All right, now, have we had it with blockbusters? It's true, we paid only $6 or $8 to see the Judge Dreddfuls and the Waterworlds Without End, not the $80 million or $200 quillion the studios ponied up, but a lot of us still feel taken. All those tough-guy movies wore us down and knocked one another out. But now that the big boys have slunk away, adventurous viewers are seeking a late-summer tonic in independent cinema.
The films can be made for $7 million (Desperado) or less than a million (Living in Oblivion). They may be based on plays (Jeffrey, from Paul Rudnick's comedy) or novels (Nadja, from Bram Stoker's Dracula). The stars may be esteemed actors (Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects) or the director's girlfriend (Maxine Bahns in The Brothers McMullen). Some sing, the others don't. But all prove that films can be intimate as well as epic, that off-Hollywood is one destination for films of the next century.
In several of these miniature movies, familiar motifs recur . Even independent films can be dependent on trends.
1. It's Tarantino time. The popularity of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction--the first independent film to earn more than $100 million at the U.S. box office--will midwife plenty of melodramas with Tarantino's signature plot: men in groups and on a heist, talking until the dark night of the soul gives way to a red dawn.
A solid twist on Tarantino Cheek is The Usual Suspects, written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer. The film echoes Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, but with less hysteria and a more intricate plot. For its quintet of thieves lusting for the big score, The Usual Suspects convenes five scarred souls, including a chatty gimp (Spacey) and an anguished antihero (Byrne). In California on a quick job, they run up against a vicious, unseen ganglord named Keyser Soze-a name that has the smolder of Satan in it. One by one, the thieves ...
No, it's far too snarly a skein to unravel here. The Usual Suspects flatters you into thinking you're thinking, sorting out the dead ends and red herrings, when you are really being toyed with by an intelligence as devious as Soze's. For those who don't care whodunit, the film has superior skulking by some wonderfully actory actors and brings high-wire wit to its high-gloss gamesmanship.
2. It's only a movie, Ingmar. Independent movies, like first novels, used to be autobiographical rites of passage. Now, too often, they are about making an independent movie, a format that quickly surrenders to ego and ennui. So Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion pleasantly surprises by its cunning. DiCillo's modesty is also his happy arrogance, for this is an indie movie about the filming of exactly three shots in an indie movie.
Director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is trying to shoot a mother-daughter chat, a love scene and a dream sequence. Well, maybe they're all dream sequences: Reve? What's that French for? Or all nightmares, because everything goes hilariously wrong. The boom mike dips into the frame. The dwarf feels he's being exploited. Then there's movie star Chad Palomino (James Le Gros), an idiot hunk who unaccountably thinks he's a creative artist; imagine Kato Kaelin mistaking himself for Dustin Hoffman. The film is funny without pushing it and is acted with a deft, manic touch.