out of control that we need this degree of emotional reassurance and predictability in our works of art? Are we this addicted to emotional formulas that we need a fix of these fake feelings every Saturday night? Do viewers actually enjoy having their buttons pushed in this cynical way? I hope things are not that bad. Yet I have to admit that when I eavesdrop on the conversations of the couples streaming up the aisles as the credits roll, it seems that most of them absolutely adore being passive and manipulated like this. They like being put on intellectual autopilot. They enjoy turning on the cruise control, sitting back, and being taken on a mindless, impersonal, emotional ride.
How different a film like A Woman Under the Influence is. As a viewer of that movie, you have to work. Cassavetes tests your powers of response. You have to come to grips with difficult, unclassifiable experiences. You have to figure things out. It’s not clichés. It’s not a cartoon version of experience. It’s not cruise control, but an Indianapolis 500 of feelings, demanding continuous emotional lane-changing and gear-shifting every few seconds as you navigate hair-raising, hairpin emotional turns. It’s not high school understandings of life. You have to know a lot about men and women and children and marriage and life in general just to understand what is going on, and you learn new things as you watch the film. The film makes demands on you. You have to think about what you see. You have to work through it emotionally. It deliberately challenges you. It defeats your expectations—all those formulas we try to impose on experience. It doesn’t scream its meanings at you. It doesn’t simplify everything. It shows you things that are subtle and slippery and elusive. You have to really rise to the occasion, just as you do in the subtlest and most delicate moments of life. Cassavetes makes adult movies—not in the degenerate, pornographic sense of the term—but movies you have to have experienced a lot to understand, movies that take emotional maturity and subtlety to keep up with.
Everything about A Woman Under the Influence challenges us. Nothing is formulaic. Consider the main character, Mabel Longhetti. She’s impossible to pin down. We can’t bring her into focus. She won’t fit any of our stereotypes. She has so many different facets to her personality. So many different selves. She reminds us how boring and predictable the characters in mainstream movies are. She reminds us that there are no characters in real life. No one reading this is a character like someone in a mainstream movie. Mabel is a chameleon who becomes different things with different people. That’s also why she stirred up critical debate. Each critic tried to catch her in one net or another—she was a victim, she was a feminist, she was oppressed, she was free—but she slipped through each one’s grasp. It’s a wonderful place to get a character beyond reductive categories. But it’s also confusing and dangerous, especially if you want good reviews. Cassavetes gets his film to a place beyond the bumper-sticker ideological slogans that pass as a substitute for thinking: a place a lot like life.
While there are only five or 10 generic Hollywood movies, there is no one kind of independent film. They come in as many flavors, sizes, and shapes as there are artists. That’s why it is easier to say what independent films are not than what they are. I can tell you some things they aren’t: They aren’t about fancy camerawork and razzle-dazzle visuals. They leave that to TV commercials. They aren’t about pretty photography and gorgeous shots. They leave that to the manufacturers of calendars and postcards. They aren’t necessarily about telling a suspenseful, gripping story. They leave that to writers of murder mysteries. You don’t read Shakespeare for the story. You don’t go to Chekhov to find out how it ends.
These films aren’t about grand sociological generalizations and clanging symbols either. They leave that to Time magazine think pieces about 2001, Apocalypse Now, and Thelma and Louise. Independent films may even violate conventional notions of morality—the infantile punishment of villains and rewarding of heroes that you find in most mainstream movies, because they call us to a higher morality, where what matters is not rewards and punishments, but subtleties of sensitivity and kindness and love.
The best way to describe these films positively is to say that they give us new powers. They give us the ability to see and feel in new ways. Watching A Woman Under the Influence is like seeing family life through a microscope, suddenly being able to see things that we live most of our lives not noticing; it’s like suddenly being able to feel in new ways. We see butterfly flickers of emotion in characters’ faces; we hear verbal flutterings with super-sensitive ears; we see and feel emotions we never realized
People think that great works of art give us big ideas, but that is not correct. We can leave that to Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Star Wars and 2001. Really great films give us experiences which ideas are entirely too coarse and rigid to take in. As T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, these artists have minds too fine to be violated by an idea. Ideas are an easy way of knowing. These films don’t tell you what to know, where to look, what to feel, or what to conclude about what you see. They make you work. Rather than giving you thoughts, they make you think. They give you experiences too mobile and slippery to be boxed up in an idea. As Emerson said, the poet is free and makes free. These artists show us ways out of the clichés, the fakery, the synthetic feelings, the canned identities that our culture overflows with.
The preceding should suggest why the real nature of cinematic independence is not bureaucratic, but emotional and intellectual. It matters less how and where these films were made than that they break the chains that bind us (as Horace said was the function of all art). They break us free from the fabric of lies, simplifications, and half-truths from which our culture is woven.
What is it to be an independent filmmaker? I want to propose a series of definitions in the hope that at least one may be meaningful. Cassavetes once said to me that he thought of himself simply as a reporter, and that is not a bad definition. Of course, being this kind of reporter means that you file reports from the emotional front that avoid the intellectual clichés and emotional formulas that most professional reporters employ. Ezra Pound said that the only difference between an artist and a journalist is that the artist reported news that didn’t become obsolete. News that stayed news.
Another way to think of independent filmmakers is as anthropologists—anthropologists who don’t go off to Borneo or New Guinea to study mating rituals and family customs, but who stay at home and study their own culture.
Another way to think of real art is as endless question asking. These filmmakers are little Socrateses who are never satisfied with a pat answer. They keep asking “Did you notice this? This? This?” They dare to ask questions to which they really, truly don’t have answers. And they ask the hardest possible questions: Questions about our uncertainties, fears, and insecurities. Questions about our ability to give love and to receive it. Questions about our loneliness or our alienation from our emotions. Questions about why we may not be happy even when we have everything we want. Questions about what ultimately matters in life.
Another way to think of artists is as explorers who travel and map unknown inner worlds. While the Hollywood filmmaker knows where he or she is going every step of the way, storyboarding scenes days or weeks in advance of the shooting, and going in each day with a set of predetermined points to make in each shot, real artists set off down a road they can’t see to the end of. They work in the dark, feeling their way step by step, learning new things as they go along. In our smug, know-it-all era, it’s clear that artists are almost the only real explorers left, and that they come back with the only news that really matters. But we might as well accept the fact that Ted Koppel will never devote a panel discussion to Mark Rappaport’s or Robert Kramer’s explorations. Barbara Walters will never interview Caveh Zahedi or Su Friedrich and ask them where they have been traveling emotionally. It’s so easy to deal with factual discoveries, and so hard to deal with emotional ones, that it’s not surprising that the more important kind of exploration is almost completely ignored. We know so much about facts and events, and so precious little about ourselves. Sometimes I think we’re downright scared of looking ourselves in the eye. We’d always rather look outside ourselves—cruise the Internet, travel the world—than sit still and listen to our own hearts.