I listened to the pitter-patter of the evening rain, gazing out the backseat window of Spencer’s maroon minivan, surrounded by the worn-in vinyl that made up the beige interior. A cigarette danced between my lips as I reflected on the current state of the film industry and cinema’s place in our culture, trying to understand why we had to drive twenty-two miles to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Memoria. The film would only be stopping in Illinois for six days at the Gene Siskel Film Center during its unusual release tour––moving from city to city indefinitely, screening for one audience at a time, never to be released on streaming or home video. From the passenger’s seat, David inquired about the Marlboro in my mouth because, he said, I don’t smoke. I gave him the same spiel that Woody Allen gave Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, that, no, I don’t smoke––I don’t inhale because that gives you cancer––but I look so incredibly handsome with a cigarette in my mouth that I can’t not hold one. The pitter-patter became meows and barks as twenty-two miles became ten, and David’s voice chimed in from the front seat again, this time asking what Memoria was about. The film tells the tale of an orchid farmer living in Colombia who begins to hear loud noises that only she can hear, I replied. We parked in a spot reserved for the Venezuelan Consulate and raced down West Randolph street in Baumbachian fashion. The transfixing one-hundred thirty-six minutes that followed were as esoteric and avant-garde as the film’s unorthodox release model. Hypnotic celluloid images of Bogota, Columbia illuminated our faces in the GSFC’s pitch-black main theater, the individual shots lingering for minutes at a time, cutting only when necessary. Memoria is quintessentially “indie” (and not just because Tilda Swinton stars in it).
Independent cinema has become an elusive concept to define, especially as film production methods and costs have become increasingly more complex over the last few decades. As author and independent film expert Yannis Tzioumakis explains, “For the majority of people with a basic knowledge of American cinema, independent filmmaking consists of low-budget projects made by (mostly) young filmmakers with a strong personal vision away from the influence and pressures of the few major conglomerates that control tightly the American film industry” (1). This definition works on a basic level, but it lacks the complexity required to truly capture the spirit of independent cinema, as, due to the dynamic nature of the film industry, independent cinema has become more of a genre and an aesthetic, rather than a rigid technical definition. Tzioumakis also points out that this definition raises certain objections, as major conglomerates control almost every aspect of the film industry, including the production and distribution of most independent films through subsidiary corporations like Universal’s Focus Features and Warner Brothers’ New Line Cinema. A more nuanced understanding of what independent cinema truly represents and how it functions comes with the “indie” genre. Film critic Emmanuel Levy articulates, “ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker’s personal vision” (qtd. in Tzioumakis 1). Valentina Valentini shares a similar thought in an Esquire magazine article, arguing that independent cinema has existed since the beginning of filmmaking, but “indie” films represent more than just films not backed by major studios. She asserts that the indie genre, or attitude as she puts it, embodies a certain eccentricity in its filmmaking style––indie films are free to tell the stories that big studios would never consider telling, in any way their filmmakers see fit. Valentini remarks, “indies are sacred and fertile ground for creativity, free from the pressures of big budgets and studio meddling,” defined by films like Moonlight and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind notably had a fairly mid-sized budget of 20 million, a figure over ten times larger than that of Moonlight’s, illustrating the flexibility of the term. Despite the rather large gap in scale and production represented by their budgets, both films embody the indie aesthetic with their originality, rejection of the mainstream, and strong personal vision, which is ultimately why flexibly defining films by their aesthetics and ethos rather than by more rigid, trivial criteria like means of production is a more effective and practical method of evaluation.
