Peter Lunenfeld on Fri, 7 Nov 1997 23:04:13 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Hipbrow

[Note: The Sundance Film Festival is coming around again, and I thought the
list might be interested in a some comments I put together for Filmmaker
Magazine on the state of the independent cinema today. Though this essay is
about film, I think the category of hipbrow applies to a great deal of
contemporary cultural production, including (especially?) digital work.]



Pauline Kael titled her first collection I Lost It at the Movies, and no
one needed to ask what "It" was. The love of the cinema has from the first
been highly sexualized. And few movie lovers know betrayal and heartbreak
so well as the partisans of the "independent" cinema, because the object of
their affections is so delicate and rare. Andre Gide's notion that a false
society deserves to paid in a false currency applies equally to the
cultural realm. What is the currency that the public for independent
narrative film demands to be paid in? This question has its corollaries.
What is it to be independent? And, at what point does a filmmaker sacrifice
independence for access to the apparatus of filmmaking?

The independent movement of which I speak here follows the trajectory that
begins with Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid,
1943), continued though films like Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963),
and that split off to offer narratives (as opposed to structural or lyrical
films) with features like John Cassavetes' Shadows (1960) and Jon Jost's
Chameleon (1978) and still pops up in features like The Man Who Envied
Women (Yvonne Rainer, 1986) and The Bloody Child (Nina Menkes, 1996). These
films were predicated on the development of an aesthetic and political
definition of "independence": independent from strictures on content,
independent from conventional narrative structures, and above all,
independent from the Hollywood film industry. So, what of the cinema of the

>From the late 1960s, there has been a competing vision of "independence"
within the American cinema. Since the mammoth box-office of Easy Rider
(Dennis Hopper, 1969), there has been a sense that an "independent" cinema
could be marketed to audiences grown bored with most Hollywood fare. Yet,
by the mid-1980s this marketing of "Different as a Genre," to use Ethan
Morden's turn of phrase, had lost its appeal. It was the "discovery" of
Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape at the Sundance Film Festival
in 1989 and its subsequent commercial success that re-energized
"independence" as a marketing tool. Now, what is left of the film press and
the popular media scout this Utah-based festival for its once yearly
roundup of the state of "independent" cinema. But the press and virtually
the entire critical, distribution, and festival circuits are not looking
for the kind of  "independence" that Cassavetes, Jost, Rainer and Menkes

Instead, they search through the work of a new generation of directors who
create a faux-independent cinema of "calling card" films -- tools to
attract Hollywood investment. This is not properly an independent cinema,
it is instead a low budget one in search of moneyed backers. Take Edward
Burns, for example. The Brothers McMullen (1995) won the Grand Jury Prizes
at Sundance and Deauville, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First
Feature. He followed this up with She's the One (1996) a film
indistinguishable from a mid-level television situation comedy (down to the
starring cast). But Burns, at least, is contentedly middlebrow, staking no
claims to edge or depth.

The paradigmatic figure for the newest generation of to claim the label of
edgy independence is Martin Scorsese, whose inestimable talent and
attraction to violent themes has translated from the smaller scale of early
work like Mean Streets (1973) to big budget studio films like GoodFellas
(1990) and Casino (1995). A new generation of young filmmakers has taken
Scorsese as their model, and without Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (1976) it
is literally impossible to imagine recent films like Nick Gomez's Laws of
Gravity (1991), Dominic Sena's Kalifornia (1993), and Salvatore Stabile's
Gravesend (1997).

These young directors are not to be faulted for their desire to make ever
larger budgeted productions -- the American cinema has relied on such
conscious careerism for much of its vitality for almost a century. But to
do so at the expense of the history of the independent cinema is to degrade
an entire arena of art making practice. And, as Anthony Grafton has pointed
out, "a culture that tolerates forgery will debase its own intellectual
currency, sometimes past redemption." In the 1990s, the great debaser of
the cinema's independent movement has been Quentin Tarantino, a director
who used the marketing label of independence to introduce himself to both
the public and the studios with Reservoir Dogs (1992); and within two years
moved directly into the A-list of Hollywood directors with the remarkable
commercial success of Pulp Fiction (1994). The model he provides sets an
unimaginably bad precedent for those who would follow in his wake.

The generation of filmmakers led by Tarantino have rabid fans and rapturous
critics who imagine that they are taking risks in pledging their allegiance
to this brand of film practice. But it is precisely the fact that these
films have been so calculated to be liked that undercuts any claims to
adventurousness in their audiences or true independence on the part of
their makers. With the growth of this false independents movement, we
witness the triumph of hipbrow culture -- the palatably postmodern mask of
the middlebrow.

Forty years ago, Clement Greenberg offered the following condemnation of
middle-class culture's impact on high art: "Middlebrow culture, because of
the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces
everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization
and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness." The
postmodern collapsed the dialectic between high and low, but who thought
that we would end up settling for its so easily digestible synthesis,
middlebrow culture? Worse yet, we have settled for hipbrow, which is simply
middlebrow tricked out in black clothes. Middlebrow culture at least
acknowledged its own stolidness, exemplifying an honest appreciation of its
bourgeois origins.  But of course, no one would admit to being middlebrow
these days. Hipbrow, on the other hand, is embraceable, a result of ironic
marketing, or perhaps merely the marketing of irony.

The essence of hipbrow is as follows: take a slickly empty violence learned
from observing not life but rather other movies, mix in slightly dated, off
center pop culture references, and wait for the self satisfied reactions of
audience and critic alike. Here is a formula perfect for those who are
unwilling to accept their position in the bourgeoisie. Merchant bankers
with great CD collections of "alternative" music can feel a rush of faux
otherness as they refuse to squirm at the violence. Advertising copywriters
can feel the bite of the street in the dialogue that they recognize not
from their exposure to crime, but rather from their familiarity with crime
films. And the critics revel in hipbrow because not only does it allow them
to pontificate on the state of alienation, these films plug into their
cultural references so well. How gratifying to be part of such a huge wave,
a majority with minority tastes. Hipbrow lays claim to the signification of
"otherness," but hipbrow massifies otherness past the point of difference.
Those in the throes of hipbrow claim an adventurousness, wherein they
"cruise the margins," ferret out the "underground," and wear their cultural
awareness on their sleeves. Independent they are most assuredly not.

Authenticity is not a fixed quality. The "authentic" can be deemed so only
in comparison with something else. In this moment of hipbrow triumphant, it
is vital to memorialize the vanquished ideals of "independence," which the
contemporary cinema has thoroughly debased.

Dr. Peter Lunenfeld  |  Graduate Faculty
Program in Communication & New Media Design
Art Center College of Design | 1700 Lida Street | Pasadena, CA 91103

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