Indie Music & What That Is

What automatically comes to mind when you hear indie music? How do you know it is “indie” in the first place? Indie music is the rejection of the air-tight pop productions commonly found in the Top 40-Hits. It represents a side of the music industry that doesn’t necessarily have access to mainstream music production methods, but more importantly, it doesn’t need or want them.

Indie music is making the best of what you have, achieving creativity without resorting to the overproduction and gaudy glitz that popular music is notorious for. Therefore, as a practice, indie music is a response to the commercialized and calculated nature of the pop song market. If we are going off of Neural Milk Hotel’s 1999 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, we see a classic example of indie versus institutional independence. The song ‘King of Carrot Flowers part 1’ a strum-y guitar starts us out, gradually building up and adding various instruments (including a campy horn), to back up the folksy delivery of the lead singer. What gives the song its indie vibe is the mellowed narrative, keeping with the theme of love and loss in the time of the second world war. The harmony and melodies of the song, as well as the whole album, are very up-beat and happy, which is at complete odds with the lyrics. If you’ve ever heard the surprise hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ you know this isn’t an accident. What indie music strives for is a balance of independent production and creativity, that circumvents the signed sealed and delivered nature of modern music. They can’t use the same production techniques as the major label studios, but indie culture isn’t interested in higher production values anyway. Bands like Neutral Milk Hotel attempt warm instrumentals set against the backdrop of dark lyrics and narratives. To attempt that same goal at a higher end label would be seen as a selling out.

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Episodic vs. Narrative Syndication: The Revenge III

When talking about indie television versus mainstream television, it is tempting to draw parallels to episodic and narratively complex structures.
Episodic television is vastly more syndication friendly to both networks and audiences because of accessibility: i.e. you can walk in on any episode of The Andy Griffith Show and be perfectly able to ascertain what is happening story-wise. But because narratively complex shows like Mad MenThe Sopranos, and Game of Thrones have ongoing narratives that are linked together from episode to episode, they cannot be run (or re-run’d) out of order simply because there would be no context for the viewer to latch onto.

Shows that are hybrid in their approach to episode/narratively complex run into the same issues. I recall catching back-to-back episodes of Scrubs on Comedy Central. The first episode was a straightforward A-plot, with a lesson learned by the central characters at the end. The B-plot however, was a romantic plot-line. All well and good, but when the first episode ended, the second episode plopped me down right in the middle of a completely separate B-plot. J.D., the main character, was in an entirely different relationship, and as a viewer I was thrown. The A-plot was still accessible, but half of the episode didn’t make sense based on the previous, un-synced episode. That is the hazard of syndication, and one of the reason indie shows tend to be less able to make the syndication jump, based on narrative structure.

One reason syndicated television tends to be on the more complacent side of the spectrum content-wise, is the episodic nature of the many shows that are typically found in heavy syndication. If you take a show like, say, Two & A Half Men, and put into a syndication cycle. 

Episodic syndication-friendly shows don’t have to worry about that. Law & Order, CSI, and Happy Days don’t have to worry about on-going plots and evolving character dynamics. They are therefore, free 

Texas Indies & The Problem of Star(under)power

Christopher Kelly’s article highlights an interesting problem for Indie filmmakers: The cast.
Picture it: You are an up-and-coming indie director who has a fantastic script, the scruples to direct it, and the will to essentially tour with that movie to film festivals in an effort to land a distribution deal. Your cast consists of unknowns; probably friends and family. But you’re an indie movie so that doesn’t matter to anyone, right? it is fascinating then, that the article points to the lack of star-power as a potential reason for an indie film not getting picked up.

I hadn’t considered it before this class, but it is actually something that has dawned upon me as we’ve gone through various indie movies: A majority of them have a pretty major star attached in some capacity. Wes Anderson’s first movie Bottle Rocket featured a then unknown cast of brothers Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, but it also featured James Caan, an actor who had long been in Hollywood and has been in quite a few notable productionssex, lies, and videotape featured a fairly unknown cast, but Andie MacDowell had just come off a minor role in John Hugh’s St. Elmo’s Fire, and Peter Gallagher had a solid TV career before sex, lies, and videotape. Buffalo ’66 had the film version of Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family movies. Heck, even (500) Days of Summer, a so-called ‘surprise indie hit’ had the Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the starring role. So it is ironic but not exactly surprising that distributors are weary of a indie film that is “good” but doesn’t have the star-power to back it up. It seems almost hypocritical to pass financial judgement on a film that is by very nature a low-budget affair but at present it seems that getting at least one well-ish known actor will greatly impact the likelihood of obtaining distribution and thus a wider audience/recognition.