For Jews on Christmas, the world can feel emptier than the Thursday night showing of Memoria. For us Israelites, the twenty-fifth of December drags on for what feels like forty years, and while goyim sit around a fire giggling and eating ham––or whatever it is you gentiles do––I am left to wander my suburban desert, feeling closer to my ancestors than ever before. However, I do not feel like one of God’s chosen people. As I drift aimlessly along the barren streets of Wilmette, my eyes scanning the “CLOSED” signs hanging in every storefront, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” comes to mind: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water” (22-24). All but one storefront, that is––the promised land, if you will. Every year, as the clock strikes midnight and Christmas Eve becomes Christmas, the cinemas remain open. “In the mountains, there you feel free,” should have read “In the multiplex, there you feel free” (Eliot 17). Last Christmas, the newest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: No Way Home, broke the box office, smashing pandemic records and illuminating nearly every screen in America. On Christ’s “birthday”, I attended a matinee by myself at the local moviehouse––all of my Jewish friends were off gallivanting in Europe during winter break––beginning my annual Christmas binge by watching all three of the Spidermen appear in one movie. When Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield appeared on screen, the AMC Village Crossing main theater might as well have been ground-zero Hiroshima, and as the deafening screams of my fellow audience members engulfed the theater, I remained stoic as Aurelius, unimpressed by Kevin Feige’s masterclass in incorporating intellectual property. The goal of the film was clear: take no risks and make the fans happy, all so Disney executives can buy a second private jet and pay off their alimony. The credits alone serve as a perfect example of the distinction in the aesthetic and purpose driving films like Spider-Man: No Way Home versus films like Memoria. When Memoria’s credits had finished rolling, the film had finished. The projectionist retired for the evening, our eyes winced as the lights came on, and we left the theater. I cannot say the same for Spiderman: No Way Home, which featured not one, but two post-credits scenes, the first laying the seeds for a potential ninth installment in the Spiderman franchise, and the second, a teaser trailer for the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness movie. Memoria did not have a scene after the film had concluded to tease another movie or tie it to any ‘Apichatpong Weerasethakul Cinematic Universe’, instead, it cut to black as soon as it was finished because it had fulfilled its goal: to tell an original story, personal to its filmmaker. And just as Memoria represents the quintessence of the contemporary “indie” film, Spiderman: No Way Home embodies the contemporary “blockbuster” film––a soulless, formulaic product intended for pure commercial gain.
Over the past five decades, film production costs have ballooned into the stratosphere, expanding faster than Brando in the final years of his life. In 2021, the average film production budget was around 71 million dollars, an enormous 50 million dollar increase from 1991, when the average film cost only 21 million dollars to produce. While 2021 represented a particularly outrageous figure, the 46 million dollar average from the previous five years still shatters the 1991 sum, and 2022 maintained the trend set by 2021, opening the first 4 months of the year with an astronomical 100 million dollar average production cost (United States Movie Index). And as production costs have skyrocketed, so has the risk that accompanies those films, for studios can not afford box-office flops, due to the hundreds of millions of dollars that are at stake for any given film. Susan Sontag noted this phenomenon back in ‘96 in “The Decay of Cinema”, arguing that soaring production costs have swayed the long-lasting conflict between the art and industry of cinema in favor of industry––of routine––destroying experimentation and originality. Essentially, studios have turned to almost exclusively making low-risk films that they can guarantee fans will see, capitalizing on the familiar with remakes, reboots, and sequels. Originality simply does not work as a business model, whereas producing formulaic films based on established intellectual property like Spiderman does. Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola commented on this harsh reality in 2011, “‘You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money’” (qtd. in Asmelash). Studios have also found overwhelming success in making films that take place in a shared universe, forcing fans to see every movie that comes out, further crushing originality in cinema. For example, Avengers: Infinity War (2018)––the convergence of nearly every single character and storyline from the Marvel Cinematic Universe––required viewing the previous eighteen MCU movies to fully understand and appreciate. In doing so, studios can guarantee that people will watch whatever they produce, completely independent of the individual quality and cinematic value of each film, as every single one has major implications in the larger universe of the films. In the four years following the global phenomenon, Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel has put out eight MCU films, each a smashing success, averaging over one billion dollars per film in the worldwide box-office, despite four of them reaching audiences during the coronavirus pandemic (Box Office). And as Marvel films and other banal blockbusters increase their stranglehold on the film industry, it leaves the moviegoing public gasping for air––whether they know it or not––as the death grip of routine has withered away at the number of available options.
