Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, who also happens to be the editor, has not yet seen Chef, but his having seen the film is not necessarily relevant to what this piece attempts to get at.
By Nathan Smith
There’s a movie theater in the town where I live that’s owned by the largest movie theater chain in the world. Unlike most of the corporation’s other locations, this specific cinema shies away from what’s available at your local multiplex. Instead, it focuses more on “boutique programming”- the films of Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, and other distributors once known by the label “Indiewood.” The last three films I saw at this theater were Only Lovers Left Alive, Jodrowsky’s Dune, and Under the Skin– films I would have had to wait to see on DVD in another city. I’m grateful everyday for the opportunity to see these magnificent movies in a theater, but at the same time, I find myself a little frustrated.
Many attendees of this theater applaud it for showing films that are “obscure,” “arty,” and probably most of all, “indie.” But I have to ask myself if that’s actually the case. If we stick to what this word should mean, “independent” as in independently-produced, these people are wrong. Almost none of the films shown there are produced outside of the studio structure. So I have to ask: are these movies really “indie”?
Let’s look at a specific example: Jon Favreau’s Chef, which opened in my city this weekend. With the exception of his first film, Made, the actor-director generally leans toward the mainstream side of things; with Elf, two Iron Man films, Zathura, and Cowboys And Effing Aliens under your belt, I’m not sure what other side of things you could possibly lean toward. But Favreau’s latest , the story of a fed-up restaurant chef who opens a food truck, has been heralded as an “indie” departure for the typically big-budget director.
Oh, indie. What a word. Indie rock, indie kids, the Pixies’ horribly-titled new album Indie Cindy. For a long time I’ve really wondered what it means. We call Arcade Fire “indie rock,” but they’re one of this generation’s most foremost arena rock bands. Movies released by major studios are doused in the word. At this point, should we even be allowed to use it?
Here’s my answer: no. Somewhere along the lines, we began to equate low-budget with a focus on feelings that most blockbusters and Top 40 albums might not have. I’ll admit, it’s probably true. If you did a statistical analysis of independently-produced vs. Hollywood films, you might find that the former has a greater focus on characters and internal conflict. But just because your movie (or music) concerns sensitive sadboys doesn’t mean it can’t be successful, or at least distributed by major players.
We like to denote the independently-produced with a certain status and credibility. Although in some cases our denotation of certain art as more authentic than others might just be an excuse to avoid it, we do sometimes like to hold the independent in higher regard. Movies like Chef, produced at a comfortably small budget and then marketed as “indie,” allow for major Hollywood players to get the benefit of indie cred without losing the safety of the studio structure. But to perpetuate these movies’ marketing myths is to do a disservice to those filmmakers who are genuinely working on an independent level.
I’m not slamming Favreau (or any mainstream director for that matter), because I think he means well. Chef is a great example of the Mid-Brow Star Vehicle, a type of movie under-used and under-appreciated in today’s film culture. But to call Chef “indie” simply because it focuses on feelings and happens to be a little lower-budget than most of Favreau’s other films continues to strip the word “independent” of any meaning it might have left.
To make any film is to take an enormous risk. But Favreau didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to make his film. Favreau didn’t max out his credit card, or risk his family’s financial security, or buy a camera from Best Buy and take it back two weeks later. He simply re-adjusted the boundaries for himself as a commercially-successful artist. Working outside the studio system isn’t just hard, it’s dangerous, and when we use the word “indie” as liberally as it has been used since it sprung out of the ground sometime within the past few decades, we remove the respect those who put themselves in that danger have rightfully earned.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times caused a stir last year when she declared that there might be too many independent films released regularly. I’d like to argue that another problem exists: too many films that aren’t actually independent end up with the label. If we used it only to refer to the works of those like Kentucker Audley (who started a mock “Stop Indie Filmmaking” petition in response to Dargis) or Alex Ross Perry or Eagle Pennell, who have made and continue to make major sacrifices to work outside the studio system, it would make sense. But we don’t and it doesn’t.
So here’s a semi-pro tip to all the journalists out there who have written articles on Favreau’s latest: stop calling Chef “indie,” because it’s not.