Of the five best-picture Oscar nominations, four (Secrets & Lies, Fargo, The English Patient, and Shine) were produced by independent studios. This was something of a slap in the face to the major studios; some in the motion-picture industry are blaming the bottom-line mentality prevalent in the major studios for mediocre products and flagging box-office receipts. The independents have made some fine films that have been positive alternatives to the standard Hollywood fare. But if this year's film festivals are previews of coming attractions, it appears that the next crop of films from the independents will be as morally challenged as anything from Hollywood.
One problem is that independent filmmakers can never fully escape Hollywood. While they enjoy the creative advantage of molding a movie into their own image, they must still secure a distribution deal with a larger company or studio. To find distributors, independents shop their wares among the various film festivals, the most prestigious being Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, held each January in Park City, Utah.
Last year, the studios sent their exploration teams to Utah and turned up trophies like Looking for Richard, Shine, Big Night, and The Spitfire Grill, which were positive, even inspirational films. But this year's batch is a different story.
Several themes and devices showed up repeatedly: teen promiscuity, bisexuality, male nudity, romantic encounters of the mentally disturbed, porn stars and sado-masochists, coming-of-age-via-murder stories, dysfunctional families, disillusioned middle-aged baby boomers, condemnations of "homophobia," and the exaltation of homosexuality.
It is important at times to portray man's sins and to offer biblical solutions. But at Sundance this year, when "religion" was tossed into the mix, it was treated as restrictive, bizarre and/or the motive for murder.
The big winners of the Sundance Film Festival, coming to a theater near you, included Sunday (Grand Jury Prize; Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), about a demented actress and her one-day love affair with a homeless man; Hurricane (Directing and Cinematography Prizes; Audience Award), about a 15-year-old street kid descending into a life of crime; Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End (Audience Documentary Award), about the award-winning author dying of AIDS.
More promising, but still disturbing, is Girls Like Us (Documentary Grand Jury Prize), a close look at four South Philadelphia teenagers, a cross-section of a blue-collar neighborhood and the values that shape their destinies. One of the young women is pregnant at the age of 14 and the others appear to be in danger of the same, but all aspire to something more. Only the daughter of immigrants stands a realistic chance of achieving her dreams, a testimony to the importance of moral character and strong families.
Going downhill, we find Licensed to Kill (Documentary Filmmakers Award and Documentary Directing Award), which interviews criminals jailed for crimes against homosexuals. One of the convicts is a "religious" gay man who killed another gay man. Variety suggested in its coverage of the film that appropriate venues would be PBS and schools.
Undoubtedly the worst of the lot is Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Special Jury Prize), a documentary about performance artist Flanagan who, born with cystic fibrosis, "learned to fight sickness with sickness." Sick is not a strong enough title to describe the self-mutilating perversions recorded in this film. Even "well-seasoned" viewers had to turn their eyes away.
In the awards ceremony, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore pointed to the mandate of the jurors to "promote the power of diverse and diverging values in an increasingly cynical society." For all of their self-conscious artsiness and politically correct posturing, these independent films are only a darker version of Hollywood's moral nihilism.