Independent Mediocrity: When it’s not The Man keeping us down.

I love Mike D’Angelo’s review of “Future Weather“, which he gave a ‘B-‘ over at The A.V. Club.

Love is, of course, an exaggeration, and it’s a shame that it is. Perhaps not in this case, but so frequently. That we are always so moderate and moderated and that we so often lack irrational exuberance these days. But I appreciate D’Angelo’s review; I find it a wonderful counterpoint to even more wonderful January 30 article, “The “gentleman’s F” and the scourge of deliberate mediocrity.

And they are obvious and logical counterpoints; we are compelled to ask the same questions about a B as a D. That B on your report card that mean “above average”; was it about being better than average or about being less than excellent? Outstanding? This is not a question about grade inflation, an issue that applies to all grades and is a separate topic; no, it’s more an analog of a calculus problem, a problem of limits, of approaching from the left and from the right and — in a reversal of the standard math homework, in which different approaches provide different results (showing a function, let’s say, not to be differentiable at that point) — here providing us the same ‘answer’ but for different ‘reasons’. Are you approaching that B from a C, upward, or from a B downward? And in a parallel fashion one could ask about that D; and one could take it further (was the C better than a D, or worse than a B). In this regard it is, perhaps, not a very interesting question.

But I return to those Ds. Are they a matter of failing to fail or succeeding at not failing? These quantitative measurements may be objective, but they don’t necessarily explain what interests, and so I return to D’Angelo.

The parallelism between the B and the D on either side of the C breaks down because the point of Tobias’ post was about the marketplace and formulaic, unexceptional movies that skate by as the barest of entertainment … and they do so because they make money. But as Mike D’Angelo argues, “Making an independent film is such a Herculean enterprise that it should, in theory, appeal only to hugely ambitious sorts.” Independent films have almost no shot of making signifiant money (the exceptions proving the rule (and, yes, I rather despise that expression … yet I love it (love-hate))); there is little financial incentive — or at least there shouldn’t be much financial incentive, as perhaps that’s the problem: such uninteresting middle-of-the-road fare does get picked up and rewards its makers — at all here to pander to mediocrity and mediocre tastes.

I haven’t watched “Future Weather” — and given the tone of the review I’m not sure I will –, but based on the description and the description of its formula/genre, I can already see ways in which I would find it more interesting. If the genre did not resolve as expected, for example, I’d be intrigued. Forget reconciliation or the mother learning lessons, or any of that. Make it truly about the daughter, and not merely as a tale of survival; D’Angelo writes: “Does the world really need another sensitive tale of a precocious child struggling to make a place for herself while contending with a flighty, irresponsible single parent?” Confound the traditional subplots, including the “tender subplot involving the high-school science club, which is run by Lili Taylor and consists only of Haley-Jardine and an exceedingly shy boy with a painfully obvious crush on her”. Expose false dilemmas — “Mostly, though, the film marks time until the moment when Ireland inevitably returns and Haley-Jardine must make a tough decision about which woman is best for her” — and let other options be chosen, let her choose neither. I ask myself, if making movies is resource intensive — still the case — that’s an economic matter, one that involve opportunity costs, but also questions like, why does this have to be a movie? Why not a comic book or short story? Art installation? Stage play? What is cinematic about it … or what can cinema bring to an otherwise typical narrative? Can we use cinematic conventions (the answer is an obvious and emphatic yes) to tell an unconventional story?

Then why bother telling a conventional one?


  • Not resolving as expected: see also The A.V. Club review of “Oblivion”, described as having smart (enough) science fiction and cinematic first and second acts before becoming typical Hollywood fare in the third. In this vein, see also: “I Am Legend” (2007).
  • Of course there are assumptions here about what kind of “art” (or at least “movies”) ought to be made; I find it dangerously easy to get close to defining ambition (in art) as having “ideas”, and while art can definitely deal with ideas, I’m enough of a Kantian critic that I am wary of letting ideas intrude too much into “the aesthetic”. Ideas provide purpose and relate to will, to means and ends, and we also have to separate critiquing a work of art and how it works, what it accomplishes, etc., from critiquing the making — and decision to make — a work. The latter, I am more confident, is certainly open to an ethical critique and a critique of ideas that the former is not necessarily.
  • Mike D’Angelo and I both make certain assumptions about indie cinema, a little about what it is and a little about what we think it ought to be.
  • D’Angelo’s final question is something I find a bit problematic. He asks, “And if there’s no chance at all that a film could be at least one person’s all-time favorite, why bother making it?” Harsh, some might say. Is that the only reason to make art? one might reply; of course not: there are economic concerns. One might cheat and argue that it could be the director’s, writer’s, or one of the actor’s favorite movie. But here we’ve either outsourced the concern to the financial or we’ve made it entirely subjective … is there not an art-centric answer? Yes, many, I suspect, but the ones that comes immediately to mind are that (a) ‘art’ is to an extent ‘play’, and play is often more about doing than about the end or destination; and (b) on the more craft-oriented side of things, we practice, have have first drafts, we play etudes, we scrimmage … we do things to practice our craft, to improve, etc.
  • “Primer” would count as the kind of indie film with ambition that Mike D’Angelo would champion and set out as a counter example to “Future Weather”, I suspect (as would I). Last year Ms. S. and I watched “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, which would count as “independent” and containing elements both conventional and unconventional; most importantly, though, it’s the type of storytelling one is not likely to get elsewhere. This year we watched “Rust and Bone”, and I think we were both torn. It’s wonderfully acted and directed, but if it weren’t in French, would it being playing in the local art house lineup? Would we care and see it as anything more than a classy version of a basic cable movie? I want to answer ‘yes’ because I liked it a great deal and, in particular, I was fascinated by how it addressed physicality and animality, but I’m not certain.

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