THIS YEAR'S ACADEMY AWARDS are being touted as a potential breakthrough for independent filmmakers, those hardy souls who finance and produce their movies outside the studio system. Of the 163 feature films churned out by the Hollywood majors last year, only one (Jerry Maguire) is considered good enough to he nominated for best picture. The other four contenders (Fargo, Shine, The English Patient and Secrets and Lies) are independents.
One reason the majors fared so badly is that their exorbitant production costs discourage artistic risk-taking. The average studio film is now budgeted at more than $40 million, not including hefty marketing and distribution expenses. This huge investment per picture has led to a committee system of management in which most of the challenging and original ideas are watered down during the script development process.
By contrast, independent films, or indies as they are called in the industry, are made for a fraction of the cost. This allows directors and screenwriters freedom to present their vision in a more uncompromising form. Many of the majors have come to recognize the short comings of their own system and release a small selection of independent movies through subsidiaries.
Although both independent and major studio products usually reflect the same set of morally permissive or indifferent values, the independents' success has created a small space in which Christian-backed films such as The Spitfire Grill and Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story can have access to a potentially large audience. So this new set of opportunities offers hope for the future.
Fargo, Slingblade and Shine are three of the Oscar-nominated independent films that attracted critical and box-office attention last year. They display a highly individual and unconventional view of the human condition not likely to be found in a big-budget studio movie. All three were produced outside the Hollywood mainstream but released through subsidiaries owned by the majors.
Fargo, which received seven Academy Award nominations, is based on a true story. Jerry Lundegaarde (William H. Macy) is a auto agency sales manager who's gotten into financial trouble. To bale himself out, he arranges to have his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), kidnapped by two small-time hoods, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). He assumes his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), will pay the large ransom.
But Jerry and his accomplices are far from being criminal masterminds, and things go wrong almost immediately. The kidnapping itself is nearly botched, and when a highway patrol officer pulls the getaway car over because it lacks the proper plates Carl and Grimsrud panic, and end up killing the cop and two passing motorists.
The murders take place in the jurisdiction of a small-town police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who's visibly pregnant. At first she seems too friendly and innocent to be an effective sleuth. But behind her compulsively perky exterior, a highly disciplined intellect is at work, carefully piecing together relevant clues from disconnected details and methodically pursuing the leads they generate.
Director Joel Coen and his brother and co-screenwriter Ethan treat their Minnesota-based crime story with a cold, satirical eye. Almost every other line of dialogue contains a “yahhh,” and their characters' sunny midwestern dispositions is shown to mask an emotional coldness and the lack of a sense of humor.
In much of the Coens earlier work (Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing) this kind of condescension towards their material created an atmosphere of casual nihilism: In Fargo, that dark vision has been transformed into an affirmation of life and innocence through the filmmakers' handling of Marge. As the pregnant police chief is sucked deeper and deeper into a vortex of psychopathic criminality, she remains untainted. Unlike many movie and TV series law-enforcement heroes, she isn't tempted to use illegal or unethical means to bring the bad guys to justice.
When she finally captures Grimarud in the act of committing another senseless murder, she wonders: “All for a little money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. And it's a beautiful day. I just don't understand it.”
Marge never becomes cynical. She remains an innocent even after solving the crime, and after all the horror she's encountered. Her moral purity touches us deeply.
Slingblade is nominated for two Academy Awards, and like Fargo, it takes a satiric view of small-town, middle-American life. But writer-director-actor Billy Bob Thornton never condescends to the colorful Arkansas country folk in his drama.
Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) killed his mother and her adulterous lover when he was a small child. Since that time, he's been incarcerated in a state-run mental institution. Born with a substandard I.Q., he speaks in a sing-song, gravely voice, punctuated by grunts.
Upon first meeting him, his gruff manner seems threatening, and when it's learned he's about to be released from the institution, we're afraid he'll probably kill again. At this point, the movie seems to be a cautionary tale about the excessive permissiveness of our justice system.
