Kellie Day, Kenneth Herbert, & Taylor Greenwalt bring to you a video essay that highlights the various strategies in which Pulp Fiction redefined conventional modes of storytelling both aesthetically and structurally. The film has become a true hallmark of independent film and continues to stylistically resurface through modern day productions both hollywood & indie.
The term “orphan film” describes a broad variety of film including lost works or works abandoned by their owner or copyright holder. Examples of these may include: newsreels, silent films, experimental works, home movies, documentary films, political commercials, amateur footage, advertisements, educational films, and ethnic films. The growing interest in these films is due to their rich value as cultural and historical artifacts. According to Wikipedia, “Documentarians, filmmakers, historians, curators, collectors, and scholars have joined forces with archivists because they deem orphans not only history documents, but also evidence of alternative, suppressed, minority, or forgotten histories.”
What makes any film independent? Just as we have been studying in class, independent films are considered independent on levels of production, distribution, and exhibition as well as qualities such as aesthetics, theme, and function. Because orphan films are forgotten/neglected pieces of history and culture, we can assume they are independent based on their production and distribution and through their aesthetic qualities. Such qualities could include structure and form, which I am assuming would be fairly different from such movies we are used to in our theaters.
When studying orphan films, it is important to consider whether they function more significantly in the independent film industry or are they more valuable in a historical sense. I would argue that the importance of orphan films, such as ethnic films of previous times, would serve more purpose in a museum or art house as opposed to introducing them back into the film industry. Another important element to consider is the history of these films before they were orphaned. Such as how they were “produced, distributed, and exhibited as part of a larger nontheatrical network and as active participants in alternative cinema cultures.”
Indie cinema can be an uncomfortable place for a movie goer. It does not always give the audience a distinct villain/hero or a clear right and wrong. It tends to blur the lines, giving the viewer some unconventional feelings or perspectives that they may not necessarily feel when viewing a conventional, Hollywood media text.
The indie text allows for this alternative perspective by focusing a great deal on character, allowing the viewer to see many sides of the character, usually making them more relatable on a human level. Instead of giving distinct labels to the characters, indie films play a game with the audience, making the viewers look at each aspect and make a judgement on the characters on their own. For example, the main character of Billy from Buffalo ’66 is not given a distinct label. He is first viewed as a prisoner seeking revenge, but as the film continues the audience’s judgement is put into question as they realize he is someone who strives for his parents approval and just really needs to use the restroom. He is turned from the antagonist, to the protagonist, to an ambiguous character as the film goes on. This is the same for the character of Graham in sex, lies, and videotape. He can be construed as the creepy man that gets pleasure from interviews about sex, but their seems to be a tortured human element that could make him more relatable. The lack of labels allows the film the explore other aspects of the human or other social/political issues that are ambiguous. These films are not typically concerned with achieving a happy ending, unlike Hollywood, so the dialogue, structure, characters, etc. can explore areas that are not conventional and that challenge the viewer. It allows the viewer to look at different sides that they may not be comfortable with themselves as they realize the characters or dialogue in the film could be something that could occur everyday.
The Geoff King article mentions that although indie cinema is an alternative space to explore different viewpoints, it is not necessarily “radical cinema.” Now what is radical cinema? King points out that there are many indie films that use controversy in order to portray an unconventional plot or sociopolitical issue. The controversy is used to sell the film so attention can be brought to an issue. However, King points out that just because indie films may have a controversial themes, it does not mean it is radical cinema. He mentions that indie cinema can have blatant controversy, but the majority of indie cinema tends to end up in the middle of the extremes. They provide an alternative perspective on a topic but they can also play to more Hollywood conventions. This is part of the struggle of indie filmmakers and distributors, they want to promote controversial issues of the minority groups but they also want to make their film relatable to a majority of viewers to get their point of view seen. I agree with King’s consensus that indie cinema is not necessarily radical. Indie films are on such a spectrum with sex, lies, and videotape on one end and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the other, and then a multitude of films seeming ambiguous on where they should be placed. There are many films that can be controversial in topic but there are aspects within the film that can intrigue a viewer to watch and understand the point being conveyed. Some viewers may find a film radical, but another group of people might have been waiting for this film and its themes to be released, because it is a part of their life and it is not at all radical. It seems to all come back to perspective.
As discussed in the Perren reading, sex, lies, and videotape revolutionized the independent film genre. Before the movie’s 1989 release, American independent cinema was largely defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t concerned with big budget aesthetics, it didn’t conform to narrative convention, and it definitely wasn’t tied to the commercial notions of Hollywood’s studio system. Indie films before the release of sex, lies, and videotape gained critical acclaim and niche audiences, but few, if any, were able to translate this reception into commercial success.
Then sex, lies, and videotape premiered at the 1989 US Film, and captured the attention of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax. Weinstein then went on to move the film into a competition at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Incredibly enough, the film won the Palme d’Or, beating out stiff competition such as Spike Lee’s influential film, Do the Right Thing, making Soderbergh the youngest director to ever receive the prestigious prize. More important, though, is what Soderbergh’s victory meant for the future of independent cinema. (source)
As we discussed in class, economic constraints can have an affect on a film’s aesthetic quality. This is seen in sex, lies, and videotape by the use of home video as a tool to convey different themes and ideas throughout the film. Because of the popularity of home videos and hand held cameras during that time period, the movie was relevant therefore more marketable. “The styles, subjects, and talent that defined the quality indie scene of the early 90s have now been incorporated into the Hollywood system…these films continue the traditions established by Miramax in the late 80s and early 90s: aesthetically and topically challenging films can be commercially successful with skillful marketing.” (Perren 38).
Sex, lies, and videotape inadvertently proved that the gap separating the independent from the mainstream wasn’t quite as large as it once seemed. In fact, it was completely bridgeable. “Indie” was no longer synonymous with “commercial failure,” and “art house” was no longer box office poison. It was a shift that would forever define the future of Miramax, and American cinema itself. “While Miramax led the way in transforming Hollywood aesthetics, economics, and structure during the 90s, the company as now become a crucial part of the system. It remains to be seen what the next sex, lies and videotape will be – and what as yet unidentified company will help drive its success.” (Perren 38).
I have always been a huge fan of movie productions on the big screen. However, as much of a fan as I was I did not always recognize the blurry line between Independent and Hollywood studio productions. If you would have asked me 5 years ago to name an independent film you would have heard crickets. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I realized one of my favorite films of all time was Indeed an Independent production.
Reservoir dogs did not fit my stereotypical image of “indie film” at the time. I always thought of indie films represented as amateur low-budget train wrecks. However, when I found out that Quentin Tarantino actually produced a fair amount of Independent productions I knew that my perception was narrow and misguided. I learned that an Independent film rarely follows a uniform aesthetic. It was indeed strange to me that although I could not identify an independent film, it was right below my nose. Empire Magazine called Reservoir Dogs the “Greatest Independent Film of all Time”. This for me meant that Independent productions were not all so simplistically categorical. Quentin Tarantino’s Independent masterpieces were so brilliant that they still echo throughout the world of independent film today. IGN brought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp fiction back to the big screen In 2012 right before the release of Django. This director’s particular style of independent film making is just one of several beautifully unique perspectives.