What is an “indie film” anyway?

Since this column is titled “Indie Films,” it seems a logical question. Plus, “indie” is one of those ubiquitous, lazy film terms that people throw around all willy-nilly.

(It’s like “B-movies.” A “B-movie” is not a film of lesser quality; “B-movie” is a completely defunct genre of film that was included as the bottom half of a studio-packaged double feature. Drives me nuts.)

Anyway, the term “indie” literally means independent film, a movie made outside of a film studio system.

It’s not a new idea, either; the first indie films were made in defiance of Thomas Edison’s film patents.

Of course, it’s come to mean something different over the ensuing century, but that whole defiance angle remains central.

A truly independent film must, well, be independent of something, and, by definition, what they seek freedom from is that studio system.

Don’t get me wrong here: I love movies, and some of my most cherished movie memories come courtesy of the big boys. I mean, a world without “Star Wars” or “Jaws” or “The Shawshank Redemption?” No thanks.

But a movie studio — like any enormous corporation strewn with middle-men — is a big ship, and it steers like one. Change is grudging and incremental and the prevailing concern is in providing a nice, smooth ride.

Sit back. Relax. The steward will bring you something comforting with Julia Roberts in it momentarily.

For those looking to shake things up (in terms of content or style), the indie route is a necessity. No dumbing down, no blanding out, no one to answer to. Also no money, no resources and no time, but I’ve always thought that the most interesting movies are born on the fringes and from such pressures.

And while any low-budget, non-studio-backed movie is technically an independent film, not every indie film is an indie film, if you get my meaning.

Back in the indie revival of the early ’90s, everyone overpraised Edward Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen” because he scrounged for money, shot with nonprofessional actors and over a period of several years, ignoring the fact that Burns had used all that ingenuity and DIY perseverance in the service of a film as bland as any that came out of a major studio.

Indie is more than how; it’s a lot more to do with why.

 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.