In all truth, whether or not an indie film is good enough to get picked up for distribution seems to be largely a secondary concern in the grand scheme of wider distribution. It is still a matter of finding someone in the right places that is willing to stick their neck out for you. As we’ve learned, indie films have to make money too, and business is still business. So ultimately if you, young indie filmmaker, were to go forth and make an indie movie with the intent of reaching a larger audience, it might be in your financial interest to enlist the services of an actor or actress with more experience than your brother-in-law with the Theater minor.

A Hollywood Romance Package & How To Avoid It

Lost in Translation

Indie films are largely believed to be radically different in structure when compared with its Hollywood counterpart. However, as our class saw with Gallo’s Buffalo 66, an indie film can follow roughly the same three act structure while simply changing one other ingredient for a completely non-tradition outcome. Buffalo 66 did this by reversing traditional character roles. Sofia Coppola does this by denying us a long time standard in Hollywood scripting.

What Lost In Translation does in terms of narrative structure is to defy traditional relationship drama, and withhold the ‘coupling’ of the two lead characters. Bluntly put, the protagonists never have become a couple, and that is perhaps one of the biggest discrepancies of the indie structure versus the traditional ‘Hollywood’ format. ‘Getting together’ is, Hollywood has taught us, the accumulation and final payoff of the romantic subplot. Once the characters are together (and after overcoming a big hurdle of some sort), you have reached the end of your Hollywood romantic movie. You could argue that this is simply the by-product of wish fulfillment in film, but the larger truth is that the traditional narrative structure contributes and ultimately encourages the endless cycle of retreads. Films like Maid in Manhattan, You’ve Got Mail,  and Sleepless in Seattle (a movie that *Spoilers* literally ends when boy and girl meet)

Bob and Charlotte talking (And not getting together!)

(Bob and Charlotte, sleepily defying rom-com’s everywhere) 

Lost in Translation follows the common narrative structure description Fields’ outlines on page 7 and :

Act One: Introduction of the protagonist and a classic Meet Cute.
Act Two: joy and good times before a problem arises.
Act Three: The kiss and make up, and ultimate happy ending.

What carries the film from classic rom-com story-line to a more indie structure is that throughout the course of the narrative, it is clear that these two characters, Bob and Charlotte, are both consciously trying not to fall for each other. The film carries on that way to the final conclusion. The characters never given in to their temptation and become a “couple.” in the Hollywood tradition.

As we’ve seen thus far and will likely continue to see, are indie films that can follow a seemly well tread narrative path while changing as little as one aspect in regards to structure, and achieving an entirely different end result than that of your typical Hollywood factory format. The final scene Bob and Charlotte share hints that maybe someday they’ll meet again. In another time and place. But, crucially, doesn’t show the audience that and does tell us that. The characters reach the end of the movie but not the end of their relationship, firmly sealed and delivered to the audience. We are left to draw our own conclusions, and that is quintessentially  indie in structure and decidedly not Hollywood.

                                                                    CUT TO:

               Charlotte watches Bob as he reaches his car, he turns and 
               looks at her.

               She smiles at him, and is lost in the crowd.

               Bob gets into his car.

                                                                    CUT TO:

               Charlotte walks with the crowd as they go on their way.

                                                                    CUT TO:

               INT. CAR - DAY

               Back in the Presidential, alone, Bob leans against the little 
               doily.  They drive off.

               He looks out the window, Bob's happy he's going home, he's 
               happy he came to Tokyo.

               Bob's P.O.V.-  Tokyo goes past his window.

                                                             FADE TO BLACK:

                                         THE END

Indie Conversations

When I get into a conversation with people about what ‘indie’ means, 9 times out of 10 (real statistics) we will disagree about what indie actually encompasses. We might disagree about the aesthetic, we might disagree about the music, or maybe the actors casting. But one thing that I find we usually agree on, is the way indie movies construct conversations. It’s usually how I can figure out if a movie is indie without resorting to IMDb. Have you heard these conversations? They’re ridiculous. They sound like normal exchanges but amped up to via erm, “quirk.” What does that mean? People have started calling it mumble-core. It is defined in the online dictionary as “a genre of low budget movie using nonprofessionals to depict mundane post-college or early adult existence.” So in practice, mumblecore is just indie for the 25 and under crowd. But you know what? I think you can take the name mumblecore for its face value.
Many indie movies, be it the works of Woody Allen or Wes Anderson, create conversations about everyday things and emphasize the ridiculously frank nature of the dialogue. Their characters are conduits for exercises in subjects spoken about with complete sincerity and frankness. That is what defines indie movies, and sets them apart.