Culture Warrior

Editor’s Note: Landon is participating in a top secret experiment this week, so he’s invited colleague Joshua Coonrod to fill in for him.

Your usual Culture Warrior and I teach at the same university (Indiana U – home of Breaking Away and the Hoosiers) in the same communications program. Amongst the most interesting things about teaching media studies at a major university is the sense you get of what young film students are interested in, what (few) films drive them into theaters, and how they understand the constantly shifting mediascape around them. While you obviously don’t have to be an academic to watch film, love it, study it and critique it (re: the title of this site), it is intriguing to consider how upcoming film students – who make a decision to invest copious amounts of time, energy, and money into the study of film – approach the medium. With all the end-of-year discussions of 2012’s best films, what have those students been heralding?

From my experience – barely anything.

I feel like there’s a lot of assumptions as to the answer to that question, though. Film students? They like foreign films, right? Really arty, cerebral shit? Don’t they want to prove themselves by knowing the most obscure, hard-to-find films?

My semester began with a student introducing himself in (just about) the following way: “My favorite filmmaker is this director Quentin Tarantino. He made this film Inglourious Basterds. Everyone should really check it out.” People nodded. The student looked proud of himself. I stared blankly, wondering if we’ve really gotten to a point where Tarantino and a film that made $120m and got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars needed to be introduced to media students as utterly alien concepts. Was it something of a freak moment that spoke to a student being unaware of the cultural context in which the film existed, or was it just a logical assumption of an unaware collegiate audience? In other words, have we passed the point where one in every three dorm rooms boasts a Reservoir Dogs poster?

Not to say that I particularly care about whether or not Tarantino still has a hold with college students, or if Django Unchained does well at the box office. The reverse actually – in this moment, QT is a given property, not someone you search out. He’s one of America’s best known and most consistently successful independent directors. I don’t care if Django Unchained does well because its director and distributor have all the resources in the world to get it out to audiences; the film will have every opportunity it needs to make an impact. It’s led by numerous bankable stars. It will get its props. Shouldn’t any energy that might be devoted to lifting up Django be redirected to myriad other interesting, low-level independent features that don’t have the benefit of a campy DiCaprio performance? The stuff Tarantino himself was raised on?

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin, Everybody. Everybody, Quentin.

That’s my concern – in the world of film studies, a place where burgeoning students can throw off commercial restraints and plunge deep into the variety of cinematic offerings, there seems to be an artificial notion of what it means for something to be independent, to be different. I expect to find that at the Independent Spirit Awards, what’s supposed to be America’s premiere place for celebrating independent cinema. In three of the five Best Feature slots this year, we see a broad comedy led by two of the biggest names in Hollywood (Silver Linings Playbook), a slightly off-kilter dark comedy led by two more well-known celebrities (Bernie), and a director whose style has become so static that the slightest variation on it gets heralded as a return to form – and of course it’s also packed with film stars (Moonrise Kingdom).

Let’s not forget all three of these films are made by celebrated directors – names we should readjust our thinking about to go beyond seeing them as struggling indie filmmakers who need special support. This focus isn’t a shock for an awards ceremony in search of publicity and fiscal returns, but I’m consistently surprised that a developing generation of film students doesn’t want to push back against these standards. 

I know – I’m fighting an old battle here. Arguing that people need to pay attention to more genuinely independent film, critiquing “independent” institutions like Sundance and the Spirit Awards for their growing focus on celebrity, preaching that people need to be more active in pursuing their own unique film interests – it’s all been said long before I have. But it’s concerning to look out at classrooms full of the next guard of film scholars – theoretically some of the voices most interested in watching, producing, and analyzing the future of movies – and see a very limited understanding of what counts as “good.”

I keep waiting for students to point me to intriguing new film fare; instead, I get blank stares even when I ask about mid-level mainstream fare like Looper or a high-profile indie like The Master.

True, there are reasons for these shifts in viewing practices. Increasingly, I  notice many of my most devoted students are more interested in current television – Breaking BadFriday Night Lights, Parks and RecDexter, etc. – than film. Numerous studies have shown how interest in online viewing of various formats – shows on Netflix, clips on Hulu, webisodes, music videos, whatever else on YouTube – have long since eaten into the relevance of film viewing. When people spend less time watching movies, it’s inevitable they’re going to rely increasingly on publicity and critical buzz to determine what feature films are worth pursuing in their crowded schedules. Makes sense.

But it threatens to guide young film fans to a very exclusive critical center – rewarding the Anderson’s and the Tarantino’s again and again – while crowding the complex film culture around these figures out of the discussion. Such a dialogue pushes marginalized films even further out into the margins by convincing us that just by wading into the shallows of non-mainstream films, we see all that’s worth seeing in the independent cinema. At the same time, the celebrities, the production values, the high-dollar publicity – they train viewers to associate quality with a vision that can only be achieved on what’s damn near a Hollywood budget. Indie films without the slick veneer we associate with the Weinstein Bros. seem to be dismissed by the youthful film cultures that should take the most from them.

So what are those super-indie films we should all be watching? To me, there isn’t a specific set. That’s the problem – we’re get so desperate to control the film canon that we flock to argue for *the* important films instead of just discussing the merits of numerous films worth investigating for diverse reasons.

If Sleepwalk With Me isn’t the funniest thing I’ve seen this year, it comes very close while painting one of the most genuine depictions I’ve seen of twenty-something romantic malaise.

While people were butting heads over Christopher Nolan’s take on Wall Street in The Dark Knight Rises, it was David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis that painted the most intriguing depiction of corporate America to me.

My research on independent horror introduced me to micro-indies such as Lindsay Denniberg’s Video Diary of a Lost Girl, the most fascinatingly stylish horror film I’ve seen in years, and Scott Schirmer’s Found, a film packed with the kind of gut-wrenching moments Rob Zombie only dreams of producing.

Would I call these the four best films of 2012? Probably not. But I would say that discussing what makes them interesting, innovative films creates a more stimulating conversation than asking what the year’s “best” films are. I wish I saw the next generation of film students shouting loudly about these films instead of another dialogue around cinema’s most pre-established names. So maybe the question isn’t why media majors don’t know who Tarantino is, but why they aren’t actively seeking out who the next Tarantino will be.

“Josh is currently a PhD student in communications at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he researches horror and independent film. He hails from Rolla, Missouri, works with the Dark Carnival Film Festival (not ICP-related) and writes on occasion for Into The Dark.


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