‘They Came Together’ and the Death of the Indie

They Came TogetherThere was a time when teenage boys wore jackets and ties to go to birthday parties. There was a time when what we now call a Happy Meal cost under a dollar. And there was a time when the term “Indie Film” meant something.

Of course, all those things are ancient history by now. You’ll have to either take my word for it, or else watch TVLand for clues of what once was. The co-opting of the new and temporarily revolutionary shouldn’t come as a shock. Frank Capra and Robert Riskin warned of it more than seventy years ago in Meet John Doe (1941). Twenty-five years later, Paddy Chayefsky offered his remarkably prescient take in Network (1976). And twenty years after that, at the close of the millennium, Dan Zukovic attempted to have the final say in The Last Big Thing (1996). Two things make Zukovic’s movie different from the others. First, though politics and commerce came under some attack, it dealt first and foremost with culture. Its very pointed central observation was that Hollywood (our de facto culture) had become entirely self-referential. There were no new ideas, only recycled ones. And they weren’t even recycled from real life, but from Hollywood itself.

The second difference was that The Last Big Thing, unlike Meet John Doe and Network, was truly an indie project. Low budget. No stars (though one of its featured players, Mark Ruffalo, derisively referred to as a “hunk” in Zukovic’s movie, would change one letter and become a Hulk in mainstream Hollywood). Zukovic’s movie runs out of steam before it reaches any real conclusion, but at least it felt authentically subversive for a while. It felt like what we used to call ‘Indie.”

We’ve turned the page on the 20th century and the whole Indie movement now. Sure, there are still good small films being made, but if you ever needed proof of the Indie demise, you need do nothing more than go watch two comedies currently playing in a theatre near you. Both movies drip with modernist self-reference, constantly winking at the audience, calling attention to their stylised conventions. One is playing at your local multiplex. The other, despite some heavy hitting names, is in your art house.

The movies, if you haven’t guessed, are 22 Jump Street and They Came Together. And the reason that together they signal the end of the Indie is that 22 Jump Street is the better of the two. By a wide margin. Now, if these were spectacle-based, action-adventure, blow-em-up, slaughter-the-CGI epics, you might expect the bigger budget to win out. But these are comedies which at least strive to be somewhat transgressive by poking fun at the triteness of mainstream Hollywood. They are dependent on wit and ideas. You know, the things that Indies are supposed to have all over their commercial cousins.

They Came Together 22 Jump Street22 Jump Street is far from perfect. Like The Last Big Thing, it runs out of steam somewhere in the middle. Its Spring Break third act is not very good. But for a lot of its length, it is funny and inventive, and it recovers from that weak third act with a kick-ass closing credits sequence that shows off all that wit and inventiveness we crave.

They Came Together, on the other hand, is a downright bad movie. In fact, it intends to be a bad movie. It constantly announces its intentions through its two leads, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, who narrate their adventures as if they were pitching a bad romcom. It punctuates its romcom self-loathing attitude with several bursts of very funny material, including one brilliant sequence in which the actors step out of character and watch, Dziga Vertov-style, as Norah Jones records the movie’s romantic theme song. Oh, that the rest were so creative! Unfortunately, most of the rest is a very tired collection of hit-and-miss jokes punctuated occasionally by truly repulsive explosions of poor taste. This is the second straight Indie romcom (Obvious Child being the other) in which one of the supporting characters warmly refers to taking a “stinky shit.” And that is not as off-putting as what happens at a costume party in the middle. And both of those together don’t approach the mind-numbing crudeness of a scene between Paul Rudd’s character and his Bubby toward the end. Ultimately, it doesn’t even surpass the modest mainstream movie it seems to take aim at, You’ve Got Mail (1998), itself a rather pale remake of the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner (which was an adaptation of a stage play, but how far back do you really want to go?).

OK, I’ll admit that linking the Indie banner to a movie like They Came Together is a little shaky. Its producer, Lionsgate, may not be as big as Columbia and MGM (co-producers of 22 Jump Street) but if I had enough followers, they would have plenty of cash on hand to get me to shut up about how bad their movie is. Rudd and Poehler aren’t exactly nobodies. And the supporting cast is full of recognisable comedians from TV and film (again, 22 Jump Street kicks its butt in the category of best use of a raunchy-quirky actor from cable TV: Workaholics’ Jillian Bell is hilarious in Jump Street while The League’s Jason Mantzoukis is just kind of along for the ride in Together). But its producers come from the ranks of Indie Television like Reno 911 and Louie, shows where no teenage boys are wearing jackets to birthday parties. Perhaps there still is Indie Television.

