Listen Up New York: The Evolution and Revolution of Indie Film

Photos by Emma Huntress

Most people would be lying or otherwise fooling themselves if they claimed to not, at least occasionally, crave a break from the often predictable, cookie-cutter films that major Hollywood studios crank out at an alarming rate. For the most part, these profit-driven, highly stylized movies seek to please the masses and can seem repetitive, lacking in true substance or grit. Alternatively, the refreshing world of independent film has seemingly no shortage of grit and for those seeking an escape from the factory line of forgettable Hollywood flicks, indie theater can provide that refuge. As opposed to the big business, people-pleasing motives of Hollywood, independent film is not afraid to push boundaries. The industry relies on a more subversive audience, a population of individuals that is accepting of controversial or obscure subject matter, undiscovered actors, low budget and production quality, unusual filming techniques, and bizarre showtimes. Even the theaters themselves are not normally run-of-the-mill AMC or Regal Cinemas with reclining leather seats and the opportunity to pick from millions of grossly overpriced candy bars.

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That said, the edginess of independent film is not necessarily an isolating or limiting quality. In fact, indie film has steadily gained followers and traction since its first emergence in the form of avant-garde film in the 1950s and 60s, which began to challenge ingrained ideas of genre, technique and subject. Moreover, many independent filmmakers got started either by minorities or by marketing to minorities, creating in response to their exclusion or misrepresentation in popular film. Festivals like the French Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah also promote unity in the independent industry and, among other things, provide grounds for a “symbiotic relationship among producers, distributors, directors, and all creators of an independent film” that allows for the industry, that is underground by nature, to sustain itself. By the 1980s, indie film was a successful, productive component of the larger film industry, with much of the credit for such advancement going to directors like Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984), Shirley Clarke (Ornette: Made in America, 1985), John Sayles (Matewan, 1987), and Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It, 1986). What can seem like an exclusive club is really in many ways a supportive, welcoming community (Misiroglu).

New York City has been host for its own Independent Film Festival since 2010, and is home to a myriad of cinemas, film centers and museums that showcase independent or foreign movies, and is, itself, the actual backdrop to many of these films. Such was the case, both in terms of the setting for the film as well as the location of the theater, for a recent movie I attended at IFC Center (more later) in Greenwich Village: Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip.

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Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, and Jonathan Pryce, Philip is a provocative, raw drama-comedy that examines the crumbling relationship of a New York City based couple: the newly successful, painfully insufferable novelist, Philip (Schwartzman) and his commercial photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Moss). The film, which premiered this past January at Sundance, joins the recent popularization of presenting an atypical leading man—an antihero—whose personal qualities often take the form of narcissism, selfishness, misogyny and generally insufferability, men of the Harry Callahan or Jordan Belfort variety. This trend is all the more common in independents, given their often distinctive, artistic nature and tendency to take risks (after all, what is more risky than begging your audience to hate your main character?). Philip, as well as his writing idol and mentor Ike Zimmerman (Pryce), loosely based off of novelist Philip Roth in an often satirical tone, greatly embody these negative qualities of classic antiheroes. Philip, damned by his own self-righteousness and entitlement—qualities he unapologetically believes are justified by the mild success of his first book—anticipates his next, soon to be released novel to bring him even greater prestige. We watch as his toxic attitude turns away friends, current and ex-girlfriends, employers, even absolute strangers, as he becomes increasingly estranged from his real life in New York.

Philip’s childish antics, desperate attempts to mimic Ike, his own personal antihero, clearly a negative influence, and emotional abuse of everyone around him does a fine job of dispelling any romantic notions one may have had about being a restless, passionate, brooding artist in New York (or any other euphemistic descriptors of Philips true, turbulent nature) when contrasted with Ashley’s measured success and eventual sense of inner-balance, confidence and conviction. NPR art critic Bob Mondello put it best: “It’s gratifying to watch [Ashley] mature as the film’s men play in their literary sandbox, petulantly provoking everyone around them.” Philip provides an interesting perspective on the life of a troubled artist in New York, a city known for both inspiring and exhausting artists and writers of all kinds. Having viewed the film in my own New York environment at the IFC Center, an interesting history in its own right unfolded before me.

The Independent Film Channel Center, located in Greenwich Village, is currently one of the most prominent independent cinemas in New York. Though it is owned by cable giant AMC, the small, five screen theater has taken a leading role in providing quality independent, foreign, and documentary films as well playing host to festivals and cult-classic features, all while accomplishing what VP and general manager John Vanco sees as bridging a gap between the “cushy amenities” of commercial theaters and the “quality programing” of independents. This goal was first attended to through an extensive, five year renovation, headed by architect Larry Bogdanow.

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The building itself has an extensive history. What started as a church in the 1830s was bought and turned into the iconic Waverly Theater over a century later, where it stayed for over sixty years before shutting its doors in 2001. The Waverly was known for its midnight runs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and held a special spot in the hearts of many New Yorkers. The theater was “twinned” in the 1980s with the addition of a second screen by converting a balcony area into a functional auditorium and was then on the Waverly Twin. Though IFC purchased the building shortly after the Waverly Closed in 2001 due to the 9/11 attacks, initial development plans were put off and Bogdanow’s work was not completed until the summer of 2005 (Kolb). The new IFC Center pays tribute to its rich history with its Waverly Cafe, headed by husband-wife chef duo Gerry Hayden and Claudia Fleming, as well as “Waverly Midnights,” which feature cult classics on Friday and Saturday nights.

Though not my first experience with indie film, Listen Up Philip as seen in the greater context of the historical Waverly and IFC theaters wove together to form a picture of New York City that I hadn’t yet considered. The influence a city can have on its inhabitants, particularly, it seems, on artists like Philip, Ike and Ashley, and conversely, the effect those inhabitants can have on the city itself, as seen in the history of IFC, is a tangled web of personal goals and cultural contexts, ideologies and local economies, egos and relationships. No place is ever as permanent as it seems and no person is ever as stable as their successes may be believed. Instead, what we have is a composite of these different contexts, systems, relationships and ideas, carefully pixelating a larger image.

 

Sources:

Kolb, Elzy. “Take Three [IFC Film Center, New York City].” Interior Design 76.11 (2005): 284-289. Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals.

Misiroglu, Gina Renée. American Countercultures : An Encyclopedia Of Nonconformists, Alternative Lifestyles, And Radical Ideas In U.S. History. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe Reference, 2013.

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