Back in 1996, Phillip Lopate had some complaints about Jim Jarmusch. Lopate was actually lamenting the intellectual decline of American film as a whole, but focused on Jarmusch (who was just about to release “Dead Man,” his first stab at overt intellectual ambition) as “a very gifted, intelligent filmmaker, who studied poetry at Columbia, yet he makes movie after movie about low-lifes who get smashed every night, make pilgrimages to Memphis where they are visited by Elvis’s ghost, shoot off guns and in general comport themselves in a somnambulistic, inarticulate, unconscious manner.” Oh dear.
The history of American indie film happens to be dominated by lowlifes and inarticulates. This is what happens when the godfathers of independent film are John Cassavetes and Melvin van Peebles, both attracted to working-class sparks. Complaining about intelligent guys wasting their talents on “low-lifes” smacks of snobbery, but it also ignores the fact that American indie film is and always has been primarily oriented towards the marginalized, who aren’t going to make movies about themselves, and certainly aren’t about to be the stars of mainstream films.
True Amerindie slumming comes in a different, weirder form. Take David Gordon Green, the prodigiously talented auteur who, in the last decade, leapt from the Malickian raptures of “George Washington” and “All The Real Girls” to “The Pineapple Express,” his painstakingly shoddy homage to crappy ’80s buddy movies. Green — a man fabulously supportive of the creative endeavors of his friends — also directed three episodes of the first season of “Eastbound and Down,” a show whose greatest creative ambition was humiliating Danny McBride and/or reveling in his endlessly profane vernacular. That and “Express” gave Green an outlet for the kind of crude comedy he couldn’t fit into his signature productions.
It seems like a lot of overtly intellectual filmmakers need release, though their lowbrow gestures are often misunderstood. For all the lip service paid by critics to the glories of B-movies and genre efficiency, some things are off bounds. Consider “Bad Santa,” Terry Zwigoff’s perfectly logical follow-up to “Crumb” and “Ghost World,” meditating as it does on what it means to be anti-social, the frequently demeaning nature of low-level jobs and crippling, overwhelming depression. But because it was marketed as just a broad comedy (and it is brilliantly crude), somehow most of the highbrows never noticed.
Olivier Assayas likes to dramatize the tension between highbrow aspiration and lowbrow attractions. Over and over, his movies show us smart people slumming: a former New Wave landmark making a trashy movie about thieving in “Irma Vep,” bright business-people working to promote feverishly lurid hentai porn in “demonlover,” and — finally — Assayas’ very own piece of trash, “Boarding Gate,” full of naked chicks and unmotivated violence.
Everyone gives in to the lure of the lowbrow eventually — rare is the person without any guilty pleasures, no matter how rigorous their field of interests or work. Today, though, it’s more common to see filmmakers occasionally indulging themselves — most of the time to general disinterest, but hey, at least it doesn’t hurt their credibility.
[Photos: “Eastbound and Down,” HBO, 2009-present; “Boarding Gate,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]