If the eleventh installment of the Harry Potter franchise, “The Secrets of Dumbledore”, doesn’t beckon you to the cinemas or perhaps you simply do not want to bother consuming every single piece of Marvel content to understand the plot of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, your hope essentially rests on a two-hour round trip to the Gene Siskel Film Center to see an amnesiac orchid farmer stare out windows. For decades, this was not the case. A third option once existed, the middle-ground between the esoteric and the mainstream––art films made by serious filmmakers that could be enjoyed by all. Original films that dared to make you think, but also put people in seats. Films like Kill Bill, Apocalypse Now, Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the mid-budget film has undergone a Kurtz-like fall from grace. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s beloved pineapples, everything has an expiration date. As film studios transition to a more risk-averse business model, aiming for a few, massive budget films to smash the box-office, rather than many, smaller mid-budget genre films, these flicks are vanishing from theaters and our culture: “These [mid-budget movies]…used to be common; theaters were filled with an assortment of comedies and biopics and whodunits. Over the last few years, though, the film landscape has been changing, moving more toward the realm of big-budget movies with gargantuan marketing campaigns” (Asmelash). From 1996 to 2001, roughly thirty-six percent of films produced in the United States had a budget between fifteen and sixty-five million dollars, about the range for a mid-budget film. Twenty years later, from 2016 to 2021, that figure plummeted to five percent (The Numbers). The mid-budget films were everything from action movies to romantic comedies, and they represented a time and a culture where people cared about cinema. Expecting a film like Memoria to hit the mainstream would be ridiculous, but that does not mean that art, originality, and experimentation cannot be a part of the mainstream. The mid-budget film served as a medium for high-concept visions from auteur directors, back when studios took gambles on passionate creative types like Michael Mann. Mann began with indie films like Thief, and studios took notice of his brilliance, throwing fifteen million dollars in his direction to create Manhunter, and, later, forty million for The Last of the Mohicans. Mann proved to be a commercial success, and studios continued to fund his high-concept dreams. Finally, Mann got sixty million for Heat—his magnum opus. Heat is a powerful masterpiece about pride and the human ego, a perfect mid-budget film with daring themes and an original vision that drew crowds with its star-studded cast of Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and Robert Deniro. It’s unlikely that we will see a film like Heat again. Studios have no incentive to give a visionary filmmaker like Mann sixty million dollars for an original project. Recently, Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Studios, gave arthouse director Robert Eggers seventy million for The Northman, a gritty, high-concept film about Vikings set in tenth century Scandinavia. Eggers had an original, grandiose vision and, surprisingly enough in today’s Hollywood, a studio took a gamble and funded that vision. Sadly, The Northman proved the studio formula right, as viewers instead opted to see films like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Morbius, and The Northman bombed at the box office. Variety’s Rebecca Rubin discusses the failure of The Northman and how it exemplifies the current state of the film industry: “Artistically, ‘The Northman’ seems to be a triumph, with critics raving about its visual flair and bold vision…But in today’s theatrical landscape, traditional Hollywood players cannot responsibly pump that much into theatrical films.” The Northman’s tragic fate is precisely the reason that the mid-budget film has disappeared from the silver screen––investing serious cash into original projects is not the key to making money in the modern film industry. Interestingly enough, Rubin refers to The Northman as an indie film several times in her article, even calling it an “arthouse” film in the title. Yet, calling a large-scale action epic with a 70 million dollar budget starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Ethan Hawke an indie or arthouse film is rather absurd, and perhaps reveals how little recognition the mid-budget film receives these days. Even to Variety Magazine, a leading entertainment news outlet, there are two types of films: indie and blockbuster. Not only are mid-budget films simply not being made anymore, they have vanished from our culture––lost, like tears in the rain.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. After a bizarre few hours at Noah’s house, I eventually became numb to the lonely cries of the broken carbon monoxide monitor. As I walked past the faceless crowd of strangers that filled his shambolic home, a loud crunch from beneath my shoe awoke me from my haze. Nobody dared to take their shoes off, for the broken remains of a granite countertop laid strewn across the floor of the kitchen. Apparently it shattered years ago and no one ever bothered to fix it, so hazardous chunks of granite just occasionally fell to the floor to be kicked around and stepped on by various houseguests. Simultaneously, a mysterious stench has begun to consume the area, but no one else seems to notice it. I’m fairly certain that carbon monoxide is odorless, but the thought creeps into my skull anyways. One day this family will perish at the hands of that broken alarm, killed by the very negligence that defines their living space. As the stink filled the air, David and I recounted some of our adventures to a crowd of anonymous silhouettes. We eagerly explained how a forged set of Screen Actors Guild ID cards had fooled the bouncers at an early showing of Licorice Pizza––Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest mid-budget critical success––at the Music Box Theater, two months before the film had come out. I scanned the nameless faces in the valley of strangers before me, only to see a collection of unimpressed expressions; what we saw as the ultimate heist, they saw as a complete waste of time and energy. Why we had taken the time to create a trailer for a fake movie to corroborate our set of fake SAG IDs and IMDB pages, all in the hopes of posing as actors just for the chance to see a film an hour away––a film that none of them had ever seen or heard of––bewildered them. Of course, Licorice Pizza flopped at the box office, grossing only thirty-two million against a forty million dollar budget (The Numbers). Someone then asked if anyone had seen the new Spiderman movie, and the mob exploded into chatter. At that moment I fully realized what had become of the mid-budget film. It had become as irrelevant as the broken carbon monoxide alarm and the granite strewn across the ground. And much like the peculiar scent that filled the room, I was the only one that seemed to pay it any mind.