It’s been five years since Sherry Ortner stepped from the academic world into the inner circle of independent filmmakers and producers gathered in Park City, Utah, to participate in the nation’s largest and most well-known celebration of the indie film movement, Sundance, going on this week.
Although time has passed, the UCLA Distinguished Professor of Anthropology clearly recalls the many conversations she had with the people who inhabit this movie-making enclave during the dead of winter, as well as the chaotic fun of attending a string of screenings, off-the-cuff film critiques, the vibrant party scene and the intense resolve of artists, financiers and producers to create films outside the rigid corporate structure and back lots of Hollywood.
Professor Sherry Ortner
Or so they say.
In a new book that offers the first ethnographic study by an anthropologist of the indie film scene on two coasts, Ortner reveals the culture and practices of indie filmmaking and the deep-seated tension that runs through the process between artistic vision and commercial value.
"Sundance itself is a phenomenon that encapsulates, for better or for worse, the tension between art and commerce that animates all creative work in capitalist society," Ortner maintains in her new book, "Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream" (Duke University Press, 2013), to be released next month. "But this tension is perhaps felt in unique and exquisitely self-conscious ways in an artistic world that thinks of itself as ‘independent.’ "
In reality, she said, among indie filmmakers, "There’s always a certain dance that’s going on with Hollywood. You can make the movie you want to make, but if you don’t get it into theaters, then very few people will see it." Filmmakers may be tempted to take Hollywood’s money, she said, but it’s control over the process that indie filmmakers refuse to give up.
Among her peers, Ortner is known for her extensive fieldwork and three books on the Sherpa of Mount Everest. That work, and her later study tracking the paths of former schoolmates in her graduating class at Weequahic High in New Jersey, have positioned her as an ever-curious observer of human behavior and a scholar of broad width and depth. She is equally well-known, however, for her pioneering work in feminist anthropology, and her contributions to social and cultural theory.
Ortner actually stumbled onto the indie film scene when, in 2005, she veered away from an idea to look at the power structure in Hollywood and its influence on Americans and their value systems. When she ran into too many corporate barricades that prevented her from getting inside major movie studios — "too many lawyers," she said, laughing — she backed off and found another route that gave her access to the independent film scene, thanks to the advice and counsel of some UCLA Theater, Film and Television faculty members.
From "Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream"
"They were very supportive," said Ortner of her UCLA colleagues. She also felt welcomed by the indie film community as "that anthropologist who is doing a study of indie films."
After scores of interviews with indie filmmakers and producers, visits to film festivals from New York to Los Angeles and the screening of roughly 650 indie films over six years, Ortner has linked the films' dark, depressing, angry and edgy undertone and the harsh realities indie filmmakers portray to a broader social climate in which the American dream has collapsed under the weight of profound economic and social changes that began to take shape in the 1970s. In the mid-’80s, indie films flourished.
Inherent in these works was the belief that hard work no longer guaranteed economic success and security in America, Ortner said. "The first generation of indie filmmakers were from Generation X, which was the first generation to feel the full impact of the neoliberal economy."
Indie filmmakers drew their dark subject matter from such issues as the destabilization of family life, pedophilia, life-changing poverty, sexual depravity, and moral decay and ambiguity. Indie films rarely end happily, she said, and many end ambiguously, like "Half Nelson" with Ryan Gosling, or "Frozen River" with Melissa Leo.
Ryan Gosling starred in "Half Nelson" (2006), an indie film about an inner-city junior high school teacher with a drug habit who forms a bond with a student after she discovers his secret.
"Instead of trying to entertain you, most indie films want to challenge you, to make you squirm with difficult subject matter," said Ortner, who once had to force herself to sit through a documentary about a dying man who stars in a masochistic performance of sticking needles into his body. She admitted she could only watch it in small doses. But in the end, the film, made by Kirby Dick, "was brilliant," she said. There are also many outstanding documentaries that lay bare societal ills, such as the films of Charles Ferguson, she said.
Indie films "really are trying to shake up the audience in an aggressive way. They don’t want you to get comfortable. They want you to question, ‘Is this what life in contemporary society is really all about?’ "
The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is participating as well as covering activities at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which a record number of TFT students are attending this year. See coverage of the school's annual reception at Sundance and special workshops, including a panel discussion, "How to make and Sell Your Independent Film in the Digital Agge." Read tweets from Park City here.