Living in Oblivion

Reagan-era callousness sparked an indie-film renaissance. Will Bush II inspire another?

While George W. Bush was beinginaugurated in Washington, D.C., the annual Sundance Film Festival kicked off in Park City, Utah. The two events may seem unrelated, but as we saw in 2004, American politics and independent cinema go hand in hand.

Of course, indie powerhouses The Passion of the Christand Fahrenheit 9/11represent the most partisan products of the contentious past 12 months, but as we enter Bush's second term, the country's extreme rightward turn could ignite the type of movie renaissance not seen since eight years of nuclear proliferation, HIV discrimination and materialist greed helped produce the American independent-film movement of the late '80s and early '90s. If the careers of Todd Haynes, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh were all launched during the Reagan-Bush regime, imagine what's possible over the next four years.

"You see a lot of strong filmmakers working this year, and I find that an encouraging sign," says Alexander Payne, director of this year's top critical pick, Sideways. "And combined with our worsening political situation and the effect that will have on our culture, I think we may see a change for the better in our cinema."

An ardent fan of the '70s American new wave, Payne would like to recapture that moment when the film industry embraced more personal, human dramas reflective of American life. "At a time when, as a society, we don't really know who we are or what we're doing, that's a useful time for cinema to be a mirror," he says. "It's like when Tony Curtis catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror in The Boston Strangler and triggers that change from one of his personalities to the other. We need that, too."

Payne is more hopeful than most. "I haven't yet seen cultural repression," he says. "It's not like Germany in the '30s, where the big jackboot is coming down on degenerate art." Still, many in the film industry feel deeply disturbed by the censorship-inducing "moral values" mandate and believe a backlash is imminent.

"It's clear to me from the projects I'm looking at that there will be a cultural response to the impending, much-more-deepened conservatism of the next few years," says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer on Gregg Araki's upcoming Mysterious Skin.

But what exactly will make up this response? Levy-Hinte says it won't be "necessarily a film that's a direct rant against Bush," but rather "an exploration of estrangement, alienation, personal responsibility, and the questioning of oppressive and authoritarian characters and attitudes."

Todd Solondz's latest, Palindromes, already presents a blunt challenge to conservative mores, both in subject matter (the abortion debate) and in style (multiple actors across age and gender play the same character). But Solondz says he never intended the film (opening this spring) to so acutely capture the blue/red divide. "Certainly the film's subject matter is inherently charged, but it takes an administration like ours to ignite it into something much more troubling," he explains. "I've always felt Bush winning a second term would make for better material for filmmakers to work with. It's all just too rich—like living in a real live Kubrick movie."

But Christine Vachon, the New Queer Cinema pioneer who produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon, doesn't see the same urgency today that existed in the early '90s, when she and filmmakers such as Haynes and Kalin participated in ACT UP and Gran Fury protests while they were making movies. "I hope there are filmmakers out there who are where I was 15 years ago, and they are trying to tell their stories in a way that is countercultural," she says, "but I don't know who they are, and I haven't come across them yet."

On a more hopeful note, Vachon continues, "But on the face of it, there have been some cool movies recently, and people are going to see them." Speaking of Kinsey, for example, Bill Condon's biopic about the infamous sex researcher, Vachon says, "The take on the material was much fresher than I thought it would be."

Vachon's current projects also tackle aesthetically and politically fertile ground: Todd Haynes' I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan ("It's a radical reworking of a traditional biopic," she says); Douglas McGrath's Every Word Is True, a look at Truman Capote's days researching In Cold Blood; and Mary Harron's The Ballad of Bettie Page, about the sex pinup and devout Christian, which has been in the works since the mid-'90s.

Vachon can thank financier HBO Films for helping to bring Bettie Page's story to American audiences. Shot largely in the commercially risky format of black and white, Bettie Page provides further evidence of HBO's reputation as a haven for experimental and political work. Whether it's Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Mike Nichols' Angels in America or the Harvey Pekar Sundance hit American Splendor, HBO is trying to make movies that "embrace the complex," says HBO Films president Colin Callender, a Brit who got his start in the '80s during the "height of Thatcherite England," he says, when there "was a whole slew of filmmaking that was informed by that political climate."

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