But Thornton skillfully works against our expectations. Upon his release, Karl befriends Frank (Lucas Black), a young boy and is taken in by the youngster's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday). Out of Christian charity a local churchgoer offers him a job repairing small motors which he performs surprisingly well. Karl's sweet disposition and kindness slowly win everyone over. He seems to be a holy innocent, a kind of Dostoyevskyian figure plunked down in the Ozarks. He read the Bible carefully while inside the asylum and tries to apply its lessons on the outside.
Linda's boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakum), is mean-spirited and violent. He beats her and Frank when drunk and constantly taunts Karl Vaughn (John Ritter), Linda's supervisor at the convenience store where she works, fears for their lives.
Karl appoints himself Linda and Frank's protector, and finally, after a particularly convoluted piece of nastiness, he kills Doyle with the same weapon he'd used on his mother and her lover-a slingblade from a lawn mower.
Our reactions to this horrible murder are mixed. On the one hand, Karl has acted as a kind of avenging angel by preventing Doyle from bringing further harm to Linda and Frank, with whom he strongly identifies and whose youthful innocence and expectations-already battered by the cruelty of his mother's lover-Karl is determined to protect. But the filmmaker's nuanced treatment of Doyle makes us unable to rejoice completely at his death. The young lout wasn't irredeemably evil. His occasional moments of oafish charm suggested the remote possibility that one day he might have changed.
Karl is returned to the institution from which he came. His fate seems both tragic and ironic. Perhaps if he hadn't been confronted by a tormentor like Doyle, he would have spent the rest of his days contentedly repairing motors in a small Arkansas town.
Shine treats the subject of mental illness from a very different perspective than Slingblade. The young David Helfgott (Noah Taylor) is a child prodigy, competing in classical piano competitions almost as soon as he can walk. His father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), has made the young boy's ambitions his own, holding him to impossible standards of perfection. Against the advice of experts, David is forced to attempt difficult adult works like Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto which almost guarantee his failure in competition.
Nevertheless, David's talent is spotted by the renowned pianist Isaac Stern who invites him to a music camp in America. His father refuses to let him go and beats him when he argues with the decision. The older man has been damaged by the loss of relatives during the Holocaust and possessively strives to keep his family together at all costs.
Soon thereafter David wins a scholarship to a London music school, and this time he defies parental dictates and goes off by himself. His father disowns him.
In London, David insists upon performing his father's favorite piece, Rachmaninov's Third, in the school competition. He wins but collapses after completing the recital. Director Scott Hicks and screenwriter Jan Sardi carefully dramatize the prodigy's inner conflicts so that we see how the struggle between his ambition and his guilt over leaving his father have paralyzed him.
The adult David (Geoffrey Rush) languishes in an Australian mental institution. A psychological wreck, he carries on quiet conversations with himself, alternately babbling about his difficulties and then encouraging himself to overcome them. His father never visits him.
A female church organist (Googie Withers) arranges for him to live outside and turn pages for her during services. Slowly regaining his confidence, he gets a job playing in a small cafe where his brilliant performances attract the local press.
An astrologer named Gillian (Lynn Redgrave) is attracted to his strange mixture of nervous tics, professional dedication and child-like innocence. She dumps her fiancee and marries him. With her support, David is able to perform in recitals again, and despite the lingering effects of his breakdown, he returns to the concert-stage in triumph.
Shine, which has been nominated for seven Oscars, is based on a true story. But it is not a Rocky-like saga of winning and losing among concert pianists. Instead the filmmakers have fashioned an uplifting drama about the potential of regeneration for even the most damaged human beings-through love. The spiritual healing that takes place within David is more important than any future fame or fortune. When he's finally able to play again on-stage, it's as if he's recaptured his soul, and our hearts go out to him.
So when this year's Oscar winners are announced by chicly dressed movie-stars and celebrities, discerning filmgoers may have something to cheer about. Intelligent, original movies which celebrate the human spirit's complexity are being honored in front of a TV audience of a billion viewers.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.