But I’m afraid that Indie Film will have to remain a sweet memory for those who can go back, almost twenty years now, to a time when terms like Dogme and Sundance promised a bold new vision, and you could watch several movies in a row without a single reference to a stinky … well, you can probably guess where I’m headed with that. Right down the drain with the Indies.

 

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

7 thoughts on “‘They Came Together’ and the Death of the Indie

  1. I agree that the accuracy of the phrase “Indie Film” as we know it has passed. However, as with so many terms of artistic endearment it has become nothing more then a marketing convention for films acquired by studios. Though that having been said there are still artists like Jim Jarmusch making incredibly unique and textured work which to my mind embodies the Indie ethos – if you have not already please go see “Only Lovers Left Alive”.

    Films financed independently of the studio system have never been more prevalent. The conundrum of connecting these films with their audience is the challenge that remains and will persist. Audiences are innundated with content and being able to put ones film in front of the viewer is more challenging and ironically more accessible than ever. I know this first hand.

    We have produced / are producing three films, which to varying degrees represent the indie film ethos. Our first film “Speak Now” has a cast of talented actors and a first time feature director. We shot the film in three days, with the cast improvising all dialog after five months of diligent rehersal during their master class sessions at the Warner Loughlin Studio. We funded the work through Kickstarter and a small plug of equity. We premiered at the Austin Film Festival and were well received – winning an audience award in their WRITE / REC category. We released on VHX, Google Play, and iTunes. We have seen modest traffic, but do not have the marketing budget to reach 1 MM – 2 MM eyeballs to yield 10K-20K purchase downloads and/or rental streams.

    Filmmakers that are successful in building an audience as they develop and produce their films will continue to bring their “independent” and “impoverished” voices / visions to the audience.

    We as filmmakers and audience members will need to consider widening our vision to find what is available. Indie : Poverty films are out there to view. Scilla Andreen and her team at IndieFlix have created a great platform which showcases a ton of work, all for a modest monthly subscription fee, I would not have otherwise connected with as a fan if cinema.

    I feel like I got a bit off the track, my point (outside of hoping you rush out to view “Speak Now” this morning / afternoon / evening) is the Indie Film ethos is alive and well — but the infrastructure which supports it has a ways to go before it reaches another golden age. The power lies with the audience and we as filmmakers must find ways to connect and engage the audience with our creations.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Ben. I no doubt overstated the death. The co-opting of whatever is new and exciting by whatever is old and established has gone on the entirety of film history, and I imagine the entirety of history in general. There are more avenues and more films than ever before and hitting on the right content/distribution formula will certainly happen. It does seem to me that we are in a bit of a lull and I just found this particular movie annoying as hell. But I have to admit the Apocalypse is not upon us.

      Proof may be found here … http://curnblog.com/2014/04/30/jim-jarmusch-indie-left-alive/ … my short piece on Jarmusch and Only Lovers…

      I certainly will seek out Speak Now.

  2. An important point well-made Jon. I haven’t seen either of these films, but my instincts tell me that they are not ‘indie’ films in the accepted sense. As to whether or not that genre is dead, I think it is alive and well. It just in other countries that don’t have English as a first language.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • And those foreign films (I’m in the states) are often considered mainstream in those countries. That’s as much a sad commentary on US films as anything when we equate the idea of an indie with what others consider a mainstream film.

      • I think maybe we just need a new term for smaller, plot and character-based movies developed outside the mainstream. “Indie” has run its course. I personally like the term “poverty films” in honor of the old Poverty Row studios in Hollywood’s gold age, but I’m open to suggestions.

  3. Good piece, Jon. I’m not keen on smug, self-reverential filmmaking myself, and these two flicks smack of that excessively. This has been going on for a while, unfortunately, with terrible parodies such as Not Another Teen Movie, Meet the Spartans, and all sorts of other junk. I wonder if the original movies were made just to spawn parodies! I think the problem is also that these are easy targets, and the indie film is the one to suffer for it. A shame, too, because there’s talent behind and in front of the camera.

    • Thanks Simon. I’m always wonder if I’m missing something when I see a movie like this. It may have been a good ten minute satiric skit on the silly conventions of romcoms, but it wasn’t a feature film. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode when George explains to the network execs that people will watch a show about nothing “because it’s on tv.” I guess the assumption is that Rudd and Poehler are smart and cool and people will watch them making fun of their medium.

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